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Monthly Archives: November 2017

A Net Before the Web, Part 5: The Pony

Even as Bill von Meister and company were flailing away at GameLine, a pair of former General Electric research scientists in Troy, New York, were working on the idea destined to become Control Video’s real future. Howard S. Goldberg and David Panzl had spent some time looking at online services like CompuServe and The Source, and had decided that they could never become a truly mass-market phenomenon in their current form. In an era when far more people watched television than read books, all that monochrome text unspooling slowly down the screen would cause the vast majority of potential customers to run away screaming.

Goldberg and Panzl thought they saw a better model. The Apple Lisa had just been released, the Macintosh was waiting in the wings, and you couldn’t shake a stick at any computer conference without hitting someone with the phrase “graphical user interface” on the lips. Simplicity was the new watchword in computing. Goldberg and Panzl believed that anyone who could make a point-and-shoot online service to go up against the SLR complexity of current offerings could make a killing.

But how to do so, given the current state of technology? It was all a 300-baud modem could do to transfer text at a reasonable speed. Graphics were out of the question.

Or were they? What if the graphics could be stored locally, on the subscriber’s computer, taking most of the load off the modem? Goldberg and Panzl envisioned a sort of hybrid service, in which as much code and data as possible was stored on a disk that would be sent out to subscribers rather than on the service’s big computers. With this approach, you would be able to navigate through the service’s offerings using a full GUI, which would run via a local application on your computer. If you went into a chat room, the chat application itself would be loaded from disk; only the actual words you wrote and read would need to be sent to and from a central computer. If you decided to write an email, a full-featured editor the likes of which a CompuServe subscriber could only dream of could be loaded in from disk, with only the finished product uploaded when you clicked the send button.

The PlayNet main menu. Note that system updates could be downloaded and installed on the user’s disks, thus avoiding the most obvious problem of this approach to an online service: that of having to send out new disks to every customer every time the system was updated. The games were also modular, with new ones made available for download to disk at the user’s discretion as they were developed. All told, it was an impressive feat of software engineering that would prove very robust; the software shown here would remain in active use as PlayNet or QuantumLink for a decade, and some of its underpinnings would last even longer than that.

Goldberg and Panzl were particularly taken with the possibilities the approach augured for online multiplayer games, a genre still in its infancy. CompuServe had put up a conquer-the-universe multiplayer strategy game called MegaWars, but it was all text, demanding that players navigate through a labyrinth of arcane typed commands. Otherwise there were perennials like Adventure to go along with even moldier oldies like Hangman, but these were single-player games that just happened to be played online. And they all were, once again, limited to monochrome text; it was difficult indeed to justify paying all those connect charges for them when you could type in better versions from BASIC programming books. But what if you could play poker or checkers online against people from anywhere in the country instead of against the boring old computer, and could do so with graphics? Then online gaming would be getting somewhere. The prospect was so exciting that Goldberg and Panzl called their proposed new online service PlayNet. It seemed the perfect name for the funner, more colorful take on the online experience they hoped to create.

When they shared their idea with others, they found a number who agreed with them about its potential. With backing from Rensselaer Polytechnic University, the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, and Key Venture Corporation, they moved into a technology “incubator” run by the first of these in May of 1983. For PlayNet’s client computer — one admitted disadvantage of their approach was that it would require them to write a separate version of their software for every personal computer they targeted — they chose the recently released, fast-selling Commodore 64, which sported some of the best graphics in the industry. The back end would run on easily scalable 68000-based servers made by a relatively new company called Stratus. (The progression from CompuServe to PlayNet thus highlights the transition from big mainframes and minicomputers to the microcomputer-based client/server model in networking, just as it does the transition from a textual to a graphical focus.) Facing a daunting programming task on both the client and server sides, Goldberg and Panzl took further advantage of their relationship with Rensselaer Polytechnic to bring in a team of student coders, who worked for a stipend in exchange for university credit, applying to the project many of the cutting-edge theoretical constructs they were learning about in their classes.

PlayNet began trials around Troy and Albany in April of 1984, with the service rolling out nationwide in October. Commodore 64 owners had the reputation of being far more price-sensitive than owners of other computers, and Goldberg and Panzl took this conventional wisdom to heart. PlayNet was dramatically cheaper than any of the other services: $35 for the signup package which included the necessary software, followed by $6 per month and $2 per hour actually spent online; this last was a third of what CompuServe would cost you. PlayNet hoped to, as the old saying goes, make it up in volume. Included on the disks were no fewer than thirteen games, whose names are mostly self-explanatory: Backgammon, Boxes, Capture the Flag, Checkers, Chess, Chinese Checkers, Contract Bridge, Four in a Row, Go, Hangman, Quad 64, Reversi, and Sea Strike. While they were all fairly unremarkable in terms of interface and graphics, not to mention lack of originality, it was of course the well-nigh unprecedented ability to play them with people hundreds or thousands of miles away that was their real appeal. You could even chat with your opponent as you played.

In addition to the games, most of the other areas people had come to expect from online services were present, if sometimes a little bare. There were other small problems beyond the paucity of content — some subscribers complained that chunks loaded so slowly from the Commodore 64’s notoriously slow disk drive that they might almost just as well have come in via modem, and technical glitches were far from unknown — but PlayNet was certainly the most user-friendly online service anyone had ever seen, an utterly unique offering in an industry that tended always to define it itself in relation to the lodestar that was CompuServe.

Things seemed to go fairly well at the outset, with PlayNet collecting their first 5000 subscribers within a couple of months of launch. But, sadly given how visionary the service really was, they would never manage to get much beyond that. Separated both geographically and culturally from the big wellsprings of technology venture capital around Silicon Valley, forced to deal with a decline in the home-computer market shortly after their launch that made other sources of funding shy away, they were perpetually cash-poor, a situation that was only exacerbated by the rock-bottom pricing — something that, what with prices always being a lot harder to raise on customers than they are to lower, they were now stuck with. An ugly cycle began to perpetuate itself. Sufficient new subscribers would sign up to badly tax the existing servers, but PlayNet wouldn’t have enough money to upgrade their infrastructure to match their growth right away. Soon, enough customers would get frustrated by the sluggish response and occasional outright crashes to cancel their subscriptions, bringing the system back into equilibrium. Meanwhile PlayNet was constantly existing at the grace of the big telecommunications networks whose pipes and access numbers they leased, the prospect of sudden rate hikes a Sword of Damocles hanging always over their heads. Indeed, the story of PlayNet could serve as an object illustration as to why all of the really big, successful online services seemed to have the backing of the titans of corporate America, like H&R Block, Readers Digest, General Electric, or Sears. This just wasn’t a space with much room for the little guy. PlayNet may have been the most innovative service to arrive since CompuServe and The Source had spawned the consumer-focused online-services industry in the first place, but innovation alone wasn’t enough to be successful there.

Still, Goldberg and Panzl could at least take solace that their company had a reason to exist. While PlayNet was struggling to establish an online presence, Control Video was… continuing to exist, with little clear reason why beyond Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s sheer stubbornness. Kimsey loved to tell an old soldier’s joke about a boy who is seen by the roadside, frantically digging into a giant pile of horse manure. When passersby ask him why, he says, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!” There must indeed, thought Kimsey, be a pony for Control Video as well buried somewhere in all this shit they were digging through. He looked for someone he could sell out to, but Control Video’s only real asset was the agreements they had signed with telecommunications companies giving them access to a nationwide network they had barely ever used. That was nice, but it wasn’t, judged potential purchasers, worth taking on a mountain of debt to acquire.

The way forward — the pony in all the shit — materialized more by chance than anything. Working through his list of potential purchasers, Kimsey made it to Commodore, the home-computer company, in the spring of 1985. Maybe, he thought, they might like to buy him out in order to use Control Video’s network to set up their own online service for their customers. He had a meeting with Clive Smith, an import from Commodore’s United Kingdom branch who was among the bare handful of truly savvy executives the home office ever got to enjoy. (Smith’s marketing instincts had been instrumental in the hugely successful launch of the Commodore 64.) Commodore wasn’t interested in running their own online service, Smith told Kimsey; having released not one but two flop computers in 1984 in the form of the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, they couldn’t afford such distractions. But if Control Video wanted to start an independent online service just for Commodore 64 owners, Commodore would be willing to anoint it as their officially recommended service, including it in the box with every new Commodore 64 and 128 sold in lieu of the CompuServe Snapaks that were found there now. He even knew where Kimsey could get some software that would make his service stand out from all of the others, by taking full advantage of the Commodore 64’s color graphics: a little outfit called PlayNet, up in Troy, New York.

It seemed that PlayNet, realizing that they needed to find a strong corporate backer if they hoped to survive, had already come to Commodore looking for a deal very similar to the one that Clive Smith was now offering Jim Kimsey. But, while he had been blown away by the software they showed him, Smith had been less impressed by the business acumen of the two former research scientists sitting in his office. He’d sent them packing without a deal, but bookmarked the PlayNet software in his mind. While Kimsey’s company was if anything in even worse shape than PlayNet on the surface, Smith thought he saw a much shrewder businessman before him, and knew from the grapevine that Kimsey was still tight with the venture capitalists who had convinced him to take the job with Control Video in the first place. He had, in short, all the business savvy and connections that Goldberg and Panzl lacked. Smith thus brokered a meeting between Control Video and PlayNet to let them see what they could work out.

What followed was a veritable looting of PlayNet’s one great asset. Kimsey acquired all of their software for a reported $50,000, plus ongoing royalty payments that were by all accounts very small indeed. If it wasn’t quite Bill Gates’s legendary fleecing of Seattle Computer Products for the operating system that became MS-DOS, it wasn’t that far behind either. PlayNet’s software would remain for the next nine years the heart of the Commodore 64 online service Kimsey was now about to start.

The best thing Goldberg and Panzl could have done for their company would have been to abandon altogether the idea of hosting their own online service, embracing the role of Control Video’s software arm. But they remained wedded to the little community they had fostered, determined to soldier on with the PlayNet service as an independent entity even after having given away the store to a fearsome competitor that enjoyed the official blessing of Commodore which had been so insultingly withheld from them. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well; PlayNet finally gave up the ghost in 1987, almost two years after the rival service had launched using their own technology. As part of the liquidation, they transferred all title to said technology in perpetuity to Jim Kimsey and Steve Case’s company, to do with as they would. Thus was the looting completed.

Well before that happened, the looter was no longer known as Control Video. Wanting a fresh start after all the fiasco and failure of the last couple of years, wanting to put the Bill von Meister era behind him once and for all, Kimsey on May 25, 1985, put Control Video in a shoe box, as he put it, and pulled out Quantum Computer Services. A new company in the eyes of the law, Quantum was in every other way a continuation of the old, with all the same people, all the same assets and liabilities, even the same philosophical orientation. For all that the deal with Commodore and the acquisition of the PlayNet software was down to seeming happenstance, the online service that would come to be known as QuantumLink evinced von Meister’s — and Steve Case’s — determination to create a more colorful, easier, friendlier online experience that would be as welcoming to homemakers and humanities professors as it would to hardcore hackers. And in running on its own custom software, it allowed Quantum the complete control of the user’s experience which von Meister and Case had always craved.

The QuantumLink main menu. Anyone who had used PlayNet would feel right at home…

Continuing to tax the patience of their financiers — patience that would probably have been less forthcoming had Daniel Case III’s brother not been on the payroll — Quantum worked through the summer and early fall of 1985 to adapt the PlayNet software to their own needs and to set up the infrastructure of Stratus servers they would need to launch. QuantumLink officially went live on the evening of November 1, 1985. It was a tense group of administrators and techies who sat around the little Vienna, Virginia, data center, watching as the first paying customers logged in, watching what they did once they arrived. (Backgammon, for what it’s worth, was an early favorite.) By the time the users’ numbers had climbed into the dozens, beers were being popped and spontaneous cheers were in the air. Simultaneous users would peak at about 100 that night — not exactly a number to leave CompuServe shaking in their boots. But so be it; it just felt so good to have an actual product — an actual, concrete purpose — after their long time in the wilderness.

In keeping with the price-sensitive nature of the Commodore market, Quantum strove to make their service cheaper than the alternatives, but were careful not to price-cut themselves right out of business as had PlayNet. Subscribers paid a flat fee of $10 per month for unlimited usage of so-called “Basic” services, which in all honesty didn’t include much of anything beyond the online encyclopedia and things that made Quantum money in other ways, like the online shopping mall. “Plus” services, including the games and the chat system that together were always the centerpiece of QuantumLink social life, cost $3.60 per hour, with one hour of free Plus usage per month included with every subscription. The service didn’t set the world on fire in the beginning, but the combination of Commodore’s official support, the user-friendliness of the graphical interface, and the aggressive pricing paid off reasonably well in the long term. Within two months, QuantumLink had its first 10,000 subscribers, a number it had taken CompuServe two years to achieve. Less than a year after that, it had hit 50,000 subscribers. By then, Quantum Computer Services had finally become self-sustaining, even able to make a start at paying down the debt they had accumulated during the Control Video years.

One of QuantumLink’s unique editorial services was an easy-to-navigate buyer’s guide to Commodore software.

