America's Virtual Shopping Malls

The infobahn - in its early stages - is entering America's homes and offices via The Big Three commercial online services

he Big Three. Detroit has them in automakers. Commercial online services have them as malls along the infobahn. America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy stack up as the largest of the pay-as-you-play services. And choosing which one to sign onto and allow to charge your credit card some monthly fee (usually with an additional hourly charge), users are left wondering if it's worth it.

Internet may be the precursor to the legit information superhighway, but the online services have become -- excuse the clich -- the on-ramps. They still have plenty of entertainment applications, but increasingly, they're also becoming a way of doing business -- especially those services that supply an easier means of accessing the Internet. In the end, which service you select is like which mall you prefer to visit -- it has the shops, department stores and restaurants you like best at a price that fits your budget. And who says you can't visit more than one mall?

For commercial online services, you have to select based on your needs. American Online, CompuServe and Prodigy all offer trial periods. Use the trial periods, but it's also good to try one month beyond to calculate an average monthly cost.

While wandering around, note which has what you want -- say, stock quotes, government data access and so on -- which interface is easiest, and what features you use often. Each service may overlap one other, so notice costs. For example, CompuServe and America Online both offer Commerce Business Daily, but CompuServe charges extra for CBD access. Much of the time, content is exclusive to an online service, like America Online's alliance with Time magazine, Prodigy's inclusion of Newsweek and CompuServe's offering of U.S. News and World Report.

Internet access is becoming a large concern for The Big Three and each offers a different level of service. Check them out.

Finally, realize that The Big Three are not the only three. There are other services that have garnered some attention, like General Electric's GEnie, News Corp.'s Delphi and Apple Computer's eWorld. And don't forget that many local bulletin board systems offer many services you may be looking for.

What follows is a brief rundown of The Big Three and what you can expect from them as a business user.

COMPUSERVE(800) 848-8990

CompuServe is the granddaddy of them all and probably has the most subscribers. Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe -- usually abbreviated CIS for CompuServe Information Service -- claims 2.3 million users, although analysts suggest its roster is significantly less than 2 million.

CIS is owned by H&R Block (yes, the tax people). Recently, CompuServe announced an Internet service plan, which will try to establish itself as a direct Net provider competing against established national companies like NetCom and PSI.

Moreover, additional Internet services like gopher, ftp, and eventually World Wide Web/Mosaic graphical interface will go online. But there's no word on exactly how much CompuServe will charge, though it will probably begin at the current hourly rate.

Which brings us to one of the major reasons why CIS is probably destined to be number two in commercial online services -- it's the most expensive among the Big Three. While an $8.95 monthly charge allows for unlimited access to 70 "basic" services, those 70 aren't really worth $8.95. Everything most users will want to access -- stock quotes, live chat, discussion forums, etc. -- is a part of the "plus" service. Subscribers pay for "plus" access based on the modem speed at which they are connected and the amount of time they spend there. Access at 2,400 baud or less, pay $4.80 an hour. Log-on at 9,600 or 14,400 baud, a charge of $9.60 an hour will appear on the monthly bill.

Consider also that CompuServe is a text-based system -- it started that way and remains so, although CIS offers a software front-end for most computers that makes it seem graphical. In some ways, it's good because you don't have to wait for graphics to be downloaded. In other ways, it's clunky, sometimes dropping into "terminal emulation" that's slow and tiresome when you're paying for every minute.

But, being the granddaddy, CIS does have a lot to offer the business user, with thousands of forums to exchange information and many searchable resources (although those will usually cost you an additional chunk of change in addition to the hourly charge). It's quite complex, so be careful.

AMERICA ONLINE(800) 827-6364

America Online surged forward in recent months, showing significant growth in subscribers and profits. Based in Vienna, Va., AOL (as it's called by veterans) recently gained about 100,000 users, putting it at 1.1 million. That is currently third place in the Big Three, but it won't be for long. CEO Steve Case expects AOL to surpass the 2 million mark in 1995, and most analysts agree AOL will indeed pull out in front -- if it can stay online.

In early 1994, AOL was plagued with system problems; users could not log-on. While in the latter months of this year, the problems seem to have been conquered, AOL will need to stay ahead of the growth to make certain it serves the needs of its users.

Which is one of the remarkable aspects of AOL: It is in touch with its users. Case always provides a monthly letter to subscribers letting them know what's going on. Moreover, his E-mail address is available to anyone who wants to drop him a line.

The rumor of a subscriber one-day boycott -- taking the form of several E-mail chain letters -- prompted the online service to drop prices. Users normally pay $9.95 a month for five free hours then $3.40 an hour thereafter, no matter whether they connect at 2,400 baud or 14,400 baud. Starting Jan. 1, that hourly rate drops to $2.95.

The upstart service -- which is not a division of some corporate entity -- provides one of the easiest navigational systems online today. In fact, AOL expects to release a newer version of its software that shuffles around some of its categories and (supposedly) makes locations a little more logical.

AOL has acknowledged the need to serve business users and offers much support, although it doesn't have as many forums as CIS. Likewise, it has entered the race to get users on Internet. In fact, AOL is currently in the lead with gopher and WAIS support well ahead of CIS.

PRODIGY(800) 776-3449

Prodigy's primary thrust is the family -- or so it seems. While offering some business services, it's more for the home user. While the White Plains, N.Y., service is considered number two among the Big Three, it's falling fast.

Last estimates released say Prodigy has 1.3 million subscribers -- but it's been saying 1.3 million since 1993. Analysts say Prodigy is the only service that has actually been experiencing a loss.

The joint venture between Sears and IBM has never posted a profit, although officials claim it will in 1994. Prodigy's got some graphical appeal with occasional illustrations that slowly appear on your screen.

Prodigy's family-oriented effort has been the source for some controversy. It regularly fails to post messages that some anonymous Prodigy operator finds is not related to the topic or offensive (no matter if the language is upstanding English). This crosses all the discussion forums. And Prodigy does not have the tolerance of AOL. When users there threatened a boycott due to costs, Prodigy kicked them all off.

The service did recently lower its costs -- it announced its changes the same day as AOL, which has led analysts to question which service was responding to the other and whether AOL was really responding to a user-threatened boycott. Prodigy is now $9.95 a month with the first five hours free and $2.95 an hour thereafter.

Users also have to endure occasional screens with advertisements taking up a quarter of the screen.

Prodigy has just announced it will support chat, but users have to order the new software to support it. And Prodigy offers just as much Internet support as CompuServe.

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