RSS

Tag Archives: aol

Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 3: The Persistent Multiplayer CRPG

Black Dragon, CompuServe’s first CRPG, was popular enough that the service sold tee-shirts.

The first CRPG to go online with CompuServe was also one of the first entirely original games to appear on the service, following the initial glut of institutional-computing refugees. Black Dragon, written by a programmer of telephone switching systems named Bob Maples, was at bottom a simplified version of Wizardry — not a hugely surprising state of affairs, given that it made its debut in 1981, at the height of the Wizardry craze. The player created a character — just one, not a full party as in Wizardry — and then began a series of expeditions into the game’s ten-level labyrinth, fighting monsters, collecting equipment and experience, and hopefully penetrating a little deeper with each outing. Only the character’s immediate surroundings were described on the scrolling, text-only display, so careful mapping became every bit as critical as it was in Wizardry. The ultimate goal, guaranteed to consume many hours — not to mention a small fortune in connection charges — was to kill Asmodeus, the black dragon of the title, who lurked down on the tenth level. Any player who managed to accomplish that feat and escape back to the surface was rewarded by seeing her name along with her character’s immortalized on the game’s public wall of fame.

Those bragging rights aside, Black Dragon had no multiplayer aspect at all, which might lead one to ask why its players didn’t just pick up a copy of Wizardry instead; doing so would certainly have been cheaper in the long run. But the fact is that not every CompuServe subscriber’s computer could run Wizardry in those early days. Certainly Black Dragon proved quite popular as the first CompuServe game of its kind. Sadly lost to history now, it has been described by some of its old players as far more cleverly designed than its bare-bones presentation and its willingness to unabashedly ride Wizardry‘s coattails might lead one to believe.

Black Dragon‘s success told Bill Louden, the “games guy” at CompuServe, that subscribers had a taste for this sort of experience. In 1982 a second, somewhat more sophisticated single-player CRPG went up. Known as Dungeons of Kesmai, it was, as the name would imply, another work of the indefatigable John Taylor and Kelton Flinn — i.e., Kesmai, the programmers also responsible for CompuServe’s MegaWars III and, a bit later, for GEnie’s Air Warrior. Like so many of CompuServe’s staple games, both Black Dragon and Dungeons of Kesmai would remain on the service for an absurdly long time, until well into the 1990s.


But more ambitious games as well would come down the pipe well before then. A few years later after these first single-player online CRPGs debuted, CompuServe made the leap to multiplayer virtual worlds. As we’ve already seen in my previous article, MUD washed up from British shores in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends, bringing with it the idea of the multiplayer text adventure as virtual world. Yet even before that happened, in December of 1985, the CRPG genre had already made the same leap thanks to still another creation from Kesmai: Island of Kesmai.

Taylor and Flinn had originally hoped to make Dungeons of Kesmai something akin to the game which Island would later become, but that project had been cut back to a single-player game when Bill Louden deemed it simply too ambitious for such an early effort. Undaunted, Kesmai treated Dungeons as something of a prototype for their real vision for a multiplayer CRPG and just kept plugging away. They never saw nor heard of MUD when developing the more advanced game, meaning that said game’s innovations, which actually hew much closer than MUD to the massively-multiplayer games to come, were all its own.

Island of Kesmai demonstrated just how far games’ presentation had come on CompuServe in the four years of creeping advancement that had followed Black Dragon. While it was still limited to text and crude character graphics, the latest terminal protocols did allow it to make use of color, and to divide the screen into quadrants dedicated to different purposes: a status “window” showing the state of the player’s character, a pseudo-graphical overhead view of the character’s surroundings, a text area for descriptions of the environment, a command line for the player to issue orders. Island of Kesmai looked like a roguelike, a genre of hardcore tactical CRPG that was a bigger favorite with hackers than with commercial game developers. This roguelike, however, was a multiplayer game set in a persistent world, and that changed everything.

Island of Kesmai used the ASCII graphics typical of roguelikes. Here “>” represents the player’s character; “A” is a monster; “B” is another player’s character; “@@” is a spider web; and “$” is a treasure or other item. The brackets are walls, while “–” represents a closed door and “/” an open one.

As with British Legends, up to 100 players could share Island of Kesmai‘s persistent world at the same time. Yet Kesmai’s creation was a far more coherent, far more designed experience than the cheerful insanity that was life on MUD. Players chose a class for their characters, along with an alignment, a gender, and even a land of origin. As befitted the game’s grounding in CRPG rather than text-adventure tradition, combat was a far more elaborate and tactical affair than in MUD. You had to reckon with the position of your character and your opponents; had to worry about initiative and fatigue; could be stunned or poisoned or even fumble your weapon. The magic system, too, was far more advanced and subtle than MUD‘s handful of ad-hoc spells that had often been added as much for comedic value as anything else.

The Island that gave the game its name was divided into five regions, comprising in total some 62,000 discrete locations, over which roamed some 2500 creatures in addition to one’s fellow players. The game was consciously designed to support differing levels of player engagement. “A person can play casually or seriously,” said Ben Shih, a “scenario designer” hired by Kesmai to continue evolving the game. “He or she can relax and take out frustrations on a few goblins or unwind by joining other players in hunting bear and griffin. But to become a superstar, a ‘mega-character,’ takes time.”

Ben Shih, John Taylor, and Kelton Flinn of Kesmai.

Scenario designers like Shih added content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh even for veteran players, sometimes giving a unique artifact to the first player to complete a new quest. Kelton Flinn was still excited about adding new stuff to the game three years after it had first gone online:

We don’t feel we’re designing games. We’re designing simulations. We create a world and then we let the players roam around in it. Of course, we’re always adding to our view of the world, fiddling with things all the time, creating new treasures, making things work better. I suppose at some point you have to call a halt and say, “Let’s see if we want to make a clean break and try something bigger.” But we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For all the changes the game went through, the ultimate achievement in Island of Kesmai remained always to kill the dragon, the toughest monster in the game. Players who did so were rewarded with everlasting fame as part of the true elite. As for the dragon: he of course re-spawned in a few days’ time, ready to serve as fodder for the next champion.

Those who hoped to do well were almost forced to buy the 181-page manual for the game, available for the low, low price of $16.50 directly from CompuServe. A rather stunning percentage of the elements described therein would still ring true to any World of Warcraft player of today. There was, for instance, a questing system, a ladder of challenges offering ever greater rewards in return for surviving ever greater dangers. Even those looking for an equivalent to the endless stream of World of Warcraft expansions can find it with Island of Kesmai. In 1988, Kesmai opened up the new lands of Torii and Annwn, filled with “more powerful weapons, tougher monsters, and a variety of treasures.” Advanced players were allowed to travel there only after their characters had hit the old Island’s level cap, and weren’t allowed to return again after they passed through the magic portal, lest they wreak havoc among the less powerful monsters and characters they once left behind.