Quantum had the advantage of being able to look back on six years of their rivals’ experience for clues as to what worked and what didn’t. For the intensely detail-oriented Steve Case, this was a treasure trove of incalculable value. Recognizing, as had Goldberg and Panzl before him, that other services were still far too hard to use for true mainstream acceptance, he insisted that nothing be allowed on QuantumLink that his mother couldn’t handle.

But Case’s vision for QuantumLink wasn’t only about being, as he put it, “a little easier and cheaper and more useful” than the competition. He grasped that, while people might sign up for an online service for the practical information and conveniences it could offer them, it was the social interchange — the sense of community — that kept them logging on. To a greater degree than that of any of its rivals, QuantumLink’s user community was actively curated by its owner. Every night of the week seemed to offer a chat with a special guest, or a game tournament, or something. If it was more artificial — perhaps in a way more cynical — than CompuServe’s more laissez-faire, organic approach to community-building, it was every bit as effective. “Most services are information- and retrieval-oriented. It doesn’t matter if you get on on Tuesday or Thursday because the information is the same,” said Case; as we’ve seen from earlier articles in this series, this statement wasn’t really accurate at all, but it served his rhetorical purpose. “What we’ve tried to do is create a more event-oriented social system, so you really do want to check in every night just to see what’s happening — because you don’t want to miss anything.” Getting the subscriber to log on every night was of course the whole point of the endeavor. “We recognized that chat and community were so important to keep people on,” remembers Bill Pytlovany, a Quantum programmer. “I joked about it. You get somebody online, we’ve got them by the balls. Plain and simple, they’ll be back tomorrow.”

Indeed, QuantumLink subscribers became if anything even more ferociously loyal — and ferociously addicted — than users of rival services. “For some people, it was their whole social life,” remembers a Quantum copywriter named Julia Wilkinson. “That was their reality.” All of the social phenomena I’ve already described on CompuServe — the friendships and the romances and, inevitably, the dirty talk — happened all over again on QuantumLink. (“The most popular [features of the service] were far and away the sexual chat rooms,” remembers one Quantum manager. “The reality of what was happening was, if you just let these folks plug into each other, middle-aged people start talking dirty to each other.”) Even at the cheaper prices, plenty of subscribers were soon racking up monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars — music to the ears of Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, especially given that the absolute number of QuantumLink subscribers would never quite meet the original expectations of either Quantum or Commodore. While the raw numbers of Commodore 64s had seemingly boded well — it had been by far the most popular home computer in North America when the service had launched — a glance beyond the numbers might have shown that the platform wasn’t quite as ideal as it seemed. Known most of all for its cheap price and its great games, the Commodore 64 attracted a much younger demographic than most other computer models. Such youngsters often lacked the means to pay even QuantumLink’s relatively cheap rates — and, when they did have money, often preferred to spend it on boxed games to play face to face with their friends rather than online games and chat.

Nevertheless, and while I know of no hard numbers that can be applied to QuantumLink at its peak, it had become a reasonably popular service by 1988, with a subscriber base that must have climbed comfortably over the 100,000 threshold. If not a serious threat to the likes of CompuServe, neither was it anything to sneeze at in the context of the times. Considering that QuantumLink was only ever available to owners of Commodore 64s and 128s — platforms that went into rapid decline in North America after 1987 — it did quite well in the big picture in what was always going to be a bit of an uphill struggle.

Even had the service been notable for nothing else, something known as Habitat would have been enough to secure QuantumLink a place in computing history. Developed in partnership with Lucasfilm Games, it was the first graphical massively multiplayer virtual world, one of the most important forerunners to everything from World of Warcraft to Second Life.  It was online in its original form for only a few months in early 1988, in a closed beta of a few hundred users that’s since passed into gaming legend. Quantum ultimately judged Habitat to be technologically and economically unfeasible to maintain on the scale that would have been required in order to offer access to all of their subscribers. It did, however, reemerge a year later in bowdlerized fashion as Club Caribe, more of an elaborate online-chat environment than the functioning virtual world Lucasfilm had envisioned.

But to reduce QuantumLink to the medium for Habitat, as is too often done in histories like this one, is unjust. The fact is that the service is notable for much more than this single pioneering game that tends so to dominate its historical memory. Its graphical interface would prove very influential on the competition, to a degree that is perhaps belied by its relatively modest subscriber roll. In 1988, a new service called Prodigy, backed by IBM and Sears, entered the market with an interface not all that far removed from QuantumLink’s, albeit running on MS-DOS machines rather than the Commodore 64; thanks mostly to its choice of platform, it would far outstrip its inspiration, surpassing even GEnie to become the number-two service behind CompuServe for a time in the early 1990s. Meanwhile virtually all of the traditional text-only services introduced some form of optional graphical front end. CompuServe, as usual, came up with the most thoroughgoing technical solution, offering up a well-documented “Host Micro Interface” protocol which third-party programmers could use to build their own front ends, thus creating a thriving, competitive marketplace with alternatives to suit most any user. Kimsey and Case could at least feel proud that their little upstart service had managed to influence such a giant of online life, even as they wished that QuantumLink’s bottom line was more reflective of its influence.

QuantumLink’s technical approach was proving to be, for all its advantages, something of a double-edged sword. For all that it had let Quantum create an easier, friendlier online service, for all that the Commodore and PlayNet deals had saved them from bankruptcy, it also left said service’s fate tied to that of the platform on which it ran. It meant, in other words, that QuantumLink came with an implacable expiration date.

This hard reality had never been lost on Steve Case. As early as 1986, he had started looking to create alternative services on other platforms, especially ones that might be longer-lived than Commodore’s aging 8-bit line. His dream platform was the Apple Macintosh, with its demographic of well-heeled users who loathed the command-line interfaces of most online services as the very embodiment of The Bad Old Way of pre-Mac computing. Showing the single-minded determination that could make him alternately loved and loathed, he actually moved to Cupertino, California, home of Apple, for a few months at the height of his lobbying efforts. But Apple wasn’t quite sure Quantum was really up to the task of making a next-generation online service for the Macintosh, finally offering him instead only a sort of trial run on the Apple II, their own aging 8-bit platform.

Quantum Computer Services’s second online service, a fairly straightforward port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack to the Apple II, went online in May of 1988. It didn’t take off like they had hoped. Part of the problem was doubtless down to the fact that Apple II owners were well-entrenched by 1988 on services like CompuServe and GEnie, and weren’t inclined to switch to a rival service. But there was also some uncharacteristically mixed public messaging on the part of an Apple that had always seemed lukewarm about the whole project; people inside both companies joked that they had given the deal to Quantum to make an online service for a platform they didn’t much care about anymore just to get Steve Case to quit bugging them. Having already a long-established online support network known as AppleLink for dealers and professional clients, Apple insisted on calling this new, completely unrelated service AppleLink Personal Edition, creating huge confusion. And they rejected most of the initiatives that had made QuantumLink successful among Commodore owners, such as the inclusion of subscription kits in their computers’ boxes, thus compounding the feeling at Quantum that their supposed partners weren’t really all that committed to the service. Chafing under Apple’s rigid rules for branding and marketing, the old soldier Kimsey growled that they were harder to deal with than the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Apple dropped Quantum in the summer of 1989, barely a year after signing the deal with them, and thereby provoked a crisis inside the latter company. The investors weren’t at all happy with the way that Quantum seemed to be doing little more than treading water; with so much debt still to service, they were barely breaking even as a business. Meanwhile the Commodore 64 market to which they were still bound was now in undeniable free fall, and they had just seen their grand chance to ride Apple into greener pastures blow up in their faces. The investors blamed for the situation Steve Case, who had promised them that the world would be theirs if they could just get in the door at Cupertino. Jim Kimsey was forced to rise up in his protege’s defense. “You don’t take a 25-pound turkey out of the oven and throw it away before it’s done,” he said, pointing to the bright future that Case was insisting could yet be theirs if they would just stay the course. Kimsey could also deliver the good news from his legal department that terminating their marketing agreement early was going to cost Apple $2.5 million, to be paid directly to Quantum Computer Services. For the time being, it was enough to save Case’s job. But the question remained: what was Quantum to do in a post-Commodore world?

In his methodical way, Case had already been plugging away at several potential answers to that question beyond the Apple relationship. One of them, called PC-Link, was in fact just going live as this internal debate was taking place. Produced in partnership with Radio Shack, it was yet another port of the Commodore QuantumLink software stack, this time to Radio Shack’s Tandy line of MS-DOS clones. PC-Link would do okay, but Radio Shack stores were no longer the retail Ground Zero of the home-computing market that they had been when CompuServe had gotten into bed with them with such success almost a decade ago.

Quantum was also in discussions with no less of a computing giant than IBM, to launch an online service called Promenade in 1990 for a new line of IBM home computers called the PS/1, a sort of successor to the earlier, ill-fated PCjr. On the one hand, this was a huge deal for so tiny a company as Quantum Computer Services. But on the other, taking the legendary flop that had been the PCjr to heart, many in the industry were already expressing skepticism about a model line that had yet to even launch. Even Jim Kimsey was downplaying the deal: “It’s not a make-or-break deal for us. We’re not expecting more than $1 million in revenue from it [the first] year. Down the road, we don’t know how much it will be. If the PS/1 doesn’t work, we’re not in trouble.” A good thing, too: the PS/1 project would prove another expensive fiasco for an IBM who could never seem to figure out how to extend their success in business computing into the consumer marketplace.

So, neither of these potential answers was the answer Quantum sought. In fact, they were just exacerbating a problem that dogged the entire online-services industry: the way that no service could talk to any other service. By the end of the 1980s Quantum had launched or were about to launch four separate online services, none of which could talk to one another, marooning their subscribers on one island or another on the arbitrary basis of the model of computer they happened to have chosen to buy. It was hard enough to nurture one online community to health; to manage four was all but impossible. The deal with Commodore to found QuantumLink had almost certainly saved Quantum from drowning, but the similar bespoke deals with Apple, Radio Shack, and IBM, as impressive as they sounded on their face, threatened to become the millstone around their neck which dragged them under again.

Circa October of 1989, Case therefore decided it was time for Quantum to go it alone, to build a brand of their own instead of for someone else. The perfect place to start was with the moribund AppleLink Personal Edition, which, having just lost its official blessing from Apple, would have to either find a new name or shut down. Case wasn’t willing to do the latter, so it would have to be the former. While it would be hard to find a worse name than the one the service already had, he wanted something truly great for what he was coming to envision as the next phase of his company’s existence. He held a company-wide contest soliciting names, but in the end the one he chose was the one he came up with himself. AppleLink Personal Edition would become America Online. He loved the sense of sweep, and loved how very Middle American it sounded, like, say, Good Morning, America on the television or America’s Top 40 on the radio. It emphasized his dream of building an online community not for the socioeconomic elite but for the heart of the American mainstream. A member of said elite though he himself was, he knew where the real money was in American media. And besides, he thought the natural abbreviation of AOL rolled off the tongue in downright tripping fashion.

In the beginning, the new era which the name change portended was hard to picture; the new AOL was at this point nothing more than a re-branding of the old AppleLink Personal Edition. Only some months after the change, well into 1990, did Case begin to tip his hand. He had had his programmers working on his coveted Macintosh version of the AppleLink software since well before Apple had walked away, in the hope, since proven forlorn, that the latter would decide to expand their agreement with Quantum. Now, Quantum released the Macintosh version anyway — a version that connected to the very same AOL that was being used by Apple II owners. A process that would become known inside Quantum as “The Great Commingling” had begun.

Case had wanted the Mac version of AOL to blend what Jeff Wilkins over at CompuServe would have called “high-tech” and “high-touch.” He wanted, in other words, a product that would impress, but that would do so in a friendly, non-intimidating way. He came up with the idea of using a few voice samples in the software — a potentially very impressive feature indeed, given that the idea of a computer talking was still quite an exotic one among the non-techie demographic he intended to target. A customer-service rep at Quantum named Karen Edwards had a husband, Elwood Edwards, who worked as a professional broadcaster and voice actor. Case took him into a studio and had him record four phrases: “Welcome!,” “File’s done!,” “Goodbye!,” and, most famously, “You’ve got mail!” The last in particular would become one of the most iconic catchphrases of the 1990s, furnishing the title of a big Hollywood romantic comedy and even showing up in a Prince song. Even for those of us who were never on AOL, the sample today remains redolent of its era, when all of the United States seemed to be rushing to embrace its online future all at once. At AOL’s peak, the chirpy voice of Elwood Edwards was easily the most recognizable — and the most widely heard — voice in the country.

You’ve got mail!

But we get ahead of the story: recorded in 1990, the Edwards samples wouldn’t become iconic for several more years. In the meantime, the Great Commingling continued apace, with PC-Link and Promenade being shut down as separate services and merged into AOL in March of 1991. Only QuantumLink was left out in the cold; running as it was on the most limited hardware, with displays restricted to 40 columns of text, Quantum’s programmers judged that it just wasn’t possible to integrate what had once been their flagship service with the others. Instead QuantumLink would straggle on alone, albeit increasingly neglected, as a separate service for another four and a half years. The few tens of thousands of loyalists who stuck it out to the bitter end often retained their old Commodore hardware, now far enough out of date to be all but useless for any other purpose, just to retain access to QuantumLink. The plug was finally pulled on October 31, 1994, one day shy of the service’s ninth birthday. Even discounting the role it had played as the technical and philosophical inspiration for America Online, the software that Howard Goldberg and David Panzl and their team of student programmers had created had had one heck of a run. Indeed, QuantumLink is regarded to this day with immense nostalgia by those who used it, to such an extent that they still dream the occasional quixotic dream of reviving it.

