Passionate supporters and detractors

PRODIGY PROBLEMS

September 09, 1991|By Rick Ratliff | Rick Ratliff,Knight-Ridder News Service

WHITE PLAINS, N. Y. — White Plains, N.Y. Some words trigger strong emotions. Say "Prodigy" to a home computer user and the reaction could be either love or hate.

Some computer fans see the on-line service Prodigy as a convenient way to shop, play, communicate and get news over a personal computer. Others consider it a shallow, slow-running, glitzy service run by an oppressive bureaucracy.

"At first these controversies surprised us," said Prodigy spokesman Steve Hein. "Now it's clear we have active detractors versus active proponents."

Less than two years after Prodigy began, and just one year after it became available nationwide, this $1 billion joint venture of IBM and Sears claims to be the biggest on-line service in the United States. Although Prodigy boasts 1 million members, the number refers to users, not paid subscriptions, each of which may include several users in a household.

Like a personally customized on-line magazine, Prodigy mixes advertising and articles on the same screens. Prodigy also depends, like a magazine, on revenue from both advertising and circulation.

Unlike other, more text-intensive services, which typically charge the minute and may require a long-distance call, Prodigy is more colorful, graphics-laden and accessible through a local call for a monthly fee of about $10.

From the outset, spokesman Brian Ek said, the service aimed to mimic the convenience of a VCR or microwave oven. It was to appeal most to busy two-career couples and their children by projecting a warm, Disney-like image.

"We have a very clear idea of the audience we want to go after," Mr. Ek said. "They are not necessarily serious computer hobbyists. From the first, hobbyists told us the system is too slow, too shallow and too simple. If we had done everything for that early group it would have been a far different service."

Prodigy, whose aggressive marketing includes television commercials, says its users are affluent and very well educated. Two-thirds of all subscribers graduated from college, and almost half have household incomes of more than $75,000 a year.

Some users are effusive. Jay Uler, 48, a Ford truck planner who lives in Farmington, Mich., said after a year of using Prodigy that he can't imagine living without it. A veteran of on-line services, he uses Prodigy to do banking, buy Christmas presents and manage his stock portfolio.

"Prodigy appeals more to normal people like me who aren't computer buffs," Mr. Uler said. "I send messages to friends around the country, friends in Denver, Florida or other parts of Michigan. It's neat."

But from the first, the service went in directions its creators had not foreseen. Increasingly, Prodigy is a window on the world for the disabled. An Oregon firm recently created a voice device that can read Prodigy screens to the blind.

Though not marketed toward educators, Prodigy also is increasingly found on computers in school libraries and classrooms. Children use Prodigy to communicate with nursing home residents in an adopt-a-grandparent program in New Jersey.

"We have a special relationship between the users and the service," Mr. Hein said. "If we keep a member happy, great. But if the relationship fails, they get really mad at us."

So much for that warm and fuzzy image. Prodigy's detractors say it is the product of a snoopy, inflexible bureaucracy that likes to stifle free expression and chisel its subscribers.

Some critics have claimed that during a connection with Prodigy, the service may be able to view the user's computer, taking stock of the programs on the system's hard-disk drive. It's a charge the Prodigy Service denies, though some corporations reportedly have ordered employees not to run Prodigy on company machines.

"The only thing in the user's computer we ever do anything with is the Prodigy software," Mr. Hein said. "We don't look at anything else. We don't update anything else."

That, however, was just one of many controversies in which Prodigy has been mired. Last fall, the service canceled an on-line bulletin board that dealt with gay rights issues because, said Mr. Hein, it was one of the least-read features in the system. In the ensuing uproar, Prodigy was attacked for suppressing messages that ran counter to its family-oriented image.

A few weeks later, Prodigy announced it would begin charging users 25 cents per message if they mailed more than 30 private messages a month. Prodigy officials complain too many users were using the personal messaging function to make mass mailings for their businesses. Dissidents termed it an act to stifle free expression and said it put the lie to the service's flat-rate guarantee.

Detractors say Prodigy is far too restrictive in the kinds of bulletins and numbers of messages it allows members to post. They mock Prodigy as having shallow pools of information all but hidden by mounds of razzle-dazzle graphics.

The service attempts to shrug it off. Mr. Hein said, "It goes to show how much commotion a relatively small group could make."

But Penelope Hay, a Los Angeles artist and writer who leads the anti-Prodigy group known as the Cooperative Defense Committee, says dissatisfaction with Prodigy runs broad and deep. She estimates that more than 20,000 people canceled their subscriptions soon after the message-charging issue got hot.

"The promise of Prodigy was that it would put America on-line," she said. "That was a great idea. What Prodigy underestimated jTC was the effect a restrictive, chilling, insulting, hand-slapping atmosphere has on a user."

Through it all, one set of Prodigy clients has been happy, according to Senior Vice President Ross Glatzer. "We have very few dissatisfied advertisers," he said.

Prodigy headquarters fills a building in White Plains, N.Y. Its 1,000 employees inhabit all but a tiny portion of the 15-story structure.

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