While play on the Island was much more structured than it was in The Land of MUD, it was still the other players who really made the game what it was. Taylor and Flinn went into the project understanding that, and even anticipating to an extraordinary degree the shape of virtual societies to come. “We fully expect that a political system will evolve,” said Taylor upon the game’s launch, “and someone may even try to proclaim himself King of Kesmai.” Much of the design was put in place to emphasize the social aspect of the game. For example, a conference room was provided for strategizing and conspiring, and many quests were deliberately designed to require the cooperation of several characters. The verbiage adopted by players in relation to the quest system still rings true to modern ears. For example, a verb was coined for those loners determined to undertake quests on their own: to “solo.”

Although player-versus-player combat was allowed, it was restricted to specific areas of the Island; an attempt to attack another character in a “civilized” area, such as the town where new players began their adventures, would be met by the Sheriff, an invincible non-player character guaranteed to grind the brawniest hero into dust. Alignment also played a role: a karma meter kept track of players’ actions. Actions like assault or theft would gradually turn a good character neutral, then finally evil. The last alignment was highly undesirable from many perspectives, not least in that it would prevent you from entering the town, with its shops, bars, and trainers.

And there were still other mechanisms for discouraging the veterans from tormenting the newbies in the way so many MUD players so enjoyed. Players were urged to report griefers who preyed excessively upon newbies, even if they only did so in the dungeons and other “uncivilized” areas where player-versus-player combat was technically allowed. If enough people lodged complaints against them, the griefers might find themselves visited by the wrath of the “ghods of Kesmai,” the game’s administrators — the alternate spelling was used so as not to offend the religious — who might take away experience points, steal back their precious magic items, or just smite them dead as punishment. The game thus tended to foster a less cutthroat, more congenial atmosphere than MUD, with most players preferring to band together against the many monsters rather than fight with one another.

A journalist from the magazine Compute’s Gazette shared this tale of his own almost unbelievably positive first encounter with another player in the game:

I desperately wish I could afford to buy a few bottles of balm sold by the vendor here in the nave, but at 16 gold pieces each they are far above my limited budget. Another player walks in from the square. “Hello, Cherp!” she says, looking at me. Taking a close look at her, I recognize Lynn, a middle-aged female fighter from my home country of Mnar.

“Howdy to you. Are you headed down into the dungeon? I’ve just arrived and this is my first trip down,” I tell her.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I was headed down, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to hunt where I’ll be going. Do you have any balm yet?” she asks as she stands next to the balm vendor.

“No, I haven’t got the gold to afford it,” I say hesitantly.

“No problem. I have a few extra pieces. Come and get them.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. Lynn drops some gold on the ground, and we wait as the vendor takes the gold and drops the balm bottles for us. I pick up the bottles and add them to my meager possessions.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I say. “Is there some way I can repay you? Perhaps we could meet here again later and I could give you some balms in return.”

“No,” she laughs, “I have no need of them. Just remember there are always other players who are just starting out. They may find themselves in the same position you are in now. Try to lend them a hand when you are sufficiently strong.”

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I will just note one more time that this attitude stands in marked contrast to the newbie-tormenting that the various incarnations of MUD always seemed to engender. At least one player of Island of Kesmai so distinguished himself through his knowledge of the game and his sense of community spirit that he was hired by Kesmai to design new challenges and serve as a community liaison — a wiz mode of a different and much more lucrative stripe.

But the community spirit of Island of Kesmai at its finest is perhaps best exemplified by Valis, one of the game’s most accomplished players. This online CRPG was actually the first RPG of any stripe he had ever managed to enjoy, despite attending university during the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad: “I could never get into sitting around eating crackers and cheese doodles and arguing for twelve hours at a time. I can do as much in a half hour in Island of Kesmai as they did in twelve hours.” Valis became the first person to exhaustively map the entire Island, uploading the results to the service’s file libraries for the benefit of all. Further, he put together a series of beginners classes for those new to what could be a very daunting game. CompuServe’s hapless marketers advertised his efforts as an “escort service,” a name which perhaps didn’t convey quite the right impression.

We think we’ve come up with the perfect way of teaching a beginners class. We spend an hour or so in the conference area with a lecture and questions. Then we go on a “field trip” to the Island itself. I lead the beginners onto the Island, where we encounter a few things and look for some treasure. That usually is enough to get them started.

In many respects, the personal stories that emerged from Island of Kesmai will ring very familiar to anyone who’s been reading my recent articles, as they will to anyone familiar with the massively-multiplayer games of today. Carrie Washburn discovered the game in 1986, just after her son was born fourteen weeks premature. During the months the baby spent in intensive care, Island of Kesmai became the “link back to reality” for her and her husband. After spending the day at the hospital, they “would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through.” Of course, the escape wasn’t without cost: Washburn’s monthly CompuServe bill routinely topped $500, and once hit $2000. Later she divorced her husband and took to prancing around the Island as the uninhibited Lynn De’Leslie — “more of a slut, really” — until she met her second husband there. Her sentiments about it all echoed those expressed by the CB Simulator fraternity on another part of CompuServe: “One of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really known them. The entire relationship is built on talking.” (Appropriately enough for a talker, Washburn went on to find employment as the administrator of the Multiplayer Games Roundtable on GEnie.)

Kelton Flinn once called Island of Kesmai “about as complicated as a game can be on a commercial system.” Yet it deserves to be remembered for the thought that went into it even more than for its complexity. Almost every issue that designers of the massively-multiplayer games of today deal with was anticipated and addressed by Kesmai — sometimes imperfectly, yes, but then many of the design questions which swirl around the format have arguably still not been met with perfect answers even today. Incredibly, Island of Kesmai went online in December of 1985 with almost all of its checks and balances already in place, so thoroughly had its designers thought about what they were creating and where it would lead. To use Richard Bartle’s terminology from my previous article, Island of Kesmai was a “product” rather than a “program,” and it was all the better for it. While MUD strikes me as a pioneering work with an awful lot of off-putting aspects, such that I probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes if I’d stumbled into it as a player, Island of Kesmai still sounds like it must have been fantastic to play.

 

One big name in the field of single-player graphical CRPGs took note of what was going on on The Island quite early. In 1987, a decade before Ultima Online would take the games industry by storm, Richard Garriott and Origin Systems began doing more than just muse about the potential for a multiplayer Ultima. They assigned at least one programmer to work full-time on the technology that could enable just such a product. This multiplayer Ultima was envisioned on a more modest scale than the eventual Ultima Online or even the current Island of Kesmai. It was described by Garriot thus: “What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.” Despite the modest number of players the game would support and the apparent lack of plans for a persistent world, Origin did hold out the prospect of a partnership with CompuServe. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere. After 1987 the idea of a multiplayer Ultima was shelved for a long, long time; Origin presumably deemed it too much of a distraction from their bread-and-butter single-player CRPG franchise.

Another of the big single-player CRPG franchises, however, would make the leap — and not just to multiplayer but all way to a persistent virtual world like that of MUD or Island of Kesmai. Rather than running on the industry-leading CompuServe or even the gamer haven of GEnie, this pioneering effort would run on the nascent America Online.