The first version of America Online for MS-DOS. Steve Case convinced Isaac Asimov, Bill von Meister’s original celebrity spokesman for The Source all those years ago, to lend his name to a science-fiction area. It seemed that things had come full-circle…

For Steve Case, though, QuantumLink was the past already in 1991; AOL was the future. The latter was now available to anyone with an MS-DOS computer — already the overwhelmingly dominant platform in the country, whose dominance would grow to virtual monopoly status as the decade progressed. This was the path to the mainstream. To better reflect the hoped-for future, the name of Quantum Computer Services joined that of Control Video in Jim Kimsey’s shoe box of odds and ends in October of 1991. Henceforward, the company as well as the service would be known as America Online.

Much of the staff’s time continued to be devoted to curating community. Now, though, even more of the online events focused on subject areas that had little to do with computers, or for that matter with the other things that stereotypical computer owners tended to be interested in. Gardening, auto repair, and television were as prominently featured as programming languages. The approach seemed to be paying off, giving AOL, helped along by its easy-to-use software and a meticulously coached customer-support staff, a growing reputation as the online service for the rest of us. It had just under 150,000 subscribers by October of 1991. This was still small by the standards of CompuServe, GEnie, or Prodigy, but AOL was coming on strong. The number of subscribers would double within the next few months, and again over the next few months after that, and so on and so on.

CompuServe offered to buy AOL for $50 million. At two and a half times the latter’s current annual revenue, it was a fairly generous offer. Just a few years before, Kimsey would have leaped at a sum a fraction of this size to wash his hands of his problem child of a company. Even now, he was inclined to take the deal, but Steve Case was emphatically opposed, insisting that they were all on the verge of something extraordinary. The first real rift between the pair of unlikely friends was threatening. But when his attempts to convince CompuServe to pay a little more failed to bear fruit, Kimsey finally agreed to reject the offer. He would later say that, had CompuServe been willing to pay $60 million, he would have corralled his investors and sold out, upset Case or no. Had he done so, the history of online life in the 1990s would have played out in considerably different fashion.

With the CompuServe deal rejected, the die was cast; AOL would make it alone or not at all. At the end of 1991, Kimsey formally passed the baton to Case, bestowing on him the title of CEO of this company in which he had always been far more emotionally invested than his older friend. But then, just a few months later, Kimsey grabbed the title back at the behest of the board of directors. They were on the verge of an initial public offering, and the board had decided that the grizzled and gregarious Kimsey would make a better face of the company on Wall Street than Case, still an awkward public speaker prone to lapse gauche or just clam up entirely at the worst possible moments. It was only temporary, Kimsey assured his friend, who was bravely trying but failing to hide how badly this latest slap in the face from AOL’s investors stung him.

America Online went public on March 19, 1992, with an initial offering of 2 million shares. Suddenly nearly everyone at the company, now 116 employees strong, was wealthy. Jim Kimsey made $3.2 million that day, Steve Case $2 million. A real buzz was building around AOL, which was indeed increasingly being seen, just as Case had always intended, as the American mainstream’s online service. The Wall Street Journal‘s influential technology reporter Walt Mossberg called AOL “the sophisticated wave of the future,” and no less a tech mogul than Paul Allen of Microsoft fame began buying up shares at a voracious pace. Ten years on from its founding, and already on its third name, AOL was finally getting hot. Which was good, because it would never be cool, would always be spurned by the tech intelligentsia who wrote for Wired and talked about the Singularity. No matter; Steve Case would take being profitable over being cool any day, would happily play Michael Bolton to the other services’ Nirvana.

For all the change and turmoil that Control Video/Quantum Computer/America Online had gone through over the past decade, Bill von Meister’s original vision for the company remained intact to a surprising degree. He had recognized that an online service must offer the things that mainstream America cared about in order to foster mainstream appeal. He had recognized that an online service must be made as easy to use as humanly possible. And he had seen the commercial and technical advantages — not least in fostering that aforementioned ease of use — that could flow from taking complete control of the subscriber’s experience via custom, proprietary software. He had even seen that the mainstream online life of the future would be based around graphics at least as much as text. But, as usual for him, he had come to all these realizations a little too early. Now, the technology was catching up to the vision, and AOL stood poised to reap rewards which even Steve Case could hardly imagine.

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and The Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; Softline of May 1982; New York Times of December 3 1984; Ahoy! of February 1985; Commodore Power/Play of December 1984/January 1985; Info issues 6 and 9; Run of August 1985 and November 1985; Midnite Software Gazette of January/February 1985 and November/December 1985; Washington Post of May 30 1985 and June 29 1990; Compute! of November 1985; Compute!’s Gazette of March 1986 and January 1989; Commodore Magazine of October 1989; Commodore World of August/September 1995; The Monitor of March 1996; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; old Usenet posts by C.D. Kaiser and Randell Jesup.)

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Net Before the Web, Part 4: The Rogue, the Yuppie, and the Soldier

Bill von Meister’s rude expulsion from The Source didn’t mark the end of his schemes to invent the world’s online future. In 1981, with his erstwhile partner Jack Taub’s $1 million settlement check burning a hole in his pocket, he launched into a plan as visionary as anything he had ever come up with. Almost two decades before Napster would rock the music industry by providing listeners with a convenient application for finding and downloading music online for free, almost a quarter of a century before Apple would legitimize digital music delivery via the iTunes Store, von Meister proposed to create The Home Music Store.

Courtesy of the singing Osmond family, he had secured the use of a satellite-transmitting station near Salt Lake City, Utah. He wanted to use the station to send music to cable-television operators all over the country, who would then send it on to their customers. If they paid a fee, said customers would be allowed to use the cassette recorders that had become so ubiquitous in recent years to make a permanent copy for themselves — a sort of “pay-per-listen” system similar to the pay-per-view systems cable television was already using for big-name boxing matches and other live sporting events.

Von Meister won the tentative support of no less a pillar of the music industry than Warner Bros., and the scheme seemed destined to move forward. But the music industry is, as anyone who has studied its uniformly antagonistic responses to new technologies over the years will attest, an inherently conservative, even reactionary institution. When news of the plan leaked into Billboard magazine, Warner Bros. heard from record stores and record pressing plants alike that The Home Music Store would ruin them. The brick-and-mortar stores promised Warner Bros. a boycott if they continued with the plan. It just wasn’t worth it, the latter decided, especially not when the pivotal figure had as checkered a reputation as Bill von Meister. So, he was duly summoned to a Manhattan high rise to be given the bad news.

Warner Bros. did, however, mention a potential consolation prize. They happened to own Atari, currently the hottest company in consumer electronics. Could von Meister make his delivery system work for Atari VCS games instead of music? If he could prove that he could, they should all talk again. He walked out of the high rise incensed at what he saw as Warner Bros.’s betrayal of his music scheme, but excited about this new bauble they had dangled before him. Such was the life of Bill von Meister.

He formed yet another in his long line of startups in Vienna, Virginia, calling it Control Video Corporation. (Perhaps not inadvertently, the name echoed that of Control Data Corporation, a long-established maker of supercomputers that was making a push into the consumer marketplace at just that time via a big investment in The Source.) Then, with the help of a handful of hand-picked confidantes, he set about refining his new plan to offer downloadable Atari VCS games. The service was to be known as GameLine.

Would-be videogame downloaders would have to purchase, for about $60, a “Master Module” which plugged into the Atari VCS’s cartridge slot. It contained 8 K of volatile memory and a 1600-baud modem. After paying an additional $15 signup fee, customers would be able to download games using the Master Module for $1 apiece. At that price, the subscriber would actually be renting the games for a single session rather than purchasing them; only one game at a time could live in the Master Module’s memory, from whence it could be played only five to ten times before its lease expired. Thus the same subscriber might wind up downloading a game she really liked many times over. For the benefit of skeptical parents, von Meister noted pointedly that playing videogames in the home using his system should be far cheaper than dumping quarters into a standup-arcade machine. He even promised parental controls, allowing parents to set a cap on their children’s weekly usage.

As it happened, Warner Bros., the company that had guided von Meister’s thinking in this direction in the first place, never did come back to the table, nixing any hopes he might have had to make GameLine an official Atari add-on. In compensation, though, lots of venture capitalists who probably ought to have known better by now fell to his sheer passion and charisma — and to the fact that anything to do with videogames was so white-hot among their ranks in the early 1980s.

Bill von Meister hawks Gameline.

GameLine made its public bow in typically flamboyant von Meister fashion. For the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1983, he bought an enormous hot-air balloon, which he flew above the Las Vegas Strip with “GAMELINE” written on it in proud capitals. He invited selected show attendees to his suite at the Tropicana Hotel, where there awaited a chorus line of dancing showgirls and a drawing for a one-ounce bar of gold. “It was a lot of schmaltz,” admitted Control Video’s head salesman of the time, but it served the purpose. Everyone thought GameLine a smashing idea. Control Video surfed out of Vegas on a wave of good press, with pre-orders for 150,000 Master Modules from several major retailers. And yet the really significant result of that week in Vegas would only slowly reveal itself over the course of years.

That January of 1983, Steve Case was a 24-year-old marketing manager for Pizza Hut. His older brother, Daniel Case III, worked for Hambrecht & Quist, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that had invested majorly in Control Video. Forced by his own job to live in Wichita, Kansas, a place he loathed, Steve Case came to Vegas simply to enjoy the nightlife and to ride his brother’s coattails into places where ordinary members of the public weren’t invited. Among these was Control Video’s private suite at the Tropicana. He was immediately taken with GameLine and with the whirling dervish of charisma that was Bill von Meister, doubly so given that he had recently subscribed to The Source, von Meister’s earlier creation. (“When I finally logged in and found myself linked to people all over the country from this sorry little apartment, it was just exhilarating.”) Desperate to get out of Pizza Hut, where his job as a “marketing manager” largely entailed traveling to pizza shops all over the country and scoring their output on five criteria — the only thing he liked about these trips was that they got him out of Wichita — he asked his big brother for yet another favor.

Shortly after Winter CES, Daniel Case III called Bill von Meister, pointedly touting the merits of his little brother, who would very much like a contract to work with Control Video as a marketing consultant. With millions in actual and potential investments on the line from Hambrecht & Quist, von Meister had little choice but to hire this unknown kid whom he had apparently met but couldn’t actually remember at all.

Steve Case in 1986.

Indeed, a certain unmemorability had been the curse of Steve Case’s life to date, especially given the shadow cast by his hugely successful older brother. Nothing on his blandly handsome all-American face gave memory any hooks to hang itself on, and nothing of much notability ever seemed to emerge from his mouth either. The product of an affluent family and a privileged upbringing, his record as an undergraduate at Williams College had been undistinguished enough that he hadn’t been accepted by any of the MBA programs to which he had applied, leading him to enter the workforce as a low-level marketing functionary with the dry-goods giant Proctor & Gamble. There he’d been assigned to something called Abound, a moist towelette for the hair and scalp; “Towelette, you bet!” had been his best attempt at a tagline. When Abound flopped, he’d wound up at Pizza Hut as a glorified pizza taster.

If you’d told anyone in or around Control Video that one among their ranks was destined to become one of the most prominent online moguls of the 1990s, then asked them exactly who they thought that person was, it seems safe to say that Steve Case wouldn’t have topped anyone’s list. Von Meister took to calling him “Lower Case”; his big brother, whom von Meister judged to be far more critical to Control Video’s success, was of course “Upper Case.” Michael Schrage, the Washington Post‘s technology reporter, would later describe him as “the least quotable human at the company.” If a time traveler from the year 2000 had indeed told him that “Steve Case was chairman of AOL Time Warner,” Schrage would later muse, “you would have to hospitalize me for internal hemorrhaging. Silly beyond belief — Steve Case??”

Slowly, though, this gawky kid that had been foisted on him began to win von Meister’s grudging respect. Still a non-presence in meetings, Case started turning in written reports demonstrating a vision that dovetailed nicely with von Meister’s own, including a strong Machiavellian streak. “Erect barriers to entry (lock up category),” he wrote in one. “Concentrate on the perceptions of the product, not the realities of the product,” he wrote in another. Most of all, he pushed the idea that GameLine could eventually deliver far more than videogames into American homes. The long-term goal should be to “turn your game console into a home computer.” He proposed email, news, and online banking as possible applications; much the same applications, in other words, that were already being tried out on services like CompuServe and The Source. In fact, his ideas hewed very close to von Meister’s original 1979 vision of The Source, since watered down somewhat by various realities, as the “information utility of the future.” The difference was that GameLine’s technology would allow Control Video a measure of — appropriately enough, in light of their name — control over every aspect of the subscriber’s experience.

