WHEN I FIRST looked at Prodigy a year ago, I concluded that the new on-line information service from Sears and IBM was a mile wide and an inch deep.
While it was easy to use and had snappy graphics, there just wasn't enough to keep most people interested, even at the bargain basement flat rate of $10 per month.
After two years of regional testing, Prodigy became available nationwide this month, and it's obvious that the company has put a lot of time and money into improvements.
In fact, Sears and IBM have invested half a billion dollars in their unique joint venture since its 1988 start-up.
Prodigy now claims 465,000 subscribers. The membership is likely to swell quickly, if not permanently, over the next few months as IBM brings its new PS/1 home computer system to market. The computer, sold through retailers and department stores, comes with a modem and a Prodigy trial subscription.
For people who have PCs, Prodigy start-up kits with one-month trial subscriptions are available for IBM-compatibles and Apple Macintosh computers wherever software is sold. The list price is $179.95 with a 2400-baud modem or $49.95 for the software only.
While on-line services such as Compuserve, Genie and the Dow Jones News and Information Service have been around for years, their membership is largely composed of experienced computer users.
They require subscribers to master an arcane command language to get access to their news, stock reports, games, weather, shopping, electronic mail and computer support groups.
They also make their money by charging subscribers connect-time fees that range from $5 to $35 an hour.
Prodigy is unique in that it was designed from the start to be a yupscale, mass-market product. Prodigy hopes time-pressed families will use the service to get their news and financial information, pay their bills electronically, buy stocks and order everything from stereo sets to lingerie from an impressive array of on-line advertisers.
You don't have to be a hacker or telecommunications expert to get to Prodigy. The software is easy to install and use.
Once you're on-line, colorful graphic screens display simple menus that take you quickly from one feature to another.
And the price is dirt cheap -- a flat monthly fee ranging from $9.95 to $12.95, no matter how long you stay connected. The true cost, theoretically, is subsidized by the on-line advertisers.
The new Prodigy software is faster than the old version, and the text display is better.
Prodigy's news services are still "nugget" oriented -- predigested summaries of headline events that make USA Today look positively weighty. But the offerings now include local and regional events.
There are local restaurant reviews, columns on art, boats, cars, photography, entertainment, financial matters, politics, gardening and computers. You can check the latest sports scores, get team statistics and a look at next Sunday's NFL point spreads. Electronic mail also has been improved.
You can get a 15-minute delayed quote on any stock, bond or mutual fund, or build a list of up to 30 securities for daily updates. But the information is sketchy compared to offerings from the older and more expensive services, and you can't store it on your disk for use in spreadsheets or database programs. It's definitely not the place for serious investors.
A welcome addition, particularly for kids, is the Academic American Encyclopedia. It's easy to look up information on any subject and send it to your printer. Other services charge as much as $50 a year for encyclopedia access, plus connect time.
In fact, kids will love Prodigy. There are on-line games, quizzes and educational features. My 11-year-old, whose religion prohibits reading instruction manuals, got the hang of it in about 10 minutes. He rated Prodigy "pretty cool." As far as I can discern, this falls somewhere between "rad" and "totally awesome."
If you're a traveler, Prodigy's version of American Airlines' Eaasy Sabre schedule and reservation service could be worth the price of admission by itself. Airline reservation systems are notoriously difficult to master, but Prodigy's menu-driven interface makes it a snap to find the cheapest fare and book your tickets.
All things considered, Prodigy now offers a lot more value for the money than it did a year ago. It's still not very deep. If you want in-depth news or financial analysis -- and you're willing to pay for it -- you'll find the other services more rewarding. But for casual users, Prodigy is cheap and fun.