Don Daglow was already a grizzled veteran of the games industry when he founded a development company called Beyond Software (no relation to the British company of the same name) in 1988. He had programmed games for fun on his university’s DEC PDP-10 in the 1970s, programmed them for money at Intellivision in the early 1980s, been one of the first producers at Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s — working on among other titles Thomas M. Disch’s flawed but fascinating text adventure Amnesia and the hugely lauded baseball simulation Earl Weaver Baseball — and finally came to spend some time in the same role at Brøderbund. At last, though, he had “got itchy” to do something that would be all his own. Beyond was his way of scratching that itch.

Thanks to Daglow’s industry connections, Beyond hit the ground running, establishing solid working relationships with two very disparate companies: Quantum Computer Services, who owned and operated America Online, and the boxed-game publisher SSI. Daglow actually signed on with the former the day after forming his company, agreeing to develop some simple games for their young online service which would prove to be the very first Beyond games to see the light of day. Beyond’s relationship with the latter would lead to the publication of another big-name-endorsed baseball simulation: Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball, which would sell an impressive 85,684 copies, thereby becoming SSI’s most successful game to date that wasn’t an entry in their series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons games.

As it happened, though, Beyond’s relationship with SSI also came to encompass that license in fairly short order. They contracted to create some new Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs, using the  popular but aging Gold Box engine which SSI had heretofore reserved for in-house titles; the Beyond games were seen by SSI as a sort of stopgap while their in-house staff devoted themselves to developing a next-generation CRPG engine. Beyond’s efforts on this front would result in a pair of titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier, before the disappointing sales of the latter told both parties that the jig was well and truly up for the Gold Box engine.

By Don Daglow’s account, the first graphical multiplayer CRPG set in a persistent world was the product of a fortunate synergy between the work Beyond was doing for AOL and the work they were doing for SSI.

I realized that I was doing online games with AOL and I was doing Dungeons & Dragons games with SSI. Nobody had done a graphical massively-multiplayer online game yet. Several teams had tried, but nobody had succeeded in shipping one. I looked at that, and said, “Wait, I know how to do this because I understand how the Dungeons & Dragons system works on the one hand, and I understand how online works on the other.” I called up Steve Case [at AOL], and Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel at SSI, and said, “If you guys want to give it a shot, I can give you a graphical MMO, and we can be the first to have it.”

The game was christened Neverwinter Nights. “Neverwinter” was the area of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting which TSR, makers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, had carved out for Beyond to set their games; the two single-player Savage Frontier games were also set in the region. The “Nights,” meanwhile, was a sly allusion to the fact that AOL — and thus this game — was only available on nights and weekends, when the nation’s telecommunications lines could be leased relatively cheaply.

Neverwinter Nights had to be purchased as a boxed game before players could start paying AOL’s connection fees to actually play it. It looked almost indistinguishable from any other Gold Box title on store shelves — unless one noticed the names of America Online and Quantum Computer Services in the fine print.

On the face of it, Neverwinter Nights was the ugliest of kludges. Beyond took SSI’s venerable Gold Box engine, which had never been designed to incorporate multiplayer capabilities, and grafted exactly those capabilities onto it. At first glance, the end result looked the same as any of the many other Gold Box titles, right down to the convoluted interface that had been designed before mice were standard equipment on most computers. But when you started to look closer, the differences started to show. The player now controlled just one character instead of a full party; parties were formed by multiple players coming together to undertake a quest. To facilitate organizing and socializing, a system for chatting with other players in the same map square had been added. And, in perhaps the trickiest and certainly the kludgiest piece of the whole endeavor, the turn-based Gold Box engine had been converted into a pseudo-real-time proposition that worked just well enough to make multiplayer play possible.

It made for a strange hybrid to say the least — one which Richard Bartle for one dismisses as “innovative yet flawed.” Yet somehow it worked. After launching the game in June of 1991 with a capacity of 100 simultaneous players, Beyond and AOL were soon forced by popular demand to raise this number to 500, thus making Neverwinter Nights the most populous virtual world to go online to date. And even at that, there were long lines of players during peak periods waiting for others to drop out of the game so they could get into it, paying AOL’s minute-by-minute connection fee just to stand in the queue.

While players and would-be players of online CRPGs had undoubtedly been dreaming of the graphics which Neverwinter Nights offered for a long time, smart design was perhaps equally important to the game’s long-term popularity. To an even greater degree than Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights strove to provide a structure for play. Don Daglow had been interested in online gaming for a long time, had played just about all of what was available, and had gone into this project with a clear idea of exactly what sort of game he wanted Neverwinter Nights to be. It was emphasized from the get-go that this was not to be a game of direct player-versus-player conflict. In fact, Beyond went even Kesmai one better in this area, electing not just to ban such combat from certain parts of the game but to ban it entirely. Neverwinter Nights was rather to be a game of cooperation and friendly competition. Players would meet on the town’s central square, form themselves into adventuring parties, and be assigned quests by a town clerk — shades of the much-loved first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance — to kill such-and-such a monster or recover such-and-such a treasure. Everyone in the party would then share equally in the experience and loot that resulted. Even death was treated relatively gently: characters would be revived in town minus all of the stuff they had been toting along with them, but wouldn’t lose the armor, weapons, and magic items they had actually been using — much less lose their lives permanently, as happened in MUD.

One player’s character has just cast feeblemind on another’s, rendering him “stupid.” This became a sadly typical sight in the game.

Beyond’s efforts to engender the right community spirit weren’t entirely successful; players did find ways to torment one another. While player characters couldn’t attack one another physically, they could cast spells at one another — a necessary capability if a party’s magic-using characters were to be able to cast “buffing” spells on the fighters before and during combat. A favorite tactic of the griefers was to cast the “feeblemind” spell several times in succession on the newbies’ characters, reducing their intelligence and wisdom scores to the rock bottom of 3, thus making them for all practical purposes useless. One could visit a temple to get this sort of thing undone, but that cost gold the newbies didn’t have. By most accounts, there was much more of this sort of willful assholery in Neverwinter Nights than there had been in Island of Kesmai, notwithstanding the even greater lengths Beyond had gone to prevent it. Perhaps it was somehow down to the fact that Neverwinter Nights was a graphical game — however crude the graphics were even by the standards of the game’s own time — that led to it attracting a greater percentage of such immature players.

Griefers aside, though, Neverwinter Nights had much to recommend it, as well as plenty of players happy to play it in the spirit Beyond had intended. Indeed, the devotion the game’s most hardcore players displayed remains legendary to this day. They formed themselves into guilds, using that very word for the first time to describe such aggregations. They held fairs, contests, performances, and the occasional wedding. And they started at least two newsletters to keep track of goings-on in Neverwinter. Some issues have been preserved by dedicated fans, allowing us today a glimpse into a community that was at least as much about socializing and role-playing as monster-bashing. The first issue of News of the Realm, for example, tells us that Cyric has just become a proud father in the real world; that Vulcan and Dramia have opened their own weapons shop in the game; that Cold Chill the notorious bandit has shocked everyone by recognizing the errors of his ways and becoming good; that the dwarves Nystramo and Krishara are soon to hold their wedding — or, as dwarves call it, their “Hearth Building.” Clearly there was a lot going on in Neverwinter.

