AOL vs. CompuServe over the years

Your computer

September 14, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

IMAGINE that you're a connoisseur of fine foods. One night you walk into your favorite French restaurant and learn that it's been taken over by McDonalds.

"Do not fear," says the new maitre d', whose tuxedo sports a name tag that says "Ronald."

"We will continue to provide the finest French cuisine. And, oh yes, would you like ketchup on your MacPommes-de-terre frites?"

If you're a bit queasy at the thought of this, you have some idea of the revulsion that swept through the ranks of CompuServe's subscribers when they learned that their beloved service had been acquired by America Online. The complex deal brings an additional 2.6 million users under the umbrella of AOL, which can now boast "more than 11 million served."

But the question is whether CompuServe's users will stick around long enough to find out whether AOL President Steve Case was sincere when he promised to maintain CompuServe as a distinct, upscale alternative.

As a longtime subscriber to AOL and CompuServe, I have mixed feelings. I check in on both from time to time, but as far as personal preferences go, AOL is where my kids chat with their friends, and CompuServe is where I go to conduct business.

Many of CompuServe's subscribers are longtimers like me, people who first logged on in the early 1980s when it was a hangout for computer enthusiasts, scientists and engineers. CompuServe also became popular with assorted professionals willing to pay a premium for enhanced news feeds and extensive databases of financial and medical information.

And, over the years, the service developed a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its forums.

Another plus has been CompuServe's reliability. The service, as part of the H&R Block financial conglomerate, has long provided networking and e-mail for many major corporations. Its computer and modem network is rock solid, and I can't remember the last time I got a busy signal when I dialed in.

AOL, on the other hand, was designed to bring the online world to the masses, and it succeeded. While CompuServe was clunky and occasionally confusing, AOL's colorful graphic interface made it easy for beginners. Thanks to massive marketing campaigns, cheap rates and software that virtually installed itself, millions jumped online. They babbled endlessly in AOL's chat rooms and filled its forums with lively discussions. To its credit, AOL has improved its content considerably over the years. Its stock market and financial services, while not as deep as CompuServe's, are broad, informative and interesting -- as long as you avoid the touts trying to push up the price of thinly traded issues. And, if you're willing to sacrifice speed for convenience, AOL still provides the easiest path to the World Wide Web.

AOL's Achilles' heel has been its network, which nearly collapsed when the service switched from hourly pricing to a flat rate of $19.95 a month. Busy signals and disconnects became so common that legal action forced AOL to refund subscribers' money earlier and temporarily stop recruiting new members.

But the bottom line is that AOL's subscriber base has been growing (9 million at the latest count), while CompuServe's has been shrinking.

CompuServe was the last consumer service to abandon hourly rates, and, even now, its $24.95 monthly fee is more expensive than other online services and Internet providers. As a result, many of CompuServe's savvy inhabitants have abandoned the service or cut back because they can communicate with colleagues and find information they need for less money on the Internet.

In fact, some critics think AOL wasn't so much interested in CompuServe's subscribers as it was in a deal that would give it access CompuServe's superb network. And many CompuServe users are worried that their service will deteriorate now in the hands of the Visgoths from AOL.

Those particular fears are misplaced, and, in any case, I don't think CompuServe could have survived much longer as a stand-alone service. As a boutique corner in a Kmart empire, it just might have a chance.

I certainly hope so, and I'm sure other old-timers feel the same way. A few days, I logged onto CompuServe and -- on a whim -- typed the words "Go CoCo" into a command box. I hadn't done this in years, but the magic words still transported me to the Radio Shack Color Computer forum.

The CoCo was my first computer, and in the 1980s I spent many hours and hundreds of dollars on CompuServe's CoCo forum, trading tips with other users and downloading software. The Color Computer disappeared into oblivion long ago (I haven't seen mine since I packed it up for our last move in 1991). But sure enough, a handful of CoCo enthusiasts were still there, posting advice, asking questions and trying to wring new tricks out of their tired old machines.

CompuServe didn't forget them.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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