So, over the course of the spring of 1983 Control Video began to talk about GameLine in a new way. Von Meister, coming full circle back to those heady days of 1979, took to saying that it would “turn today’s video jock into tomorrow’s information genius.” Never a man of small dreams, his plans for GameLine seemed to grow with every telling.

In effect, we are turning those dedicated game units into multi-purpose communications terminals and bringing the benefits of sophisticated computers within the reach of the average household. A videogame console can now be a real teaching machine.

Several videogame manufacturers have announced their intentions to develop add-on equipment which will turn game units into small computers. Our system leaps ahead of those add-ons to tie VCS and compatible units into a national telecommunications network fed by the power of a large central computer’s database.

In keeping with Case’s exhortation to concentrate on perceptions rather than realities — certainly not advice von Meister needed to be given twice — plenty of reasons to wonder how all of this would work in the real world were swept under the carpet. Delivering VCS games via GameLine made a measure of sense in that the Master Module’s internal modem was merely a delivery mechanism for code which then resided locally on the console; estimates were that any extant game, thanks not least to the extreme limitation imposed on a game’s potential size by the architecture of the VCS itself, could be downloaded within one minute. But other forms of information couldn’t, as an executive with potential competitor The Source put it, “be quantified into units as games can.” For that matter, how on earth would you enter text on a “computer” equipped only with a joystick? Control Video’s plan to have the user select letters one by one from an onscreen list certainly didn’t sound like much fun. Trying to build an online service around the Atari VCS felt rather like trying to start a transcontinental airline flying Sopwith Camels.

Other difficult realities dogged even the part of the plan that did sound relatively feasible, the downloadable Atari VCS games. While von Meister had inked deals with an impressive-sounding nine VCS game publishers, conspicuously absent from the list were the two biggest publishers of all, Atari’s own software division and Activision, with the former adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the latter flatly rejecting having anything to do with GameLine under any circumstances. Von Meister tried to persuade reluctant publishers by offering up the idea of GameLine as a sort of try-before-you-buy service that could actually lead to increased sales of their physical cartridges, but his audience was plainly skeptical of the notion. It seemed that Activision in particular, whose games were widely regarded as the best you could buy for the Atari VCS and therefore sold at a premium, thought that their brand could only be diminished by the association. Von Meister hired programmers to create thinly veiled clones of some of the hit games that were unavailable to him, but in doing so he was entering some legally dangerous waters.

Still, all of those issues might conceivably have been overcome; the buzz that would have followed a successful GameLine launch might have convinced even Activision to come around. It was rather the launch date of July 1983 that truly killed any chance Gameline might have had. This was the summer of the Great Videogame Crash, when cracks that had been spreading through the foundation of the House Atari Built for at least a year suddenly brought the whole edifice down around everyone’s heads. Almost overnight, videogames went from being the hottest trend in business to an anathema. Control Video couldn’t have picked a worse instant for GameLine’s launch if they had tried.

Launch they did, though, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever else you could say about the whole enterprise, the technology that brought it off was a virtuoso hacking feat. It was largely the work of a longtime von Meister compatriot named Mark Seriff, who had previously designed much of the original incarnation of The Source. The video below gives a rare glimpse of his GameLine work in action. Note that Control Video had a policy of offering unlimited free downloads on a subscriber’s birthday, one of a number of canny loyalty-building touches that might have turned the service into a success despite it all if the timing had been a bit better.


But the timing was just far, far too atrocious to be overcome; GameLine never had a chance. By a few months after the launch, it had managed to attract no more than 5000 subscribers, and new signups had fallen to just one or two per day — hardly enough to justify the complicated telecommunications infrastructure into which Control Video had had to invest heavily just to get the service started. In October, they slashed their predicted sales of 250,000 Master Modules by the end of 1983 to 100,000, and it was hard to imagine how they hoped to make even that figure when they had more boxes coming back from retailers than they were shipping out.

The venture capitalists, who had invested some $9 million in Control Video to date, were, to say the least, growing concerned. Von Meister may have been beset by market circumstances that were out of his control, but that didn’t keep them from pointing fingers. They noted wryly that the most profitable single transaction he had managed to date had been to resell the hot-air balloon he had flown over Vegas for $15,000, three times what he had paid for it. The jokes practically wrote themselves: von Meister may not be much good at selling videogames, but he sure can sell hot air. Now, he was telling them he needed another $3 million to execute the pivot from provider of videogames to general-purpose information service well before they had originally planned to make it. It was the only chance they had, he claimed. The venture capitalists couldn’t really disagree, but they did decide to attach some strings to this latest capital injection. Bill von Meister, they decided, needed some adult supervision. Luckily, one of them had an old army buddy who he thought would be just the man for the job.

After graduating from West Point, Jim Kimsey had served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an airborne ranger. Upon returning to civilian life, he became a wealthy man by opening a chain of bars across the Washington Beltway. Like von Meister, he lived fast — one acquaintance remembers him as a “skirt-chasing, hell-raising restaurant owner” — but West Point had instilled a sense of responsibility in his professional life which his peer manifestly lacked. More than anything else, he hated excuses. “If you are a platoon leader, and one of your men dies, there is no excuse,” he once said. “If you are a CEO, and thousands of your employees are laid off, there is no excuse.” His friend picked him for the task of saving Control Video not least because he regarded the very idea of any company with which he was associated going bankrupt as such a personal affront. He knew nothing about computer technology, and didn’t much care to learn, but he knew a lot about whipping any organization, whether a platoon or a corporation, into disciplined fighting trim. Which is not to say that he accepted the role of taskmaster at Control Video with any relish; he took the office next to von Meister’s strictly as a favor to his investor friend, announcing loudly that he was only there for as long as it took to right the ship. He would actually remain for twelve years.

Von Meister couldn’t have been happy about this intrusion on his authority, but if he wanted the venture capitalists’ money he would have to accept Jim Kimsey, just as he had earlier accepted Steve Case. Speaking of whom: one of the first decisions von Meister and Kimsey made together was to elevate Case from his part-time consultant’s gig to that of a full-time marketer. “What do you think about Steve?” von Meister had asked Kimsey. “He seems bright, he won’t cost you much,” the latter had replied. But once again there was an ulterior motive as well: Daniel Case III would be extra committed and extra patient with them all if Control Video became his little brother’s permanent employer.

Von Meister, Kimsey, and Case did their level best to make a success of the pivot from games to information. After all, those 15 million or so Ataris that remained in American homes post-Crash ought to be ripe for re-purposing now. Already in September of 1983, StockLine had gone up alongside GameLine, allowing subscribers to track prices on the New York Stock Exchange, the money markets, currency exchanges, and metal exchanges, and even to store a permanent personal portfolio of up to ten stocks, thanks to a few hundred bytes of non-volatile memory a forward-looking Control Video had quietly stashed away inside the Master Module. Control Video claimed that SportsLine was coming soon with all the latest scores and up-to-the-minute Vegas odds, and that MailLine, featuring email and a real-time chat system like CompuServe’s CB Simulator, would follow thereafter. “We’re not in trouble,” insisted von Meister (like a politician telling people he isn’t a crook, the very fact that he was being forced to make such an insistence was of course proof of the opposite in the minds of his interlocutors from the business press). “But we have changed our emphasis. We had always wanted to add a BankLine and SportsLine and StockLine to the original GameLine, but there was always the question of whether the adults in the family would want to access that kind of information from their kids’ games system.” Out of that concern, which was still very valid, Control Video planned to develop a Master Module for home computers.

But doing so was going to take time which they might not have. After a dismal Christmas, they had racked up $10 million in debt to go along with the $12 million in venture capital they had burned through. It was a glum group of investors who assembled one gray January morning to go over the state of the company. “Goddamn,” said Kimsey after an accountant had run through the painful litany, “we could have sold more of these things selling them off the back of a pickup truck on U.S. 1!” Another person in the room noted that “you’d have thought kids would have shoplifted more than that.” Kimsey sensed that the investors were looking more and more to him alone, swashbuckling war hero that he was, to rescue them from this mess of their own creation. Well, then, he’d do what he could.

In May of 1984, Control Video suddenly recalled all of the Master Modules that were still on store shelves. Far from an ending, everyone hoped this event would mark a new beginning. Von Meister’s silvery tongue had seemingly come through for them, winning them a tentative deal with Bell South, a regional telephone service. The plan was now to reboot and re-brand GameLine, which would henceforward be known as InterLink. They would rent the Master Module for the Atari VCS for $10 per month instead of selling it. More importantly, a new $5 million investment from Bell South would let them start in earnest on a Master Module for home computers.

Like GameLine before it, the InterLink service would only be accessible via Control Video’s own add-on hardware. The first focus would still be games, only now they would be games for the home computers that were in the eyes of the pundits and much of the public the natural, more long-lived successors to the console fad. Von Meister called Interlink “MTV for software”: just as music fans used the music-video channel to decide which albums to buy, InterLink would let computer owners try software before they bought it. (A less strained analogy might have been made with good old radio, but von Meister apparently wanted to show he was down with the latest pop-culture trends.) The service would be tested out initially in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. “We’re expecting the tests will prove that there’s a broad market for this kind of service,” said von Meister. If that was indeed the case, InterLink would hopefully go nationwide in early 1985. The participation of Bell South, noted Michael Schrage dryly in the Washington Post, “gave the troubled venture some badly needed legitimacy.”

As late as September of 1984, InterLink was still ostensibly on track, although the plan to make new Master Modules for all of the various models of popular home computers had been reluctantly abandoned as impractical; the service would now function using any standard modem. On October 3, Control Video claimed that the first trials would start by the end of the month.

Alas, the trials would never actually begin. At the behest of influential newspaper moguls like Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, who were nervous about the burgeoning era of online information exchange, Congress had recently enacted a law which made it illegal for telephone companies like Bell South to become “information providers,” as opposed to mere conduits for information. Someone — quite possibly a potential competitor like CompuServe or The Source — alerted the Federal Communications Commission to the plans for InterLink, and the FCC secured a court ruling that it should not be allowed to go forward. Six years before, the same entity had foiled a von Meister scheme to use the FM radio band to transmit private data. Now, the government bureaucrats had done it to him again.

Control Video was left high and dry, with no product, no viable plans for a product, no partners, and virtually no money. They did, however, have millions in debt and tens of thousands of useless Atari VCS Master Modules. They thought about selling the latter for salvage to raise some cash, but learned that delivering them to the recycling center would cost more than they’d get paid. So, Control Video chucked the Master Modules in dumpsters to be hauled away with the trash. Any reasonable person who had witnessed that scene play out, pregnant with symbolism as it was, would have shut out the lights and called it a day. Indeed, Bill von Meister, who had already spent more time with Control Video than with most of his startups, was now muttering about doing just that.

His colleagues, though, weren’t all in agreement. Jim Kimsey was a reasonable man in most respects, but he was also an inordinately stubborn one, determined not to allow a bankruptcy to stain his reputation. And young Steve Case, frantic not to be banished back to the life of a Wichita pizza taster, was equally determined to carry on with what could be his only shot at the big time. Bad as things were at Control Video, he personally was already moving up, to heights he could never have dreamed of reaching before middle age at Pizza Hut. While neither von Meister nor Kimsey necessarily saw him as an absolutely vital cog in their machine, he retained the advantage of being cheap. As Kimsey let go of the more expensive people above him, he rose through the ranks, finally winding up as head of marketing by the simple virtue of being the only marketer left standing.

With von Meister already half checked-out mentally and most of the rest of the staff gone, Kimsey the tough old soldier and Case the preppy young yuppie began to form an unlikely bond. Their relationship was a source of constant wonder to their colleagues; it was hard to imagine two men more different in terms of background, personality, or working style. Case, who was a bit of a prude at heart, would cringe and visibly blush when Kimsey would roar into the office on a Monday morning with his war stories from the singles bars; Kimsey took to calling that reaction Case’s “Elmer Fudd” look, and took great pleasure in trying to provoke it. But underneath, despite or perhaps because of all the ribbing, a real affection was evolving. “We found ourselves sort of in a foxhole because we both had aligned ourselves more closely with this company that was kind of going nowhere fast,” Case remembers. They found that they completed one another, and Case’s role at Control Video began to extend well beyond that of a typical marketing manager. Detail-oriented to the core, he put in long hours crunching the numbers and writing the reports that are essential to a smoothly functioning business, while Kimsey, who preferred not to bother with details if he could avoid it, went white-water rafting down the Colorado River or took a bicycle tour through the south of France. “He lived, ate, and breathed this shit,” an admiring Kimsey later remembered of his younger charge. The gregarious former soldier, meanwhile, taught Case, this young man who had always seemed so profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, a bit about how to handle the back-slapping, social side of business, where the really important relationships are forged on golf courses and in bars as often as they are in executive boardrooms.

As Kimsey and Case developed their partnership, von Meister was increasingly left out in the cold. His final separation from this, his latest visionary but poorly executed venture, came in the first days of 1985. A group of the company’s many creditors was scheduled to come in that day to listen to Kimsey’s pleadings for patience. Given the nature of the visitors, it was essential that the few people still working for Control Video all convey the appropriate sense of austerity. (Not that they would need a lot of help with that: Kimsey had long since sold off all of the office cubicles for cash, cobbling together new dividers out of masking tape and old cardboard boxes.) But then von Meister unexpectedly chose that day to visit the office, roaring up in the shiny new BMW 735i he had just leased.