The addition of graphics would ironically limit the lifespan of many an online game; while text is timeless, computer graphics, especially in the fast-evolving 1980s and 1990s, had a definite expiration date. Under the circumstances, Neverwinter Nights had a reasonably long run, remaining available for six years on AOL. Over the course of that period online life and computer games both changed almost beyond recognition. Already looking pretty long in the tooth when Neverwinter Nights made its debut in 1991, the Gold Box engine by 1997 was a positive antique.

Despite the game’s all-too-obvious age, AOL’s decision to shut it down in July of 1997 was greeted with outrage by its rabid fan base, some of whom still nurse a strong sense of grievance to this day. But exactly how large that fan base still was by 1997 is a little uncertain. The Neverwinter Nights community insisted (and continues to insist) that the game was as popular as ever, making the claim from uncertain provenance that AOL was still making good money from it. Richard Bartle makes the eye-popping claim today, also without attribution, that it was still bringing in fully $5 million per year. Yet the reality remains that this was an archaic MS-DOS game at a time when software in general had largely completed the migration to Windows. It was only getting more brittle as it fell further and further behind the times. Just two months after the plug was pulled on Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online debuted, marking the beginning of the modern era of massively-multiplayer CRPGs as we’ve come to know them today. Neverwinter Nights would have made for a sad sight in any direct comparison with Ultima Online. It’s understandable that AOL, never an overly games-focused service to begin with, would want to get out while the getting was good.

Even in its heyday, when the land of Neverwinter was stuffed to its 500-player capacity every night and more players were lining up outside, its popularity was never all that great in the grand scheme of the games industry; that very capacity limit if nothing else saw to that. Nevertheless, its place in gaming lore as a storied pioneer was such that Bioware chose to revive the name in 2002 in the form of a freestanding boxed CRPG with multiplayer capabilities. That version of Neverwinter Nights was played by many, many times more people than the original — and yet it could never hope to rival its predecessor’s claim to historical importance.

The massively-multiplayer online CRPGs that would follow the original Neverwinter Nights would be slicker, faster, in some ways friendlier, but the differences would be of degree, not of kind. MUD, Island of Kesmai, and Neverwinter Nights between them had invented a genre, going a long way in the process toward showing any future designers who happened to be paying attention exactly what worked there and what didn’t. All that remained for their descendants to do was to popularize it, to make it easier and cheaper and more convenient to lose oneself in a shared virtual world of the fantastic.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsey; Online Today of February 1986, April 1986, August 1986, June 1987, January 1988, August 1988, September 1988, and February 1989; Computer Gaming World of June/July 1986; The Gamers Connection of September/October 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of July 1989; Compute! of November 1991; the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Barbara Baser’s Black Dragon walkthrough, as preserved by Arthur J. O’Dwyer; “The Game Archaeologist Discovers the Island of Kesmai” from Engadget. Readers may also be interested in the CRPG Addict’s more experiential impression of playing Neverwinter Nights offline — and be sure to check out the comments to that article for some memories of old players.)

 
24 Comments

Posted by on December 22, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.)

 
13 Comments

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

 

Tags: , , ,

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.)

 
24 Comments

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

 

Tags:

A Net Before the Web, Part 1: The Establishment Man and the Magnificent Rogue

On July 9, 1979, journalists filtered into one of the lavish reception halls in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel to witness the flashy roll-out of The Source, an online service for home-computer owners that claimed to be the first of its kind. The master of ceremonies was none other than the famous science-fiction and science-fact writer Isaac Asimov. With his nutty-professor persona in full flower, his trademark mutton-chop sideburns bristling in the strobe of the flashbulbs, Asimov said that “this is the beginning of the Information Age! By the 21st century, The Source will be as vital as electricity, the telephone, and running water.”

Actually, though, The Source wasn’t quite the first of its kind. Just eight days before, another new online service had made a more quiet official debut. It was called MicroNET, and came from an established provider of corporate time-shared computing services called CompuServe. MicroNET got no splashy unveiling, no celebrity spokesman, just a typewritten announcement letter sent to members of selected computer users groups.

The contrast between the two roll-outs says much about the men behind them, who between them would come to shape much of the online world of the 1980s and beyond. They were almost exactly the same age as one another, but cut from very different cloths. Jeff Wilkins, the executive in charge of CompuServe, could be bold when he felt it was warranted, but his personality lent itself to a measured, incremental approach that made him a natural favorite with the conservative business establishment. “The changes that will come to microcomputing because of computer networks will be evolutionary in nature,” he said just after launching MicroNET. Even after Wilkins left CompuServe in 1985, it would continue to bear the stamp of his careful approach to doing business for many years.

But William Von Meister, the man behind The Source and its afore-described splashier unveiling, preferred revolutions to evolutions. He was high-strung, mercurial, careless, sometimes a little unhinged. Described as a “magnificent rogue” by one acquaintance, as a “pathological entrepreneur” by another, he made businesses faster than he made children — of whom, being devoted to excess in all its incarnations, he had eight. His businesses seldom lasted very long, and when they did survive did so without him at their helm, usually after he had been chased out of them in a cloud of acrimony and legal proceedings. A terrible businessman by most standards, he could nevertheless “raise money from the dead,” as one investor put it, thereby moving on to the next scheme while the previous was still going down in flames. Still, whatever else you could say about him, Bill von Meister had vision. Building the online societies of the future would require cockeyed dreamers like him just as much as it would sober tacticians like Jeff Wilkins.


Had an anonymous salesman who worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in 1968 been slightly less good at his job, CompuServe would most likely never have come to be.

The salesman in question had been assigned to a customer named John Goltz, fresh out of the University of Arizona and working now in Columbus, Ohio, for a startup. But lest the word “startup” convey a mistaken impression of young men with big dreams out to change the world, Silicon Valley-style, know that this particular startup lived within about the most unsexy industry imaginable: life insurance. No matter; from Goltz’s perspective anyway the work was interesting enough.

He found himself doing the work because Harry Gard, the founder of the freshly minted Golden United Life Insurance, wanted to modernize his hidebound industry, at least modestly, by putting insurance records online via a central computer which agents in branch offices could all access. He had first thought of giving the job to his son-in-law Jeff Wilkins, an industrious University of Arizona alumnus who had graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and now ran a successful burglar-alarm business of his own in Tucson. “The difference between electrical engineering and computing didn’t occur to him,” remembers Wilkins. “I told him that I didn’t know anything about computing, but I had a friend who did.” That friend was John Goltz, whose degree in computer science made him the more logical candidate in Wilkins’s eyes.

Once hired, Goltz contacted DEC to talk about buying a PDP-9, a sturdy and well-understood machine that should be perfectly adequate for his new company’s initial needs. But our aforementioned fast-talking salesman gave him the hard up-sell, telling him about the cutting-edge PDP-10 he could lease for only “a little more.” Like the poor rube who walks into his local Ford dealership to buy a Focus and drives out in a Mustang, Goltz’s hacker heart couldn’t resist the lure of DEC’s 36-bit hot rod. He repeated the saleman’s pitch almost verbatim to his boss, and Gard, not knowing a PDP-10 from a PDP-9 from a HAL 9000, said fine, go for it. Once his dream machine was delivered and installed in a former grocery store, Goltz duly started building the online database for which he’d been hired.

