Like a wrinkle in a crisp cotton sheet, sometimes our past and present come together all too abruptly, leading us down memory lane, a trip that often brings a wistful smile. I had that same feeling when I read the news that CompuServe, the ground-breaking online […]

compuserve-logo.jpgLike a wrinkle in a crisp cotton sheet, sometimes our past and present come together all too abruptly, leading us down memory lane, a trip that often brings a wistful smile. I had that same feeling when I read the news that CompuServe, the ground-breaking online service that presaged the commercial Internet, was shutting down after 30 years. I am not sure how many people remember CompuServe, but it was a major influence in my life and helped define my future as a technology writer.

I first encountered CompuServe in 1992 — before that I was too poor to own a computer and a dedicated phone line. At the time, I was fairly young and struggling to find direction in my writing career. I also had started reading about the information superhighway and the Arpanet.

SnoopyCsrvMagCover.jpgI bought a very expensive AST PC. It came with a 3.5-inch CompuServe disk and a speedy 9600-baud external dial-up modem. Within a matter of minutes, I was signed up. I got an awkward numerical email address and a welcome email. A few hours later, I was checking out online bulletin boards and reading magazine content online.

But my eureka moment came with the arrival of the initial welcome email from CompuServe. Like a photographer who sees the image slowly take shape on paper submerged in his development tray, my future became clear to me. Suddenly, the information superhighway, connectivity, and what would eventually be known as the commercial Internet were what I was going to write about. Thanks to CompuServe, I had stumbled onto the biggest story still being told.

CompuServe was a great tool for a novice like me to become wise in the ways of the Internet — from FTP to bulletin boards to Internet email and eventually web browsing. Sure, it cost a lot of money — something that was scarce in my early days as an immigrant. Eventually, I graduated to Pipeline and enjoyed the raw Internet. My work life allowed me to write about the early days of Netscape and many such companies, but it was CompuServe that remained a constant.

It was a great tool that I used to research stories and to communicate with many like-minded people. It allowed me to tap into a lot of databases including Forbes magazine’s archive. I used that archive to learn about David Churbuck, my eventual boss at Forbes.com, whom I stalked and talked into hiring me. As a reporter, I wrote about the online wars of the mid-1990s as Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL competed with each other and emerging Internet service providers.

These were the glory days for the ISPs and online services. I remember visiting Columbus, Ohio, just to get a glimpse of CompuServe’s campus, gawking at the enormous building with awe. Weeks later, I would visit Prodigy’s offices in downtown New York and meet with AOL executives at some Silicon Alley breakfast. It was a thrilling time, and these companies were the stars, no different than today’s Facebook and Twitter.

I also wrote about America Online buying CompuServe. That consolidation only presaged my own evolution as a writer. Eventually, both those companies became less relevant to my job and me, as I started writing about optical networks, broadband and the future of the web.

At the turn of the century, CompuServe fell out my immediate memory. But it always remained in the back of my mind, a mile-marker of sorts, defining my journey not only as an immigrant to this great country but also as a technology reporter.

So with a sense of sadness, but mostly with gratitude and fond memories, I bid adieu to a service that has played such a pivotal role in our online lives.

Photo of CompuServe magazine courtesy of The Metropolitican Blog.

By Om Malik

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  1. Thanks for posting that. I could related to so many points there. First online experiences, awkward email addresses, 9600 baud modems… Takes you back. Didnt they have chat rooms to that were modeled after CB radio channels? The good ol days. :)

  2. Eric Spencer Sunday, July 5, 2009

    Thanks for this, good memories. I was a member of both CompuServe and DowJones News/Retrieval in ’83…via a TRS-80 connected to a TV and a 2400 baud moden w/ acoustic coupler. Yes, I was 13 and a complete geek. Yes, they had CB-esque chat rooms. I still remember my “handle”…Jacob’s Ladder (after the uber cool Rush song)…again, I was 13 and a geek. =)

  3. I remember CompuServe. I was a CompuServe user back in the early 80s, but didn’t use it that much because in those days, I remember CompuServe being $6/hr or something like that. I had my trusty Commodore 64 and 300 baud modem, and a ridiculously assigned numeric username in the form of 7xyzab, cde (that is when I *knew* AOL would be successful back in 1993 when I could *choose* my username!).

    And only a few years ago, I learned that QuantumLink for my Commodore 64 was the pre-cursor to AOL.

  4. Yes, Mike, they did.

    I remember logging on to CompuServe with my Vic Modem back in the ancient days. Then the phone bill came — apparently the access numbers I was using weren’t local. My parents made me pay every penny of it with my paper route money.

    I probably still have an issue or two of Online Today magazine floating around here somewhere.

  5. I used to use Compuserve on my first Mac in 1984; it was about all the Mac was good for. The ability to e-mail people I didn’t work with was pretty thrilling. Compuserve helped get a lot of people on-line, and onto the Internet as soon as it was legal. It was a great step forward for mankind in many ways.

    1. Richard,

      Clearly you have a much better sense of the history of the INternet. I am sometimes mad for not being there when the Internet got going… still I find thinking about the past is a good way to get a handle on the present and the future. We have come a long way and have a long way to go.

      1. The nice thing about the past is that the evidence is so good. There wasn’t much to the Internet other than e-mail until about 1995 when there were some cool websites and the Mosaic browser, and some day we’ll look back at what we have now and regard it as a primitive system that barely scratched the surface of what networking can do. You’re dead right about a long way to go, Om.

  6. I remember Compuserve. I remember “The Source”. Bulletin boards that attracted local users who posted local events like concerts, car washes, etc. The internet created a medium where you could talk around the world without long distance charges. Information was easily? accessible and the need for computer user groups declined. Memberships were not renewed, resources of clubs decreased as there was less cash.

  7. Thanks for those memories. Compuserve helped me get online when I moved to Italy in 1992. The concept of ISP did not yet exist here and the only way for me to check my email, BBS’s and the beloved WELL was dialing into the Compuserve Packet Network from Milan and Telnetting into other services. I eventually downloaded Mosaic through CPN and the rest is history :-)

  8. Compuserve was my first interaction with the internet. As a young engineer it was amazing to too me how much could be done and seen using a modem, my Mac and compuserve. They helped to pave the way to the success of current Internet. They will be missed!

  9. Thanks for the wonderful trip down memory lane. I worked at CompuServe from February 1990 until December 2002, almost 13 years. I was there for the rise, fall, and mini-recovery under AOL when AOL became the king of the online world. A fact most people don’t know – in 1999 or 2000 (can’t remember which), AOL moved Netscape.com into the CompuServe building effectively shutting down Netscape offices in California except for the browser development.

    Here’s an actual quote that I read online recently:

    “It’s now possible to have real, meaningful relationships beyond geography.”

    Those of us who’ve been online since the 80’s and early 90’s will chuckle at that. And I must add – Al Gore was the primary driver in commercializing the Internet. I distinctly remember a 1996 all-company meeting where the president of CompuServe said “I don’t care what Al Gore is doing – CompuServe will survive the Internet”

  10. It’s always nice to take a trip down memory lane like this, Om.
    Thanks for posting your memories and experiences.


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