End of an era

I vaguely remember, sometime back in the Dark Ages, using an online service called CompuServe. I had completely forgotten it until I read today that they just shut down after thirty years of service. Apparently I’m not the only one who thought it had died years ago.

Thirty years ago my only exposure to a computer had been in an astronomy class at Talcott Mountain Science Center in 1975. They had a time-sharing arrangement giving access to a mainframe (for all I know, that connection might have been managed by Compu-Serv Network, which had been formed in 1969 to provide computer time-share services), and getting “online” involved putting a phone handset in an acoustic coupler. There was no screen; input and output both appeared on the printer. (I’m pretty sure it was not dot matrix, as the letters didn’t always line up – perhaps it was a teleprinter.)

I suppose we must have used this technology for astronomy, but I only remember playing a moon landing game (I always crashed, either from coming in too fast, or using up all my fuel with the reverse thrusters, and then crashing) and a game called BAGEL that is similar in concept to Mastermind. Sometimes the computer was also used to print out banners – do you remember those text-based banners that were popular in the 70’s? I don’t know whether the technology was cutting edge, but it was daunting enough to me that I let the tech-savvy boys (I was the only girl in the class) do most of it.

The situation was very different in 1989, the year CompuServe became the first online service provider to offer some limited Internet connectivity. I had a certificate in computer programming from a local community college, and I worked for a small manufacturing company where I was the computer expert. Most of what I did would be categorized as computer operations and help desk, but I also had access to the company’s only modem, which I used to transfer the biweekly payroll to ADP.

My boss, who wanted to make the most of our computer infrastructure, signed us up for a CompuServe account. (Unlike many former CompuServe users, I can no longer remember the 9-digit usercode.) As I remember, the primary use for this service was downloading Dun & Bradstreet reports, in order to assess the creditworthiness of new customers. (I had forgotten until today that we had to pay both usage charges for the online connection, plus a surcharge for the D&B service.) But once we had CompuServe, I found that I could also use it for tech support, email and file transfers (though I can’t remember now what need I would have had for email). When America Online came out, it was seen as a lightweight consumer-based product, compared to the industry-standard CompuServe used by businesses.

Eventually we dropped CompuServe, when D&B developed an alternate interface. In 1994 I tried out a new-fangled web browser called Mosaic, but it was dreadfully slow. A year or so later I got an EarthLinkaccount, and with my new 28.8 modem web access was still slow but not painfully so. I attempted to do some market research online, both of computer technology, and our competitors in the market (a particular type of industrial equipment). By then CompuServe seemed somewhat of a dinosaur, although its text-based interface was a good deal faster than the graphic menus common at many corporate websites.

Once I got a job at a company that had broadband access to the internet, I forgot all about CompuServe. Using AOL on our home computer was as far back as I remembered of my online experiences.  I may have known the AOL bought CompuServe, and if I did I’m sure I expected AOL to discontinue CompuServe as a separate service. Apparently, however, there remained a market, albeit a dwindling one, for what became branded as CompuServe Classic. My impression is that it retained the text-based interface which was appreciated by those who stayed with it.

I have to admit, there are times when I think back, somewhat wistfully, to the days when PC’s were text-only. There were only a handful of system files and I understood every line of them, so troubleshooting was usually pretty straightforward (usually incompatible printer or video drivers). There wasn’t nearly as much I could do as a user, but there was also not nearly as much other users could mess up that I had to fix.

Then I think of all the things I use the Web for today, and how easily I can keep in touch with family and friends – even those of you I’ve never met. I order books and clothing online. I find recipes and ideas for birthday parties. I keep up with the news, both locally and around the world. Hey – I wouldn’t even have know CompuServe just shut down if it weren’t for online resources (actually I was doing research on proxy servers, and noticed a link to the story). Plus it’s all the changes in information technology that are the raison d’être for my job (in security/compliance).

So farewell, CompuServe. You gave me my first contacts with networks of computers and users in faraway places. But that was another era. I’m glad for wordpress and all the other great online resources today.

2 Responses to End of an era

  1. Peter L says:

    I first heard of CompuServe when Rush Limbaugh advertised it on his show in the early 90s. We only had an old 286 PC with no modem or graphics card. Remember when 582k hard drive was enough? We have come a long way!

  2. Pauline says:

    Peter L,
    Nope, never worked on a computer with a hard drive smaller than 10 mb. I never worked with the old 8 inch floppies either.

    But I do remember how great it was when we got a 20 mb hard drive and all of a sudden my Lotus spreadsheet would load in less than a minute, so I didn’t need to go do some other work while I waited.

    I also remember the first Compaq we had at work. It was suitcase sized and very heavy but it was portable, so when my boss was laid up due to a back injury he could do work at home. Then he won a 286 IBM laptop as a door prize, and that was really portable.

    I also remember going with him to a trade show and seeing the new VGA monitors, and being amazed at the incredible graphics. You could actually have realistic graphics (I loved that fishbowl screensaver), instead of just adding some color to a text-based screen. I often think of that now, when I’m looking at high-res photos on the computer, and trying to imagine what my reaction would have been then to what we have now.

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