The notoriously insular life-insurance market was, however, a difficult nut to crack. Orders came in at a trickle, and Goltz’s $1 million PDP-10 sat mostly idle most of the time. It was at this point, looking for a way both to make his computer earn its keep and to keep his employer afloat, that Goltz proposed that Golden United Life Insurance enter into the non-insurance business of selling time-shared computer cycles. Once again, Gard told him to go for it; any port in a storm and all that.

At the dawn of the 1970s, time-sharing was the hottest buzzword in the computer field. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, the biggest institutions in the United States — government bureaucracies, banks, automobile manufacturers and other heavy industries — had all gradually been computerized via hulking mainframes that, attended by bureaucratic priesthoods of their own and filling entire building floors, chewed through and spat out millions of records every day. But that left out the countless smaller organizations who could make good use of computers but had neither the funds to pay for a mainframe’s care and upkeep nor a need for more than a small fraction of its vast computing power. DEC, working closely with university computer-science departments like that of MIT, had been largely responsible for the solution to this dilemma. Time-sharing, enabled by a new generation of multi-user, multitasking operating systems like DEC’s TOPS-10 and an evolving telecommunications infrastructure that made it possible to link up with computers from remote locations via dumb terminals, allowed computer cycles and data storage to be treated as a commodity. A business or other organization, in other words, could literally share time on a remote computer system with others, paying for only the cycles and storage they actually used. (If you think that all this sounds suspiciously like the supposedly modern innovation of “cloud computing,” you’re exactly right. In technology as in life, a surprising number of things are cyclical, with only the vocabulary changing.)

Jeff Wilkins

John Goltz possessed a keen technical mind, but he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to run the business side of Golden United’s venture into time-sharing. So, Harry Gard turned once again to his son-in-law. “I liked what I was doing in Arizona,” Jeff Wilkins says. “I enjoyed having my own company, so I really didn’t want to come out.” Finally, Gard offered him $1.5 million in equity, enough of an eye-opener to get him to consider the opportunity more seriously. “I set down the ground rules,” he says. “I had to have complete control.” In January of 1970, with Gard having agreed to that stipulation, the 27-year-old Jeff Wilkins abandoned his burglar-alarm business in Tuscon to come to Columbus and run a new Golden Life subsidiary which was to be called Compu-Serv.

With time-sharing all the rage in computer circles, it was a tough market they were entering. Wilkins remembers cutting his first bill to a client for all of $150, thinking all the while that it was going to take a lot of bills just like it to pay for this $1 million computer. But Compu-Serv was blessed with a steady hand in Wilkins himself and a patient backer with reasonably deep pockets in his father-in-law. Wilkins hired most of his staff out of big companies like IBM and Xerox. They mirrored their young but very buttoned-down boss, going everywhere in white shirt and tie, lending an aura of conservative professionalism that belied the operation’s small size and made it attractive to the business establishment. In 1972, Compu-Serv turned the corner into a profitability that would last for many, many years to come.

In the beginning, they sold nothing more than raw computer access; the programs that ran on the computers all had to come from the clients themselves. As the business expanded, though, Compu-Serv began to offer off-the-shelf software as well to suit the various industries they found themselves serving. They began, naturally enough, with the “Life Insurance Data Information System,” a re-purposing of the application Goltz had already built for Golden United. Expanding the reach of their applications from there, they cultivated a reputation as a full-service business partner rather than a mere provider of a commodity. Most importantly of all, they invested heavily into their own telecommunications infrastructure that existed in parallel with the nascent Internet and other early networks, using lines leased from AT&T and a system of routers — actually, DEC minicomputers running software of their own devising — for packet-switching. From their first handful of clients in and around Columbus, Compu-Serv thus spread their tendrils all over the country. They weren’t the cheapest game in town, but for the risk-averse businessperson looking for a full-service time-sharing provider with a fast and efficient network, they made for a very appealing package.

In 1975, Compu-Serv was spun off from the moribund Golden United Life Insurance, going public with a NASDAQ listing. Thus freed at last, the child quickly eclipsed the parent; the first stock split happened within a year. In 1977, Compu-Serv changed their name to CompuServe. By this point, they had more than two dozen offices spread through all the major metropolitan areas, and that one PDP-10 in a grocery store had turned into more than a dozen machines filling two data centers near Columbus. Their customer roll included more than 600 businesses. By now, even big business had long since come to see the economic advantages time-sharing offered in many scenarios. CompuServe’s customers included Fortune 100 giants like AMAX (the largest miner of aluminum, coal, and steel in the country), Goldman Sachs, and Owens Corning, along with government agencies like the Department of Transportation. “CompuServe is one of the best — if not the best — time-sharing companies in the country,” said AMAX’s director of research.

Inside one of CompuServe’s data centers.

The process that would turn this corporate data processor of the 1970s into the most popular consumer online service of the 1980s was born out of much the same reasoning that had spawned it in the first place. Once again, it all came down to precious computer cycles that were sitting there unused. To keep their clients happy, CompuServe was forced to make sure they had enough computing capacity to meet peak-hour demand. This meant that the majority of the time said capacity was woefully underutilized; the demand for CompuServe’s computer cycles was an order of magnitude higher during weekday working hours than it was during nights, evenings, and weekends, when the offices of their corporate clients were deserted. This state of affairs had always rankled Jeff Wilkins, nothing if not a lover of efficiency. Yet it had always seemed an intractable problem; it wasn’t as if they could ask half their customers to start working a graveyard shift.

Come 1979, though, a new development was causing Wilkins to wonder if there might in fact be a use for at least some of those off-hour cycles. The age of personal computing was in the offing. Turnkey microcomputers were now available from Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack. The last company alone was on track to sell more than 50,000 TRS-80s before the end of the year, and many more models from many more companies were in the offing. The number of home-computer hobbyists was still minuscule by any conventional standard, but it could, it seemed to Wilkins, only grow. Might some of those hobbyists be willing and able to dial in and make use of CompuServe’s dearly bought PDP-10 systems while the business world slept? If so, who knew what it might turn into?

It wasn’t as if a little diversity would be a bad thing. While CompuServe was still doing very well on the strength of their fine reputation — they would bill their clients for $19 million in 1979 — the time-sharing market in general was showing signs of softening. The primary impetus behind it — the sheer expense of owning one’s own computing infrastructure — was slowly bleeding away as minicomputers like the DEC PDP-11, small enough to shove away in a closet somewhere rather than requiring a room or a floor of its own, became a more and more cost-effective solution. Rather than a $1 million proposition, as it had been ten years ago, a new DEC system could now be had for as little $150,000. Meanwhile a new piece of software called VisiCalc — the first spreadsheet program ever, at least as the modern world understands that term — would soon show that even an early, primitive microcomputer could already replace a time-shared terminal hookup in a business’s accounting department. And once entrenched in that vital area, microcomputers could only continue to spread throughout the corporation.