“How do you like my new car?” he asked as Kimsey and Case looked on aghast.

“We have a creditors meeting!” said Kimsey. “Are you crazy bringing that car? See that tree? They’ll hang you from it!”

“What are you getting all upset about?” asked a wounded von Meister. “Don’t these people understand I have a personal life?”

Kimsey told von Meister in no uncertain terms to get in his new car and go home. This incident signaled the end of von Meister’s association with what would become one of the greatest success stories of its era in American business. Unusually, he walked away from Control Video quietly, without any of the conflict and legal drama that usually marked his exits. Perhaps it had something to do with Jim Kimsey, with whom he had formed a real friendship despite the tensions that inevitably accompanied their assigned roles of dreamer and responsible adult. Even at the end, when he had become an active liability, Kimsey found it impossible to hate von Meister. “He was like a puppy you like a lot but you have to house-train,” he later remembered.

Indeed, underneath all of von Meister’s bravado and guile there always lurked a paradoxical innocence that made it difficult for many who had good reason to hate him to actually manage to do so. At some level, he had remained a child, always chasing after his latest shiny vision. One venture capitalist whom von Meister cost a bundle over the years described him as “like that cartoon character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He wasn’t bad; he was just drawn that way.” That so many of his crazy schemes were in fact so visionary makes him one of the great hidden figures behind online life as we know it today. Others may have created the practical technology that allowed the Internet and the World Wide Web to arise and thrive, but Bill von Meister was second to none when it came to the vision thing: online communities, online news, online shopping, digital music delivery, digital software delivery, information as a service… you name it, von Meister was there ahead of almost everyone else. If the execution was usually weak, the core ideas were often prescient, their only drawback being that they were so often a bit too far ahead of their time.

Von Meister died in 1995 at age 53, leaving behind millions in personal debt. The official cause of death was melanoma, but his friends sensed that his body had simply had enough after a life spent burning the candle at both ends, driving race cars or racing yachts when he wasn’t founding companies, drinking and smoking and eating too much, over-indulging in everything in a seeming attempt to swallow whole everything life had to offer. He remained full of ideas until the last. His sister reported at the funeral that he had spent his final days kibitzing over the technological state of the hospital he was in: “When I get out of here alive, if I’m alive, I’m going to show how this hospital can do things better.”

His death was little remarked in the press, meriting no more than the briefest of obituaries in a handful of newspapers close to the Washington Beltway where he had spent the bulk of his career. The corporate star power at his funeral, however, belied his obscure status. Among the cast of former friends and colleagues were Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, now the darlings of Wall Street, who still stood at the helm of what Control Video had become: America Online, the business story of the year if not the decade, and a company which still bore the stamp of many of von Meister’s key insights. A very gracious Case stepped up to deliver a eulogy, saying that “without Bill von Meister there would have been no America Online.” Incredibly, even some of von Meister’s own children had no idea what Case was referring to. “He left behind a series of miserable SOBs who benefited from his ideas,” said another old colleague, rather less graciously. “And yet he was always looking forward to tomorrow’s sunshine in the middle of a monsoon.” But it was yet another who offered perhaps the most cogent eulogy: “He was the most human of human beings I ever knew, and his faults were never disguised.”

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; InfoWorld of May 30 1983, July 4 1983, October 31 1983, January 9 1984, April 2 1984, and May 21 1984; Antic of July 1983; Washington Post of November 1 1983 and October 3 1984; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; the blog post “The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur” by John M. Willis.)

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Net Before the Web, Part 3: Content and Competition

We saw in the last article how CompuServe’s user-driven philosophy led to this online service becoming an online community, steered to a large extent by its subscribers. Yet the choice between a content-driven model and a user-driven model has never really constituted a zero-sum proposition, whether on the Internet of today or the CompuServe of the 1980s. In fact, virtually from the moment that Jeff Wilkins decided the nascent MicroNET had potential that was worth seriously investing in — a moment we can date to the very end of 1979 — he started casting about for information and applications which CompuServe’s users couldn’t possibly create for themselves.

The list of top-down initiatives CompuServe would launch over the next several years reads amazingly similar to the list of aspirations, sketchily fulfilled if at all, with which The Source had made its much more high-profile debut. But whether Wilkins really was checking off the items on Bill von Meister’s original list or coming up with this stuff on his own doesn’t matter much in the end. What is important is how much of the daily online life of today was first tried out on CompuServe in the 1980s. Sometimes, as we’ve already seen in the case of the attempt to launch a digital-download service for commercial software, the world would prove not quite ready for what CompuServe strove to offer it. Still, the simple fact of the striving has historical significance of its own.

Very early on, Wilkins determined to bring the news to CompuServe. With The Source having cornered United Press International, he chose to ask the other national news wire, the Associated Press, to make their feed of important stories available to his subscribers. The almost accidental result of his inquiries was something even more prescient, a full-blown collision between the titans of Old Media and what would soon be known as the New Media. Jeff Wilkins:

I had been thinking about news for a long time — the potential to have it be searchable and immediate. And of course it lent itself to text pretty well; we were still at that point in time limited to all text.

I called the local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, and said that we’re building this service, and we’d like to have the AP wire; that’s where all the news came from in those days. They said the AP didn’t do that, but you could work on a test to convince them to participate. So, they gave us a test feed, and our technical team took that and parsed it and figured out how to set up menus and all that sort of thing. So, we had a crude working model of a news feed.

Then I called the Associated Press in New York and said I’d like to come talk to them about an idea. Of course, they gave me to a lower-level staffer. But I met him in New York and told him what we were trying to do. He said, “The AP is all the newspapers. They have a board of directors who make all the decisions. I doubt they’d be interested in this, but we’re having our conference in Hawaii next week. If you’ll let me take this demo you’ve just shown me out there, I’ll show it to them and see what they think. Then I’ll get back to you.” His name was Henry Heilman. He was a great guy.

About a week later, I’m in Columbus in my office and the phone rings. “This is Henry Heilman. I’m in Hawaii. Our board would like to come to Columbus to talk about your proposal.”

I said, “That’d be great! When would they like to come?”

He said, “They’d like to come next week.”

I said, “Who’s coming?”

He started to name names. And I recognized a couple of them. One was Katharine Graham from the Washington Post. Another was [Arthur Ochs] Sulzberger from the New York Times.

So, we set it up. It was really funny. Katherine Graham’s secretary called me and said, “Can you have a car for Mrs. Graham?”

I said, “What do you mean by a car?”

He said, “A limousine.”

We didn’t have a limousine service in Columbus, at least not that I ever used.  But anyway, I made arrangements to have her and everybody else picked up.

So, ten of these people came to our little conference room, and we made a presentation.

They said, “What’s your proposal?”

I said, “Well, I would like to have ten newspapers participate in a test of an electronic-newspaper service, and in exchange I’d like advertising in your newspapers worth $250,000 apiece, talking about this project.”

They said, “Can we have a few minutes to talk?” They were in there 45 minutes. I remember sweating profusely, thinking they were never going to go on with this. But they came back and said, “Yes, we’ll accept the proposal — with one condition: we offer it to all our newspapers, and let any participate that want to, provided that the ten of us can [also] be in the test.”

So, that was how we kicked it all off. I said, “I have one final request: the Columbus Dispatch will be the first newspaper that comes online.”

They agreed, and that was how the electronic-newspaper [service] launched.

CompuServe is demonstrated to members of the Associated Press in 1980. Standing in the back row from left are Jeff Wilkins, Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, and John F. Wolfe of the Columbus Dispatch, which was soon to become the first newspaper in history to go online.

Wilkins’s tale serves to illustrate that the entrenched forces of establishment media aren’t always quite as hidebound as they may first appear. In fact, the vaguely defined idea of “electronic publishing” was very much en vogue at the time in certain circles, albeit greeted with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. It was the former impulse that led Readers Digest, by reputation at least about the most hidebound media institution of all, to buy a controlling interest in the The Source in 1980, the same year CompuServe struck their newspaper deal.

But the fear that would always remain at the root of traditional publishing’s long, fraught negotiation with the online world was never hard to find just below the surface. Jim Batton of Knight-Ridder Newspapers was one of the more prominent skeptics, voicing fears that were in their way as prescient as the more optimistic rhetoric that came to surround this brave new world of online news: “Our concern was that if people might get their information in this way, they might no longer need newspapers.” Katherine Graham was playing both sides of the fence, lobbying in Congress for legislation that would prevent telephone companies from becoming “information providers” even as she was signing on with CompuServe.

Indeed, it appeared the newspaper industry in general didn’t entirely know its own mind. Keith Fuller, president of the Associated Press, summed up the two views that were at war within the psyches of people like Graham in these terms: “One [view is] that electronic delivery is the future knocking at the door, and the other [is] that electronic delivery is a disaster hunting a victim.” The decision to get in bed with CompuServe was not without controversy inside the AP’s member newspapers. One union, The Twin Cities Newspaper Guild No. 2, held a 26-day strike against the Minneapolis Sun and Tribune after they elected to participate in the experiment. The union’s delivery carriers demanded guarantees that they would not lose their positions with a switch to electronic delivery, while editors and writers demanded that they receive the same residuals on electronically published articles as those they were accustomed to receiving for articles published on paper. It seems an absurdly early point for such conflicts to have begun, given the vanishingly small number of people who actually had the equipment and the willingness to reach their local newspaper online in 1980, but there you have it.

For CompuServe, on the other hand, the deal represented just another way to reach out to Middle America, to reach customers early and make their online service the only credible example of same in the eyes of most of them. They saw the importation of actual newspapers rather than just a news wire to CompuServe was a very significant step toward those goals. The news wires provided the skeleton of what people looked for in their hometown newspapers, but the meat, the bones, and the personality were found in the local human-interest stories, the opinion columns, the entertainment guides. These were the things that made spending a long, lazy weekend morning over the local newspaper and a pot of coffee such a mainstay of American life. In this light, the fact that it was the little Columbus Dispatch that first established an online presence rather than one of the big papers of record feels appropriate.

Each of the newspapers that participated in the program offered free time on CompuServe to any of their subscribers who wished to get a glimpse of the cyberspace future of journalism. The enormous attention the experiment garnered throughout the mainstream media made CompuServe a household name for the first time, at least among those interested in technology in the abstract. Rich Baker, a CompuServe executive:

All of a sudden, we had the biggest newspapers in the country running stories about CompuServe Information Service. The news stories spun off into wire stories, and our getting on the Today show. The Today crew came here so Garrick Utley could deliver the story. We got an incredible amount of exposure from the newspaper experiment. No amount of paid advertising could have accomplished such a feat.

While the experiment was a roaring success from the standpoint of CompuServe, the results from the newspapers’ standpoint were considerably more mixed — doubtless much to the relief of organizations like The Twin Cities Newspaper Guild No. 2. In the initial flurry of excitement, a few of the newspapers had devoted entire editorial staffs to their online editions, a practice that quickly proved untenable given the small number of online readers. Meanwhile even many of the early adopters among the reading public who had greeted the idea of an online newspaper with excitement had to admit in the end that it was a heck of a lot more pleasant to read a 25¢ physical newspaper than it was to watch stories scroll slowly onto a computer screen, bereft of illustrations or proper typesetting, at a price of $6 per hour — not to mention that it was a heck of a lot easier to read a paper-based newspaper at the breakfast table than it was to set up a computer there.

The trial program officially ended in June of 1982, and most of the fifteen or so newspapers who had participated ended their presence on CompuServe along with it. CompuServe’s grander plans for online news were eventually replaced by something called the Executive News Service, a much more limited digest of relevant wire reports for, as the name would indicate, the busy businessperson on the go. Tellingly, CompuServe shifted from telling potential customers about all the prestigious newspapers on offer to offering them the opportunity to “create your own newspaper” — a formulation much more in keeping with the user-driven ethos that had come to define so much of the service.

Another area where CompuServe reached toward a future that would prove to be just out of their grasp was online banking. On October 9, 1980, they announced a partnership with Radio Shack and the United American Bank of Knoxville, Tennessee, to offer the bank’s customers online access to their accounts. According to the press release, customers would be able to “receive current information on their checking accounts, use a bookkeeping service, and apply for loans,” with many more functions, including online bill paying and tax services, planned for the future. The service would represent, according to the bank’s president, “convenience banking without leaving home.” It certainly sounded promising, but it was a struggle to find any takers for the offer, limited as it was to United American Bank’s existing customers in eastern Tennessee. With computer security in its relative infancy, the safety of this, the most important of all their personal information, was a concern repeatedly and justifiably expressed by those who were surveyed on the topic. In the end, instead of becoming the first of many banks to go online, United American Bank elected to terminate the experiment within six months. It seemed that online banking, even more so than online newspapers, was an idea that was still just a little too far ahead of its time.

But other far-seeing ventures proved more successful. In 1982, just as the big newspaper experiment was ending, another electronic-publishing initiative was getting started. The World Book Encyclopedia went online with CompuServe that year, thus inadvertently hammering the first nail into the coffin of the paper-based encyclopedia. Countless wired schoolchildren were soon using this early ancestor of our own ubiquitous Wikipedia to write their reports without ever having to darken the door of a library.

