Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


It's been a busy month for the on-line services. The usual battles over price and Internet access took a turn from the usual press-release spamming and letter-from-the-president bickering to a more literal shootout at April's Internet World conference in San Jose. During a three-hour "on-line service shootout," Internet World editor Andrew Kantor took scathing shots at each of the big three on-line services, comparing the features and pitfalls of each.

The winner turned out to be Prodigy, which finished with a score of 58.8 points - far above CompuServe's 26.0 and America on-line's feeble 10.2 points. This came as a complete surprise to me - as a Mac user, I can attest that Prodigy's service for the Mac stinks. Apparently it's much, much better for Windows. Part of Prodigy's big win was that it was the only service with a working web browser, which it used to do most everything - file transfers, gopher searches, web surfing. When the only tool you have is hammer, every problem looks like a nail. (A spreadsheet showing how each service fared in the shootout is on the web at http://www.astranet.com/.)

New features now...and later

While we're on the subject, Prodigy says it's next generation interface, dubbed P2, will be available this summer for Windows and this fall for the Mac. (Feh!) P2 will ditch the nasty graphics and ugly text of Prodigy's current interface, replacing it with Hypertext Markup Language. Will Prodigy look like one big web site? Who knows?

The folks at CompuServe haven't been sitting on their collective duffs, either. They added telnet capability, and their Web browser should be available (for Windows users only, sigh...) by the time you read this. Actually, it's not an integrated Web browser - CompuServe did its users proud by offering full-on PPP access that you can use with any Internet client software at all. Hopefully this event will quiet Prodigy's maddening strutting about being the only service with WWW access.

AOL's browser? Delayed, again, until "April or May." I'm not supposed to tell you this, but I've seen the next version of eWorld's software. Not bad: Usenet newsgroups, FTP and (my favorite) you can connect via TCP/IP: no need to dial in through Sprintnet if you have SLIP or PPP Internet access.

Prices, prices

Presumably to satiate its new World-Wide-Web addicts, Prodigy has added a new pricing plan: The "30/30" plan provides 30 hours of access to all basic member services, including the Web, for $29.95 a month. (Not bad for heavy users.) Additional hours are $2.95 each (Aw, come on!). This plan replaces a previous one offering 25 hours for $29.95. For people with lives, the standard plan of $9.95 for 5 hours is still available.

In retaliation, CompuServe debuted its "Internet Club" plan which offers 20 hours of Internet access for $24.95 a month. Additional hours are priced at $1.95.

All of the big services are claiming they'll offer ISDN access "soon" but it's still too far away to see any definite dates. ISDN, which will provide access at about 10 times the speed of a 14.4 modem - after you invest in $1,000 for new hardware - is certainly coming, but don't hold your breath just yet.

How big is big?

Annoyed with AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy each claiming to be the "biggest" on-line service, the "number one" service, the one with the most members? Here are the straight facts: according to the March 1995 Information and Interactive Services Report, there are more than seven million subscribers to on-line services. CompuServe has 2.7 million users, America Online has about 2 million, Prodigy 1.3 million, Delphi 140,000 and GEnie's got 75,000.

GEnie - there's a name you don't hear much, eh? Our friends at General Electric are working to change that. It seems the littlest of the big guys is tired of being the underdog, and is taking steps to revamp their little service. GEnie says that within a month it will feature an easier-to-use interface, simpler pricing, and Internet access - including a text-based web browser. (If I had a dollar every time a service promised Web access a month from now...) Internet services coming "real soon now" are FTP, Usenet, telnet, gopher and WAIS. Later this year they'll add a graphical Web browser.

This all sounds very pleasant for GEnie, but even if their upgrade comes on time and offers mind-blowing price and speed, will this all be too little too late? GEnie's been nowheresville for so long that I'm not sure it will know how to compete with the big three. We shall see.


Articles by Kevin Savetz