Still, the consumer market for online services, if it existed, wasn’t worth betting CompuServe’s existing business model on. Wilkins entered this new realm, as he did most things, with cautious probity. The new service would be called MicroNET so as to keep it from damaging the CompuServe brand in the eyes of their traditional customers, whether because it became a failure or just because of the foray into the untidy consumer market that it represented. And it would be “market-driven” rather than “competition-driven.” In Wilkins’s terminology, this meant that they would provide some basic time-sharing infrastructure — including email and a bulletin board for exchanging messages, a selection of languages for writing and running programs, and a suite of popular PDP-10 games like Adventure and Star Trek — but would otherwise adapt a wait-and-see attitude on adding customized consumer services, letting the market — i.e., all those hobbyists dialing in from home — do what they would with the system in the meantime.

Even with all these caveats, he had a hard time selling the idea to his board, who were perfectly happy with the current business model, thank you very much, and who had the contempt for the new microcomputers and the people who used them that was shared by many who been raised on the big iron of DEC and IBM. They took to calling his idea “schlock time-sharing.”

Mustering all his powers of persuasion, Wilkins was able to overrule the naysayers sufficient to launch a closed trial. On May 1, 1979, CompuServe quietly offered free logins to any members of the Midwest Affiliation of Computer Clubs, headquartered right there in Columbus, who asked for them. With modems still a rare and pricey commodity, it took time to get MicroNET off the ground; Wilkins remembers anxiously watching the connectivity lights inside the data center during the evenings, and seeing them remain almost entirely dimmed. But then, gradually, they started blinking.

After exactly two months, with several hundred active members having proved to Wilkins’s satisfaction that a potential market existed, he made MicroNET an official CompuServe service, open to all. To the dissatisfaction of his early adopters, that meant they had to start paying: a $30 signup charge, followed by $5 per hour for evening and weekend access, $12 per hour if they were foolish enough to log on during the day, when CompuServe’s corporate clients needed the machines. To the satisfaction of Wilkins, most of his early adopters grumbled but duly signed up, and they were followed by a slow but steady trickle of new arrivals. The service went entirely unadvertised, news of its existence spreading among computer hobbyists strictly by word of mouth. MicroNET was almost literally nothing in the context of CompuServe’s business as a whole — it would account for roughly 1 percent of their 1979 revenue, less than heaps of their larger individual corporate accounts — yet it marked the beginning of something big, something even Wilkins couldn’t possibly anticipate.

But MicroNET didn’t stand alone. Even as one online service was getting started in about the most low-key fashion imaginable, another was making a much more high-profile entrance. It was fortunate that Wilkins chose to see MicroNET as “market-driven” rather than “competition-driven.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been happy to see his thunder being stolen by The Source.

Bill von Meister

Like Jeff Wilkins, Bill von Meister was 36 years old. Unlike Wilkins, he already had on his resume a long string of entrepreneurial failures to go along with a couple of major successes. An unapologetic epicurean with a love for food, wine, cars, and women, he had been a child not just of privilege but of aristocracy, his father a godson of the last German kaiser, his mother an Austrian countess. His parents had immigrated to New York in the chaos that followed World War I, when Germany and Austria could be uncomfortable places for wealthy royalty, and there his father had made the transition from landed aristocrat to successful businessman with rather shocking ease. Among other ventures, he became a pivotal architect of the storied Zeppelin airship service between Germany and the United States — although the burning of the Hindenburg did rather put the kibosh on that part of his portfolio, as it did passenger-carrying airships in general.

The son inherited at least some of the father’s acumen. Leveraging his familial wealth alongside an unrivaled ability to talk people into giving him money — one friend called him the best he’d ever seen at “taking money from venture capitalists, burning it all up, and then getting more money from the same venture capitalist” — the younger von Meister pursued idea after idea, some visionary, some terrible. By 1977, he had hit pay dirt twice already in his career, once when he created what was eventually branded as Western Union’s “Mailgram” service for sending a form of electronic mail well before computer email existed, once when he created a corporate telephone service called Telemax. Unfortunately, the money he earned from these successes disappeared as quickly as it poured in, spent to finance his high lifestyle and his many other, failed entrepreneurial projects.

Late in 1977, he founded Digital Broadcasting Corporation in Fairfax County, Virginia, to implement a scheme for narrow-casting digital data using the FM radio band. “Typical uses,” ran the proposal, “would include price information for store managers in a retail chain, bad-check information to banks, and policy information to agents of an insurance company.” Von Meister needed financing to bring off this latest scheme, and he needed a factory to build the equipment that would be needed. Luckily, a man who believed he could facilitate both called him one day in the spring of 1978 after reading a description of his plans in Business Week.

Jack Taub had made his first fortune as the founder of Scott Publishing, known for their catalogs serving the stamp-collecting hobby. Now, he was so excited by von Meister’s scheme that he immediately bought into Digital Broadcasting Corporation to the tune of $500,000 of much-needed capital, good for a 42.5 percent stake. But every bit as important as Taub’s personal fortune were the connections he had within the federal government. By promising to build a factory in the economically disadvantaged inner city of Charlotte, North Carolina, he convinced the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration to guarantee 90 percent of a $6 million bank loan from North Carolina National Bank, under a program meant to channel financing into job-creating enterprises.

Unfortunately, the project soon ran into serious difficulties with another government agency: the Federal Communications Commission, who noted pointedly that the law which had set aside the FM radio band had stipulated it should be reserved for applications “of interest to the public.” Using it to send private data, many officials at the FCC believed, wasn’t quite what the law’s framers had had in mind. And while the FCC hemmed and hawed, von Meister was fomenting chaos within the telecommunications and broadcasting industries at large by claiming his new corporation’s name gave him exclusive rights to the term “digital broadcasting,” a modest buzzword of its own at the time. His legal threats left a bad taste in the mouth of many a potential partner, and the scheme withered away under the enormous logistical challenges getting such a service off the ground must entail. The factory which the Commerce Department had so naively thought they were financing never opened, but Digital Broadcasting kept what remained of the money they had received for the purpose.

They now planned to use the money for something else entirely. Von Meister and Taub had always seen business-to-business broadcasting as only the first stage of their company’s growth. In the longer term, they had envisioned a consumer service which would transmit and even receive information — news and weather reports, television listings, shopping offers, opinion polls, etc. — to and from terminals located in ordinary homes. When doing all this over the FM radio band began to look untenable, they had cast about for alternative approaches; they were, after all, still flush with a fair amount of cash. It didn’t take them long to take note of all those TRS-80s and other home computers that were making their way into the homes of early adopters. Both Taub and von Meister would later claim to have been the first to suggest a pivot from digital broadcasting to a microcomputer-oriented online information utility. In the beginning, they called it CompuCom.