Another, even more important initiative arrived in early 1984 in the form of the Electronic Mall. Once again, it had been The Source who had originated the idea of an online shopping emporium, making it part of their service from Day One. But, once again, online shopping had always been more of an aspiration than a reality there: few retailers initially set up storefronts, which led to few of the The Source’s already scant subscribers taking an interest, which gave few other retailers much encouragement to join the fray. And so it was left to the more methodical CompuServe to become the real pioneers of e-commerce.


In contrast to The Source’s shopping mall, CompuServe’s Electronic Mall debuted with a very impressive list of online storefronts, a tribute to how powerful and well-connected Jeff Wilkins’s erstwhile corporate data processor was becoming in the consumer marketplace. Many of the early names in the Electronic Mall could indeed be found in the typical American brick-and-mortar shopping mall: Sears, Waldenbooks, American Express, Kodak, E.F. Hutton, in addition to the expected list of computer-oriented shops, which boasted names like Commodore and Microsoft. But just as notable as all the big names were all the little ones. In another early testament to the leveling effect of so much of online life, small online-only vendors clustered side by side with some of the biggest corporate trademarks in the country. The Electronic Mall would remain a fixture for the next decade and change, doing very well for CompuServe and many of the entities who opened storefronts there. In the process, it became the first really successful example of e-commerce, yet another blueprint for what the future would eventually bring to everyone.

This page from CompuServe’s print magazine Online Today shows some of the wide variety of products that could be purchased from the Electronic Mall by 1989.

Speaking of which: the same year that the Electronic Mall went online, Trans World Airlines opened a gateway to their internal reservations system on CompuServe, allowing subscribers to book their own travel. “This will be the first time that comprehensive worldwide airline information and fares will be available to consumers,” said a proud Jeff Wilkins.  Other airlines followed, as did rental-car providers and hotels, precipitating a slow-rolling transformation in the way that people travel — and making life much more difficult for lots of professional travel agents.

So, already by the dawn of 1985 CompuServe encompassed an astonishing swathe of what we’ve come to think of as modern online life, some of it driven by users, some by content providers: email, forums, chat, news, encyclopedias, shopping, travel reservations. And even some of the things missing from that list, like digital distribution of commercial software and online banking, had been tried but had proved impractical. The range is so broad and so far-reaching that some of the technical pioneers who worked for CompuServe have in recent years made a lucrative sideline out of testifying to their prior art in patent cases, ruining the days of heaps of people who had believed themselves to be the innovators. “Almost everything people [have] tried to patent on the Internet,” notes Jeff Wilkins, “CompuServe had done in the early eighties.”

Having thus done his part for online posterity, Wilkins left the company in 1985 in order to get in on the ground floor of CD-ROM by opening a CD-pressing plant. His successor, Charlie McCall, made no dramatic changes to the solid framework Wilkins had left in place. For the remainder of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, CompuServe would just keep on trucking in business-as-usual mode, adding hundreds of thousands of new subscribers each year.

Prior to 1983, CompuServe had had the market for services like theirs virtually to themselves. Potential customers had only two other places to turn: The Source, which, perpetually mismanaged as it was, never posed all that much of a threat after 1980; and the network of private bulletin-board systems, which were regional, difficult to connect with, and, being usually able to host only one user at a time, were unable to offer anything like the same sense of real-time community. Indeed, CompuServe had deliberately tried to give the impression that theirs was the only online service that was or ever could be, deploying the word “utility” to foster a mental connection with the telephone system or the power grid (or, for modern sensibilities, with what the World Wide Web has become today).

But it was inevitable that others, seeing the growth CompuServe was enjoying, would want to enter the field. The first of these was DELPHI in March of 1983. Originally conceived as an online encyclopedia, it would always maintain a certain intellectual or literary focus. Shortly after its founding, for example, the service hosted what may have been the first online collaborative novel. In 1984, the science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card posted on DELPHI the entirety of Ender’s Game, destined to become his most famous novel, a year before it would see publication in print. Such coups aside, though, DELPHI lacked the corporate clout and the financial resources to challenge CompuServe for mainstream mindshare, and was never regarded by the latter as all that serious of a threat.

In October of 1985, however, a more serious threat did arrive in the form of GEnie. Formed by General Electric out of largely the same motivation that had led Jeff Wilkins to start MicroNET back in the day — the frustration of watching an expensive computing and telecommunications infrastructure sit all but dormant more than half of the time — GEnie arrived with an impressive array of offerings, many of them all too plainly modeled on those of its biggest competitor: chat, a forum system, shopping, news services, etc. Most of all, though, its owners planned to compete on the basis of price. In contrast to CompuServe’s $6.50 per hours, GEnie launched at a price of $5 per hour, an initial salvo in a slow-moving pricing cold war that would gradually bring down the average connection charge across the entire online-services industry over the years to come. While it would never even come close to catching CompuServe, GEnie would remain a force to be reckoned with in its own right for a long time.

And so it went, in accord with the implacable logic of capitalism. By the late 1980s there were several other viable online services as well, all orbiting the star that was CompuServe, defining themselves sometimes in their convergence, sometimes in their divergence. “We’re the more intellectual CompuServe!” said DELPHI; “We’re a cheaper version of CompuServe!” said GEnie; etc., etc. The fact that none of the services had any way of communicating with one another meant that each developed its own unique personality, partly defined by the priorities of its administrators but also partly, one senses, by random chance — or, rather, by the priorities of the people who happened to sign up in its earliest days.

For its part, CompuServe maintained always its reputation as the safe, steady online service, the one that might cost a little more than some of the others but that you knew you could rely on. A certain tradition of technical excellence which John Goltz had instilled from the company’s earliest days as a provider of corporate time-sharing services served them well in the consumer market. Their systems never — but never — went down, and even the odd glitches which often dogged their rivals’ offerings were all but unheard of. Some of their solutions to contemporary problems of the moment were so thorough that they have remained with us to this day. In 1987, for example, CompuServe developed the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, as a way to allow their subscribers using many different models of computer running many different kinds of software to share pictures with one another. It would go on to become the first truly ubiquitous cross-platform graphical standard; GIF images have been created in the literal billions in the decades since the format’s inception.

Even as it expanded, the burgeoning online-services industry managed to survive at least one existential threat. In mid-1987, the Federal Communications Commission made plans to implement a fee on the local access numbers which customers used to connect to the services without incurring long-distance charges. Discount long-distance services for voice calls that made use of a similar system had always been required to send part of their revenue back to the local telephone exchanges whose equipment they used, something CompuServe and the other online services had heretofore managed to avoid. In effect, the FCC argued, users of everyday telephone services were subsidizing users of these newfangled online services. They now planned to charge the latter $4.50 to $5.40 per hour for the privilege, a move with the potential to wipe out the whole industry at a stroke. “My opinion is that online information is horrendously overpriced right now,” said one analyst. “If you raise the price, you’re cutting out more and more people.” When word of the plan got to CompuServe, they enlisted their subscribers and everyone else they could find in a furious campaign to get it rescinded before it went into effect on January 1, 1988 — and they succeeded, another testimony to their growing clout. “Aunt Minnie,” as one of the FCC’s stymied attorneys put it, would have to go on subsidizing “Joe Computer User” in the name of keeping a developing industry alive. Not that the users of CompuServe and the other online services thought of it in those terms: for them, it meant simply that they got to keep on chatting and reading and writing and shopping and playing and all the rest without seeing the prices they paid for the privilege more than double.

As they were fending off this threat at home, CompuServe was already casting an eye outside their country’s borders. They expanded into Japan in 1987, then into Switzerland and Britain the following year; other European countries then followed. Soon the stories of friendship and romance that constantly swirled around CB Simulator took on an international character: an Indiana woman moved to Dublin to marry an Irish man; a Japanese woman and her daughter moved to California to join an American man. “I would feel the same about Suzuko if she were from South Africa or lived in Moscow,” said the last. Like so many Internet chatters who would come after them, the users of CB Simulator were learning the valuable lesson that people shouldn’t be judged by the passport they happen to hold.

Another landmark moment in Charlie McCall’s tenure — if one of more symbolic than practical importance by the time it arrived — came in 1989, when CompuServe, now 500,000 members strong, gobbled up their old arch-rival The Source, which was still straggling along with 50,000 members. Thus did a pioneer which had never quite lived up to its founders’ ambitions finally meet its end.

By the early 1990s, this net before the Web which Jeff Wilkins and Bill von Meister had first conceived almost simultaneously back in 1979 was reaching its peak, with CompuServe snowballing toward an eventual 3 million subscribers, with GEnie well into the hundreds of thousands, and with all the other services beavering along as well, filling their various niches.

And now, having reached this high-water mark, loading you down with so many data points describing so many firsts along the way, I feel keenly my failure to convey a more impressionistic sense of what it was really like to log onto one of these services. Unfortunately, I run into a problem that’s doomed to dog any digital antiquarian who tries to write about what the kids today like to call computing in the cloud: the lack of permanent artifacts to study in such an ephemeral form of media. There is, in other words, no preserved version of CompuServe that I can play in for research purposes or point you to to do the same, as I can the offline games I write about. I have only my imperfect memories from decades ago to go on — I was actually a GEnie man, having been lured by the cheaper price — along with what was written about the experience at the time. So, I’m going to take an unusual step, sort of an inversion of what we usually do around here. Instead of using the historical environment as a pathway to understanding why a certain game is the way it is, I’m going to do the opposite: suggest a game that you might play as a way of understanding the environment that spawned it.

Judith Pintar was a CompuServe regular in 1991 when she decided to write a game to simulate and gently satirize online life as she then knew it. Working with the text-adventure language AGT, she made Cosmoserve. If you’re at all interested in learning more about pre-Web online culture, I strongly encourage you to play it. Try to solve it if you like — it’s a very good game in its own right — but feel free to use a walkthrough if you prefer.

In Cosmoserve you’ll find much of what I’ve been writing about in this and the previous article: email, the Forums, chat, the Electronic Mall. From the struggle you sometimes had just to get online at all to the suggestive gossip on CB Simulator, from the ubiquity of Turbo Pascal to a killer computer virus — yes, we already had them this early on — it’s a perfect time capsule of online life circa 1991. I’ll have more to write about Cosmoserve in a future article, but for now suffice to say that it conveys all the experiential context that I can’t quite manage to give you in non-interactive, purely historical articles like these have been. You can almost hear the hair-raising howl of the modem connecting and the heavy clunk of a vintage IBM keyboard. Whether it happens to be a voyage of discovery or a nostalgia trip for you personally, I think you’ll find it has a lot to offer. Bless Judith Pintar for writing it.

As it happened, though, the online milieu Pintar so ably captured in 1991 was already being threatened at the time she wrote Cosmoserve. What we’ve been tracing to this point has been a certain approach to the commercial online service, one based entirely or almost entirely on text, allowing subscribers to connect using almost any terminal program. Yet by 1991 there was another approach out there as well, which in time would lead to the biggest single online service of all — yes, bigger even than CompuServe. And when we trace its origins back to the beginning, we find the familiar name of Bill von Meister. Jeff Wilkins may have wound up stealing his thunder last time around, but the magnificent rogue wasn’t yet done shaping history.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks; Online Today of February 1988 and July 1989; 80 Microcomputing of January 1981; InfoWorld of November 24 1980, April 9 1984, May 21 1984, November 5 1984, and October 21 1985; Personal Computing of January 1981 and October 1981; Family Computing of March 1984; MacWorld of September 1987; New York Times of June 16 1987; Alexander Trevor’s brief technical history of CompuServe, which was first posted to Usenet in 1988; interviews with Jeff Wilkins from the Internet History Podcast and Conquering Columbus.)

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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A Net Before the Web, Part 2: Service to Community

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

— from “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

If we wished to compare The Source with CompuServe’s MicroNET in their earliest days, we might say that the former emphasized the content it would provide to its subscribers while the latter planned to set its subscribers free to make their own content for themselves. In a later era, the World Wide Web would offer both of these things in a hundred-car pileup between the forces of traditional media and millions of empowered creative individuals; we as societies are still struggling in many ways to come to terms with the sea change this represents. It’s of course the second part of the equation — all those empowered creative individuals — that marks the real diversion from the top-down media models of old. One might thus be tempted to say that MicroNET’s approach was the more visionary, hewing as it seemingly does to the philosophy sometimes known as “Web 2.0,” that guiding light of “mature” Internet culture. To do so, however, might be to give Jeff Wilkins and his colleagues a bit too much credit. The real driving force behind Wilkins’s MicroNET had little in common with the ideas that would come to be labelled Web 2.0, or for that matter the academic research that led to Web 1.0.

Wilkins had seen that computers were entering homes for the first time, but, raised on the big iron of institutional computing as he was, he couldn’t help but observe how absurdly primitive these new microcomputers really were. He thought of MicroNET as a way for people saddled with such toy computers to use them as the gateway to a real computer. Thus MicroNET’s early emphasis on programming languages. Why should hobbyists content themselves with the primitive BASIC dialects, 16 K (or less) memories, and slow and unreliable cassette-based storage of the first generation of microcomputers when MicroNET could offer them the chance to write and run larger programs in more sophisticated languages like Fortran and Pascal?