The most obvious problem CompuCom faced — its most obvious disadvantage in comparison to CompuServe’s MicroNET — was the lack of a telecommunications network of its own. Once again, both Taub and von Meister would later claim to have been the first to see the solution. One or the other or both took note of another usage inequality directly related to the one that had spawned MicroNET. Just as the computers of time-sharing services like CompuServe sat largely idle during nights and weekends, traffic on the telecommunications lines corporate clients used to connect to them was also all but nonexistent more than half of the time. Digital Broadcasting came to GTE Telenet with an offer to lease this idle bandwidth at a rate of 75¢ per connection per hour, a dramatically reduced price from that of typical business customers. GTE, on the presumption that something was better than nothing, agreed. And while they were making the deal to use the telecommunications network, von Meister and Taub also made a deal with GTE Telenet to run the new service on the computers in the latter’s data centers, using all that excess computing power that lay idle along with the telecommunications bandwidth on nights and weekends. Because they needed to build no physical infrastructure, von Meister and Taub believed that CompuCom could afford to be relatively cheap during off-hours; the initial pricing plan stipulated just $2.75 per hour during evenings and weekends, with a $100 signup fee and a minimum monthly charge of $10.

For all the similarities in their way of taking advantage of the time-sharing industry’s logistical quirks, not to mention their shared status as the pioneers of much of modern online life, there were important differences between the nascent MicroNET and CompuCom. From the first, von Meister envisioned his service not just as a provider of computer access but as a provider of content. The public-domain games that were the sum total of MicroNET’s initial content were only the beginning for him. Mirroring its creator, CompuCom was envisioned as a service for the well-heeled Playboy– and Sharper Image-reading technophile lounge lizard, with wine lists, horoscopes, entertainment guides for the major metropolitan areas, and an online shopping mall. In a landmark deal, von Meister convinced United Press International, one of the two providers of raw news wires to the nation’s journalistic infrastructure, to offer their feed through CompuCom as well — unfiltered, up-to-the-minute information of a sort that had never been available to the average consumer before. The New York Times provided a product-information database, Prentice Hall provided tax information, and Dow Jones provided a stock ticker. Von Meister contracted with the French manufacturer Alcatel for terminals custom-made just for logging onto CompuCom, perfect for those wanting to get in on the action who weren’t interested in becoming computer nerds in the process. For the same prospective customers, he insisted that the system, while necessarily all text given the state of the technology of the time, be navigable via multiple-choice menus rather than an arcane command line.

In the spring of 1979, just before the first trials began, CompuCom was renamed The Source; the former name sounded dangerously close to “CompuCon,” a disadvantage that was only exacerbated by the founder’s checkered business reputation. The service officially opened for business, eight days after MicroNET had done the same, with that July 9 press conference featuring Isaac Asimov and the considerable fanfare it generated. Indeed, the press notices were almost as ebullient as The Source’s own advertising, with the Wall Street Journal calling it “an overnight sensation among the cognoscenti of the computing world.” Graeme Keeping, a business executive who would later be in charge of the service but was at this time just another outsider looking in, had this to say about those earliest days:

The announcement was made with the traditional style of the then-masters of The Source. A lot of fanfare, a lot of pizazz, a lot of sizzle. There was absolutely no substance whatsoever to the announcement. They had nothing to back it up with.

Electronic publishing was in its infancy in those days. It was such a romantic dream that there never had to be a product in order to generate excitement. Nobody had to see anything real. People wanted it so badly, like a cure for cancer. We all want it, but is it really there? I equate it to Laetrile.

While that is perhaps a little unfair — there were, as we’ve just seen, several significant deals with content providers in place before July of 1979 — it was certainly true that the hype rather overwhelmed the comparatively paltry reality one found upon actually logging into The Source.

Nevertheless, any comparison of The Source and MicroNET at this stage would have to place the former well ahead in terms of ambition, vision, and public profile. That distinction becomes less surprising when we consider that what was a side experiment for Jeff Wilkins was the whole enchilada for von Meister and Taub. For the very same reason, any neutral observer forced to guess which of these two nascent services would rise to dominance would almost certainly have gone with The Source. Such a reckoning wouldn’t have accounted, however, for the vortex of chaos that was Bill von Meister.

It was the typical von Meister problem: he had built all this buzz by spending money he didn’t have — in fact, by spending so much money that to this day it’s hard to figure out where it could all possibly have gone. As of October of 1979, the company had $1000 left in the bank and $8 million in debt. Meanwhile The Source itself, despite all the buzz, had managed to attract at most a couple of thousand actual subscribers. It was, after all, still very early days for home computers in general, modems were an even more exotic species, and the Alcatel terminals had yet to arrive from France, being buried in some transatlantic bureaucratic muddle.

Jack Taub

By his own later account, Jack Taub had had little awareness over the course of the last year or so of what von Meister was doing with the company’s money, being content to contribute ideas and strategic guidance and let his partner handle day-to-day operations. But that October he finally sat down to take a hard look at the books. He would later pronounce the experience of doing so “an assault on my system. Von Meister is a terrific entrepreneur, but he doesn’t know when to stop entrepreneuring. The company was in terrible shape. It was not going to survive. Money was being spent like water.” With what he considered to be a triage situation on his hands, Taub delivered an ultimatum to von Meister. He would pay him $3140 right now — 1¢ for each of his shares — and would promise to pay him another dollar per share in three years if The Source was still around then. In return, von Meister would walk away from the mess he had created, escaping any legal action that might otherwise become a consequence of his gross mismanagement. According to Taub’s account, von Meister agreed to these terms with uncharacteristic meekness, leaving his vision of The Source as just one more paving stone on his boulevard of broken entrepreneurial dreams, and leaving Taub to get down to the practical business of saving the company. “I think if I had waited another week,” the latter would later say, “it would have been too late.”

As it was, Digital Broadcasting teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for months, with Taub scrambling to secure new lines of credit to keep the existing creditors satisfied and, when all else failed, injecting more of his own money into the company. Through it all, he still had to deal with von Meister, who, as any student of his career to date could have predicted, soon had second thoughts about going away quietly — if, that is, he’d ever planned to do so in the first place. Taub learned that von Meister had taken much of Digital Broadcasting’s proprietary technology out the door with him, and was now shopping it around the telecommunications industry; that sparked a lawsuit on Taub’s behalf. Von Meister claimed his ejection had been illegal; that sparked another, going in the opposite direction. Apparently concluding that his promise not to sue von Meister for his mismanagement of the company was thus nullified, Taub counter-sued with exactly that charge. With a vengeful von Meister on his trail, he said that he couldn’t afford to “sleep with both eyes closed.”

By March of 1980, The Source had managed to attract about 3000 subscribers, but the online citizens were growing restless. Many features weren’t quite as advertised. The heavily hyped nightlife guides, for instance, mostly existed only for the Washington Beltway, the home of The Source. The email system was down about half the time, and even when it was allegedly working it was anyone’s guess whether a message that was sent would actually be delivered. Failings like these could be attributed easily enough to the usual technical growing pains, but other complaints carried with them an implication of nefarious intent. The Source’s customers could read the business pages of the newspaper as well as anyone, and knew that Jack Taub was fighting for his company’s life on multiple fronts. In that situation, some customers reasoned, there would be a strong incentive to find ways to bill them just that little bit more. Thus there were dark accusations that the supposedly user-friendly menu system had been engineered to be as verbose and convoluted as possible in order to maximize the time users spent online just trying to get to where they wanted to go. On a 110- or 300-baud connection — for comparison purposes, consider that a good touch typist could far exceed the former rate — receiving all these textual menus could take considerable time, especially given the laggy response time of the system as a whole whenever more than a handful of people were logged on. And for some reason, a request to log off the system in an orderly way simply didn’t work most of the time, forcing users to break the connection themselves. After they did so, it would conveniently — conveniently for The Source’s accountants, that is — take the system five minutes or so to recognize their absence and stop charging them.

A sampling of the many error messages with which early users of The Source became all too familiar.

The accusations of nefarious intent were, for what it’s worth, very unlikely to have had any basis in reality. Jack Taub was a hustler, but he wasn’t a con man. On the contrary, he was earnestly trying to save a company whose future he deeply believed in. His biggest problem was the government-secured loan, on which Digital Broadcasting Corporation had by now defaulted, forcing the Commerce Department to pay $3.2 million to the National Bank of North Carolina. The government bureaucrats, understandably displeased, were threatening to seize his company and dismantle it in the hope of getting at least some of that money back. They were made extra motivated by the fact that the whole affair had leaked into the papers, with the Washington Post in particular treating it as a minor public scandal, an example of Your Tax Dollars at Waste.

Improvising like mad, Taub convinced the government to allow him to make a $300,000 down payment, and thereafter to repay the money he owed over a period of up to 22 years at an interest rate of just 2 percent. Beginning in 1982, the company, now trading as The Source Telecomputing Corporation rather than Digital Broadcasting Corporation, would have to repay either $50,000 or 10 percent of their net profit each year, whichever was greater; beginning in 1993, the former figure would rise to $100,000 if the loan still hadn’t been repaid. “The government got a good deal,” claimed Taub. “They get 100 cents on the dollar, and get their money back faster if I’m able to do something with the company.” While some might have begged to differ with his characterization of the arrangement as a “good deal,” it was, the government must have judged, the best it was likely to get under the circumstances. “The question is to work out some kind of reasonable solution where you recover something rather than nothing,” said one official familiar with the matter. “While it sounds like they’re giving it away, they already did that. They already made their mistake with the original loan.”

With the deal with the Commerce Department in place, Taub convinced The Readers Digest Association, publisher of the most popular magazine in the world, who were eager to get in on the ground floor of what was being billed in some circles as the next big thing in media, to buy 51 percent of The Source for $3 million in September of 1980, thus securing desperately needed operating capital. But when a judge ruled in favor of von Meister on the charge that he had been unlawfully forced out of the company shortly thereafter, Taub was left scrambling once again. He was forced to go back to Readers Digest, convincing them this time to increase their stake to 80 percent, leaving only the remaining 20 percent in his own hands. And with that second capital injection to hand, he convinced von Meister to lay the court battle to rest with a settlement check for $1 million.

The Source had finally attained a measure of stability, and Jack Taub’s extended triage could thus come to an end at last. Along the way, however, he had maneuvered himself out of his controlling interest and, soon, out of a job. Majority ownership having its privileges, Readers Digest elected to replace him with one of their own: Graeme Keeping, the executive who had lobbied hardest to buy The Source in the first place. “Any publisher today, if he doesn’t get into electronic publishing,” Keeping was fond of saying, “is either going to be forced into it by economic circumstances or will have great difficulty staying in the paper-and-ink business.”

The Source’s Prime computer systems, a millstone around their neck for years (although the monkey does seem to be enjoying them).

The Source may have found a safe harbor with one of the moneyed giants of American media, but it would never regain its early mojo. Keeping proved to be less than the strategic mastermind he believed himself to be, with a habit of over-promising and under-delivering — and, worse, of making terrible choices based on his own overoptimistic projections. The worst example of the tendency came early in his tenure, in the spring of 1981, when he was promising the New York Times he would have 60,000 subscribers by 1982. Determined to make sure he had the computing capacity to meet the demand, he cancelled the contract to use GTE Telenet’s computing facilities, opening his own data center instead and filling it with his own machines. At a stroke, this destroyed a key part of the logistical economies which had done so much to spawn The Source (and, for that matter, CompuServe’s MicroNET) in the first place. The Source’s shiny new computers now sat idle during the day with no customers to service. Come 1982, The Source had only 20,000 subscribers, and all those expensive computers were barely ticking over even at peak usage. This move alone cost The Source millions. Meanwhile, the deal with Alcatel for custom-made terminals having fallen through during the chaos of Taub’s tenure, Keeping made a new one with Zenith to make “a semi-intelligent terminal with a hole in the back through which you can turn it into a computer.” That impractical flight of fancy also came to naught, but not before costing The Source more money. Such failures led to Keeping’s ouster in June of 1982, to be replaced by another anodyne chief from the Readers Digest executive pool named George Grune.

Soon after, Control Data Corporation, a maker of supercomputers, bought a 30 percent share of The Source for a reported $5 million. But even this latest injection of capital, technical expertise, and content — Control Data would eventually move much of their pioneering Plato educational network onto the service — changed little. The Source went through three more chief executives in the next two years. The user roll continued to grow, finally reaching 60,000 in September of 1984 — some two and a half years after Graeme Keeping’s prediction, for those keeping score — but the company perpetually lost money, was perpetually about to turn the corner into mainstream acceptance and profitability but never actually did. Thanks not least to Keeping’s data-center boondoggle, the hourly rate for non-prime usage had risen to $7.75 per hour by 1984, making this onetime pioneer that now felt more and more like an also-ran a hard sell in terms of dollars and cents as well. Neither the leading name in the online-services industry nor the one with the deepest pockets — there were limits to Readers Digest’s largess — The Source struggled to attract third-party content. A disturbing number of those 60,000 subscribers rarely or never logged on, paying only the minimum monthly charge of $10. One analyst noted that well-heeled computer owners “apparently are willing to pay to have these electronic services available, even if they don’t use them regularly. From a business point of view, that’s a formula for survival, but not for success.”

The Source was fated to remain a survivor but never a real success for the rest of its existence. Back in Columbus, however, CompuServe’s consumer offering was on a very different trajectory. Begun in such a low-key way that Jeff Wilkins had refused even to describe it as being in competition with The Source, CompuServe’s erstwhile MicroNET — now re-branded as simply CompuServe, full stop — was going places of which its rival could only dream. Indeed, one might say it was going to the very places of which Bill von Meister had been dreaming in 1979.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein; Creative Computing of March 1980; InfoWorld of April 14 1980, May 26 1980, January 11 1982, May 24 1982, and November 5 1984; Wall Street Journal of November 6 1979; Online Today of July 1989; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980; The Intelligent Machines Journal of March 14 1979 and June 25 1979; Washington Post of May 11 1937, July 10 1978, February 10 1980, and November 4 1980; 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.)

 
 

Tags: ,