It didn’t take long, however, to see that most subscribers didn’t in fact come to MicroNET looking for a replacement for their little home computers. They rather saw it as a place to talk about the things they were doing on their micros: a place to trade tips, rumors, and ideas with one another. They were, in other words, less interested in writing programs on CompuServe’s big computers than they were in using them as a communications tool — as a way of learning how to write better programs on the TRS-80s and Apple IIs sitting right in front of them. Users groups were springing up all over the country for much the same purpose, but, valuable as they were, they were bound by all the constraints geography imposed on what was still a very small hobby in a very big country. What did you do between the monthly meetings of your users group? Some hobbyists logged onto MicroNET to get their fix of shop talk. And so, while the online programming environments sat largely unused, the email system and the public message boards were soon full of activity.

For all that this wasn’t quite what Wilkins had envisioned when he set up MicroNET, he adjusted to the reality on the ground with admirable alacrity. The first sign of the changing times came as early as December of 1979, when a new area called the “MicroNET Software Exchange” made its debut. Representing CompuServe’s first substantial investment of programming effort just for MicroNET subscribers, it was modeled after initiatives like the TRS-80 Software Exchange that was run by Softline magazine. With the commercial-software industry still in its infancy, these so-called “exchanges” gave programmers a conduit for selling their home-grown creations to the public. From the entrepreneurs whose wares could be found on them would be born many of the first generation of full-service software publishers — among them names like VisiCorp, Brøderbund, and Adventure International.

The MicroNET Software Exchange went online with 17 TRS-80 programs on offer, ranging in price from $1 to $49, with an average of $16.40. Subscribers who indulged could download the programs they purchased right away, seeing the price conveniently tacked onto their next MicroNET bill. But by the time MicroNET Software Exchange launched it was already clear to astute observers that this means of loosey-goosey commercial-software distribution — it wasn’t unusual for a single developer to “publish” the same program through half a dozen exchanges — probably wasn’t long for this world, doomed by the very same professional software publishers they had done so much to spawn. Despite the appeal to immediate gratification that downloading offered over waiting for physical cassettes to come in the mail, the MicroNET Software Exchange never took off. The era of digital download as a means of commercial-software distribution would require many years yet to come to fruition; this was one aspect of the digital life of the future that would indeed have to wait for a future that came equipped with the fast and reliable connections needed to download complex software painlessly.

CompuServe began to advertise MicroNET in early 1980 via simple spots like this one.

Still, the MicroNET Software Exchange did point to Wilkins’s evolving view of the service, just as the effort that went into creating it pointed to how MicroNET as a whole was moving out of the experimental phase, ready to take its place as an actively developed part of CompuServe’s business model. CompuServe began to take out some modest advertisements for the service in magazines like InfoWorld, and in the summer of 1980 dropped the separate MicroNET moniker altogether. The consumer online service was now known simply as CompuServe, all the former reticence about mixing corporate and consumer business in the same organization shoved aside. Many people within the company remained unhappy about the push into the consumer marketplace, but Wilkins dealt with the developing culture clash by isolating his small team of consumer-service developers in an office of their own, far from the jeering of their colleagues. Helping his cause immensely was the fact that Sandy Trevor, who had replaced John Goltz as the company’s chief technical architect, was himself an enthusiastic supporter of the consumer service, sending the skunk-works group many of his keenest technical minds. With him leading the way, almost all of the technical staff came around in fairly short order, and in time the rest of the staff would follow — especially as the consumer service started making the company real money. By 1987, it would constitute half of CompuServe’s revenue, nicely offsetting the continuing slow decline in the corporate time-sharing market.

It is true that early on the consumer side of the company grew fairly slowly; it would take until well into 1981 for it to reach 10,000 subscribers. Yet its perceived importance, both inside and outside of CompuServe, developed much more quickly. On May 12, 1980, the accounting giant H&R Block bought CompuServe in a deal which left Jeff Wilkins in charge and promised to let him continue on the path he was already steering. Wilkins himself believed that the potential of the consumer service was a major motivating factor — if not the major factor — prompting H&R Block to make the deal. He told one interviewer at the time that he believed H&R Block wanted “to put themselves in a marketplace that is growing faster than the tax markets.” Needless to say, such a description no longer applied to corporate time-sharing services, now a stagnant rather than an exploding market.

Radically different though the two companies’ histories, industries, and cultures were, the acquisition led to surprisingly little internal friction. Wilkins used the sense of security the name of H&R Block lent in corporate America to make deals for the consumer service that may very well have been impossible otherwise, while H&R’s deep pockets and willingness to take the long view made it possible for him to expand on his already excellent telecommunications network, thereby making sure that when the users were ready to come to CompuServe en masse, CompuServe would have the pipes to accept their business. “You have to have the ability to anticipate, to be two or three years ahead of the market,” said Wilkins. By mid-decade, it would be possible to establish a rock-steady connection with CompuServe’s PDP-10s in Columbus via a local call from virtually anywhere in the country.

The telecommunications infrastructure wasn’t the only aspect of the consumer service that required the constant attention of Wilkins’s best engineers. The steadily growing user roll brought plenty of challenges to the programming staff as well. In the old days, when CompuServe had been strictly a provider of time-sharing to corporate clients, each client was earmarked to a certain PDP-10 machine in the pool of same inside the data centers; said machine stored all their data and ran all their software and was thus the only one they needed to access. The demands of the consumer service, however, soon extended beyond the capacity of any one machine. Dividing subscribers into pools and assigning them to individual machines was no good solution, for all of the subscribers needed to be able to interact with one another in ways which CompuServe’s corporate clients didn’t. Sandy Trevor was the key designer of what came to be called the “yo-yo switch,” a methodology for balancing the load of the consumer service across the company’s range of twenty or more PDP-10s. Trevor:

When a user logs onto CompuServe and selects an option from the menu, he or she is automatically connected with the host on which the needed data is stored. If during an online session he later selects another item that’s on a different computer, he is quickly switched over to that host. Because it’s done so quickly, [the] user is unaware of the change.

This very divorcement of the details of computing hardware from computing in the abstract — to such an extent that the user never needs to think about the hardware at all — is the source of the adjective “cloud” in the modern notion of cloud computing. In the early 1980s, it was at the cutting edge of computer science, and points to how groundbreaking the CompuServe of that time was in a strictly technical as well as social and business sense.

While the engineers were thus occupied on the technical end, CompuServe’s evolving marketing department developed ways to get the service in front of potential customers with what one might call an engineer’s single-minded precision. In the summer of 1980, CompuServe struck a deal with Radio Shack, who were selling far more home computers than anyone else at the time, to stock what came to be known as the “Snapaks”: packets containing everything a new subscriber needed to log into the system for the first time and set up an account. A customer could go from opening the packet to using the service within minutes. The Snapaks thus represented a potent force in the consumer marketplace: instant gratification.

From store shelves, the Snapaks found their way into modem boxes, as well as those housing most of the popular home computers. Just as software publishers had long since realized that a stunning percentage of software was purchased at the same time as the computer used to run it, CompuServe understood that the best way to capture a potential customer was to nab her early, in the first blush of excitement that accompanied taking her new toy home. Thanks to their connections and financial resources, no one else could rival them in this kind of outreach. It became a key part of their success, especially after the inevitable competition in the market for online consumer services — some of it far more dangerous than the moribund The Source — began to arrive by mid-decade.

But we perhaps get ahead of ourselves; that’s a story for my next article. At this point, I’d like to flip the script on this business history with which we’ve occupied ourselves until now. It’s time to put on a social historian’s hat and ask what the people who used this most popular and sophisticated of all the 1980s online services were actually doing when they logged on.

It turns out that much of it wasn’t all that far removed from what people still do online today. That fact, far from minimizing the importance of this pioneering service, only serves to underscore how prescient it really was. Humans are, as the cliché goes, social animals. “Social media” may not yet have been a term, but as early as 1980 CompuServe was evolving into a prime example of exactly that. Advertised as a service, it very quickly became a community.

From the beginning, of course, there was email, allowing CompuServe members to send private messages back and forth for any reason they liked. Already in November of 1981, 80 Computing magazine could write of this subtly disruptive technology that “it may replace the postal system and take part of the load now carried by the telephone.”

While the concept of email — still generally referred to during the 1980s by more long-winded sobriquets like “electronic mail” — is a fairly obvious one, the fundamental issue which held back its acceptance as a replacement for paper mail for many years was the lack of inter-operability between the various email systems. For a CompuServe subscriber, this meant that she could only send and receive email to and from other CompuServe subscribers. In one of those quotations that become retroactively hilarious, Marvin Weinberger, a computer researcher, mused thus in 1984:

What we need is a sort of “Long Lines” carrier for electronic mail. It would be analogous to AT&T’s Long Lines, which transmits a message among the local telephone operating companies. So far, a few vendors have taken steps to exchange messages, but there are hundreds of mail systems. If electronic mail is really to become as useful as the telephone — meaning one could send a message to anybody, anywhere — then an entity of this type is a prerequisite.

Weinberger was overlooking the Internet, an entity of exactly the needed type which already existed and was in fact being used to exchange email all over the world as he said those words. Indeed, his words sound like the beginning of a joke: “Gee, if only there was an open computer network already in place for the purpose of sending all these data packets back and forth…”

But the Internet’s evolution into the publicly accessible World Wide Web was still years away; in 1984, it was available only to those with the right university, government, or corporate connections. In the meantime, the closed email systems of services like CompuServe did much to trap subscribers on the service with which they had originally signed up. Each online service was such a closed universe in all respects that moving from one to another meant literally abandoning one’s friends.

While email was a great tool for communicating with friends you’d already made on CompuServe, how did you make new ones? How, in other words, could you find people on CompuServe in the first place who shared your interests? The solution to this problem, arrived at already in its most basic form in 1980, were things that were first known as “Special Interest Groups,” then re-branded with the pithier moniker of simply “Forums.” Rather than dividing CompuServe’s offerings by function — email, bulletin boards, etc. — the Forum system divided them by topic. In a Forum, one could find and communicate with other subscribers who, one knew, were also there out of interest in the Forum’s topic.

Predictably enough, the earliest Forums tended to be dedicated to the computing hobby itself. Each brand of computer and, soon, each viable model of computer got its own Forum. These gatherings of like-minded subscribers came to wield considerable influence in the computer industry at large. Apple’s John Sculley and Steve Wozniak, for instance, both made themselves personally available from time to time on the Forum known as the “Micronetworked Apple Users Group.” It wasn’t unusual for journalists from the magazines to source their word-on-the-street reports from the CompuServe Forums, which came to serve them well as early harbingers of the way the public at large would react to any given plan, product, or announcement. Radio Shack developed the TRS-80 Model 100, the world’s first reasonably usable laptop computer, practically in partnership with the TRS-80 Forum. First they took the time to ask the people there what they wanted in a portable computer. Then they delivered prototype models to the Forum’s leading lights and collected their feedback — rinse and repeat through several more cycles. Throughout the process, the executives behind the project remained consistently available to the Forum’s members. The early subscribers to CompuServe were by definition trailblazers, and the people marketing home-computer hardware and software took their influence very, very seriously.

With time, though, CompuServe’s user base began to branch out beyond the hardcore hacker demographic, and the Forums reflected this in their growing diversity of subject matter. Jeff Wilkins has named aviation as the first non-computer topic to really take hold. Pilots, who were often early technology adopters, had congregated in enough numbers on CompuServe within a year or two that their pooled information on airplanes, airports, weather, and traffic became one of the best resources any aviator could have. Still more pilots started signing up for CompuServe just to have access to this goldmine, creating a snowball effect.

And as aviation went, so in time went heaps of other hobbies and topics of interest: law, medicine, gardening, religion, sports, travel, individual authors and musicians. Just as journalists in our own time have developed a sometimes disconcerting Twitter dependency, journalists by 1986 were finding a fair number of their alleged scoops on CompuServe. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up during launch in January of that year, the huge and active NASA Forum, with plenty of members perched at a privileged vantage point inside NASA itself, became the place to find the latest news about what had happened and why. By 1989, more than 170 Forums were in operation.

The real genius of the Forum system was CompuServe’s willingness to allow them to be driven by ordinary subscribers — a willingness that hearkens back in its way to the founding philosophy of the service. Recognizing that they couldn’t possibly administer such a diverse body of discussions, CompuServe’s employees didn’t even try. Instead they created a process whereby new Forums could be formed whenever enough subscribers had expressed interest in their proposed topics, and then turned over the administration to the experts, the people who knew best the topics they dealt with: the very same subscribers who had lobbied for them in the first place. Forum administrators — known as “sysops” in CompuServe parlance — were given free access, along with a cash stipend that was dependent on how active their domain was. For the biggest Forums, this could amount to a considerable amount of money. Jeff Wilkins has claimed that some sysops wound up earning up to $250,000 in the course of their CompuServe life.

Sysops enjoyed broad powers to go with their compensation. It was almost entirely they who wielded the censor’s pen, who said what was and wasn’t allowed. As their Forums grew, they were permitted to hire deputies to help them police their territory, rewarding them with gifts of free online time. By all accounts, the system worked remarkably well as an early example of the sort of community policing on which websites like Wikipedia would later come to depend. It was a self-regulating system; those few sysops who neglected their duties or abused their powers could expect their Forum’s traffic to dwindle away, until CompuServe shut the doors. Those Forums with particularly enthusiastic and active sysops, on the other hand, thrived, sometimes out of all seeming proportion to their esoteric areas of interest. The Source, still hewing largely to its content- rather than user-driven model, failed to implement anything like the Forum concept until 1985, and was rewarded with a far more fragmented, far less active social space, even taking into account the growing disparity between the numbers of subscribers on the two services.

While the Forums were instrumental in making CompuServe what it was, it was a single technical rather than administrative development which did the most of all to bind CompuServe’s subscribers together into a real community — a development which stands out today as the most obviously, undeniably groundbreaking aspect of the entire service.

The consumer service’s formative period had been marked by a brief-lived but fairly intense craze for CB radio, fueled by corn-pone entertainments like Smokey and the Bandit, B.J. and the Bear, and The Dukes of Hazzard. For a while, cars sporting huge antenna rigs were a common sight on American highways, and truckers were left grumbling about all these amateurs muddying up their bandwidth. Radio Shack made a killing off the fad, selling CB kits in their stores alongside the TRS-80s that were fueling the contemporaneous early home-computer boom. The people who found CB radio interesting were very often the same ones who were buying computers and using them to log onto CompuServe.

Sandy Trevor

In late 1979, in the midst of the CB craze, CompuServe rolled out an addition to the operating system used on their time-sharing PDP-10s: a method of sharing segments of memory across multiple user sessions. It may not sound like the most exciting innovation, but it opened up worlds of new possibilities for direct, user-to-user interaction in real time. The synergy between CB enthusiasts and the computer enthusiasts on CompuServe inspired Sandy Trevor to use his programmers’ latest advance in the service of the first real-time online chat system. “It struck me that CB was something everyone had heard of,” he would later say. “Unlike many computer concepts, it wasn’t difficult for novices, and I thought it would provide a unique environment for meeting other people.” Jeff Wilkins recalls his first glimpse of what become known as “CB Simulator”:

We had an executive-committee meeting every Monday morning at 9:00; this was for the whole company. Sandy Trevor came to me before the meeting and said, “I want to show you what I did over the weekend. I call it CB. You pick a channel and you pick a username and you type, and everybody that’s on your channel sees what you’re typing.” He demonstrated it for me. I said, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t know if people will use it or not, but we’ll give it a try and see. Let’s tell the executive committee about it, see what they think.”

So, we went to the executive-committee meeting and he gave a demonstration. I’ll never forget the expressions on their faces. They said, “You guys are insane! Nobody will ever use that! Why are we wasting our time on all this goofy stuff?”

Despite the committee’s objections, CB Simulator went live on February 21, 1980, with no fanfare whatsoever. CompuServe didn’t advertise it at all during its first four years of existence, and it wasn’t even on the menu system for the first year; would-be chatters had to learn the command to activate it from their more clued-in online friends. Sandy Trevor claims that this manifest ambivalence was shared by even Wilkins himself to a degree that’s perhaps obscured by the quotation above; “Jeff Wilkins,” he says, “thought it would be a fad.”

And yet CB Simulator went on to become CompuServe’s killer app, the place where the majority of subscribers spent the majority of their online time. A modern-day Wilkins, long since disabused of any doubts he might once have harbored, calls it out as the perfect combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch”; CB Simulator, more so than even the Forum system or anything else on CompuServe, provided that personal element that turned a conduit for information into a conduit for relationships. CompuServe’s advertising copy — after, that is, they bothered to start advertising CB Simulator — stated the case with only slight hyperbole: “There are students, lawyers, pilots, doctors, engineers, housewives, programmers, writers, all ready to welcome you from the moment you first access CB and type, ‘Hello, I’m new.'” For the people who used it, CB Simulator wasn’t a program or a service or even a technology; it was a social space where, once you’d learned the handful of needed commands, the technology quickly faded into the background.

Steven K. Roberts received a great deal of press attention for his two-and-a-half year trip across the highways and byways of the United States on his high-tech bicycle. On the cover of his book, he’s shown using a Tandy/Radio Shack portable computer — part of a model line designed, appropriately enough, in partnership with CompuServe subscribers — to connect to CompuServe via a satellite uplink. He was a CB Simulator regular throughout his adventure.

For most people of the 1980s, the idea of having online friends was still a deeply odd one, but for the people who were part of the CB Simulator scene the relationships forged there were as real and as pure as any they formed in the “real” world — or perhaps in many cases even more so. One regular chatter noted that on the CB Simulator “you meet someone from the inside out. You judge them on their heart and values, not what kind of jeans they wear.” Pat Phelps, CompuServe’s longtime CB Simulator administrator, beloved to the point of being called “Mother Superior” by her charges, spoke of the doors that were opened in similarly utopian terms:

There is no king or queen or worker class to it. Everyone is totally equal; it’s a fantastic equalizer as far as social order goes. It doesn’t matter what sex or race you are or what you look like, or handicaps, or whatever. People judge you on your ideas, on how you communicate.

Many handicapped people, for example, can’t leave their homes, and they’re withdrawn and concerned about the way they look. Here’s a way they can meet new people, make friends from all over the country. It doesn’t matter if they’re handicapped because everyone is accepted for the thoughts they share over the computer. If you meet a person who doesn’t fit the image of what you thought they should look like, it doesn’t matter because you already care for them and accept them.

“It’s like having a house guest in the corner who will talk to you anytime you want,” said another chatter. “It’s a form of communication, like hanging out on a street corner.” But of course many of the people hanging out on this virtual street corner were the very sort who would have been extremely uncomfortable doing so in the real world. “I’ve always been a loner, and this is a convenient way to meet people,” said one. “For the first time in my life, I have a group of people I can communicate with anytime.”

One of the first of many CB Simulator parties was organized by Pat Phelps in Columbus on June 16, 1984. These happy dancers have for the most part never met before in the physical world — but they seem to be getting along well enough.

Some of the friendships that were forged on CB Simulator evolved into something more — and this even before the “lonely hearts” channels became a thing. Pat Phelps claimed that even during the earliest period of CB Simulator’s existence several couples who met there wound up getting married. Although they were almost certainly not the absolute first of their kind, the first well-documented instance of a couple who met online getting married dates to February 14, 1983.

George Stickles and Debbie Fuhrman were better known online as “Mike” and “Silver.” He was a 29-year-old who worked at a copy shop near Dallas, Texas, she a 23-year-old secretary from Phoenix, Arizona. They got to know each other by chatting for “five or six hours” every night; “He would type in these jokes on the computer, and I felt really comfortable,” said Fuhrman. She eventually moved to Dallas to be with him. As a tribute to their unusual courtship, they decided to hold a wedding online, where their other friends on CB Simulator could participate. At first they thought of only a mock marriage. “Then after we got into it,” said Fuhrman, “we decided, why not do it for real. Pat [Phelps] said, ‘Yeah, yeah, by all means, do it for real.’ So we decided to go ahead and do everything at the same time.” The online spectators included Fuhrman’s parents, who had been unable to travel from Phoenix to join their daughter and future son-in-law. The bridesmaid was named Cupcake, the caterer “<< >>,” the usher Gandalf, the photographer Challenger, while the best man was the perfectly named Bestman. Three computers were placed in the same room in Dallas: one for each half of the happy couple, one for a 24-hour on-call minister who had been plucked out of the local phone book. As they went through the ceremony, each typed his or her words in addition to speaking them aloud. “I was quite surprised at the number of people who attended, as well as how well everything went,” said Stickles. The couple left the ceremony in a hail of virtual rice: “***************************.”

Stickles and Fuhrman were interviewed a number of times by journalists interested in documenting this strange new phenomenon of online dating. Some of the other adventures and misadventures their articles describe still ring true to anyone who has dipped a toe in these waters:

A couple who had been communicating over the lines for two months decided to meet each other at a local bar. They had been talking on the phone earlier. “The phone conversation was marvelous,” says the woman, who goes by the handle BigGal. “We chatted, laughed, and conversed for the better part of three hours. I couldn’t believe such a human being existed.”

And then they met. Damion, who had claimed to be 6 feet tall, had “mysteriously shrunk to about 5 feet 6 inches,” says BigGal. “The well-built body I had imagined assumed an avocado shape, and what was left of his brown hair was more of a dull, dusty gray color. Damion, supposedly 24 to 27 years old, also fibbed about his age. He looked old enough to be my father.”

Anecdotes like these reveal that judging the opposite sex exclusively on “their hearts and values” only got some chatters so far.

Still, we can presume that some of the supposed dishonesty that could lead to misunderstandings arose not so much from malignant intent as an earnest desire to try on different identities that weren’t going to fly in many real-world regions of an intensely hetero-normative country. One chatter told a journalist of some intense online time spent with what he assumed to be a “lovely, very philosophical” woman — only to learn that she was “really” a guy named Dave. Was Dave engaging in dishonest behavior, or revealing a truer self — or was Dave in some sense doing both at once?

Inevitably, some people were less interested in the relationship-building aspect of the whole romantic enterprise than they were in getting right down to the sex. Channels dedicated to sex chat could be found on CB Simulator almost from the beginning, and were quietly tolerated by CompuServe’s administrators — if not, for obvious reasons, publicized. Below is a precious historical document: real footage from 1984 of one of CB Simulator’s “adult” channels, as preserved by YouTube user Mathew Melnick. From the common area shown on the video, chatters could pair up in private rooms in order to… well, you know what they were doing, don’t you?


So, this sort of thing certainly had its place on CB Simulator. But, particularly after the media latched onto the topic of online sexy talk with predictable enthusiasm, it didn’t take long for the very sort of uncomfortable exchanges so many women had seen CB Simulator as an escape from to begin to spill over into their online life as well. Indeed, this became one of the few topics on which the usually sanguine Pat Phelps expressed real worry:

CompuSex is a very small part of what the medium is about. I’m not against it. If people want to do that, it’s perfectly alright. But now, because of the publicity, the majority of women have gotten extremely shy. Most of them aren’t even going to “talk” mode anymore. I don’t do it anymore, unless it’s with someone I know, because most of the one-on-ones are sex calls now. It’s kind of shut the door to friendships and meeting new people. Many of the women I talked to felt the same way. It’s sad. It’s shutting the door against the real reason that CB was originated in the first place, for fun and friendship and camaraderie and romance.

Thus, already by the time Phelps said those words in 1984, the Garden of Eden that had been CB Simulator in the eyes of its first adopters was starting to collect its share of snakes.

Other chatters were less predatory, but just as depressing in the way they brought some of the less savory aspects of the real world with them online. The head of the Republican Forum, speaking from the vast wisdom she had accrued in her 24 years, seemed determined to live up to every stereotype about her political party when she sniffed that “usually CB people are more educated, make a little more money. They’re a better group of people.” It all served to point out, for anyone who was in doubt, that the online life of the future wouldn’t be all unicorns and rainbows. If everyone was equal on CB Simulator, it seemed that some still believed they were more equal than others.

Another discordant note was lent by a new phrase which had begun to enter journalistic parlance for the first time by 1984: “online addiction.” The phrase is still heard all too often today, but one big difference between then and now is that those using CompuServe and similar services during the 1980s were paying by the minute for the privilege. Lurid stories emerged, usually based on hearsay rather than direct reporting, describing chatters who had supposedly lost house and home to the compulsion. While the scope was perhaps often exaggerated, the problem for some people was real. Monthly bills of $500 or more weren’t unusual among the CB Simulator hardcore, who occasionally confessed to forgoing niceties like a new car to replace that beat-up old clunker in order to have the money to keep chatting.

But there are downsides to any social revolution. The fact remains that the people hanging out on CB Simulator and other online spaces like it were at the vanguard of something extraordinary, something destined to be far more a force for good than its opposite. For countless people, home-bound or otherwise isolated by circumstance from those in the physical spaces around them, CompuServe became a vital part of their existence. I have no statistics to hand on how many people didn’t take their own lives or make some other tragic decision because of CompuServe, but I strongly suspect they number more than a few. Born as a prosaic exercise in corporate time-sharing, CompuServe’s evolution into the largest and most vibrant online community of the 1980s — it could boast 500,000 active members by 1989 — is one of the more unlikely and inspiring tales of a pivotal era in computer history. As yet, though, we’ve only seen half the picture. Next time, we’ll see how Big Media went digital for the first time thanks to CompuServe.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Computing Across America: The Bicycle Odyssey of a High-Tech Nomad by Steven K. Roberts; Creative Computing of March 1980; InfoWorld of May 26 1980, March 14 1983, July 2 1984, July 9 1984, July 23 1984, and July 30 1984; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980 and November 1981; Online Today of June 1985 and July 1989; Alexander Trevor’s brief technical history of CompuServe, which was first posted to Usenet in 1988; interviews with Jeff Wilkins from the Internet History Podcast and Conquering Columbus.)

 
 

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