Software

Prodigy: The pre-Internet online service that didn’t live up to its name

One of the early online destinations before the Internet was Prodigy. Like many child prodigies that share the name, Prodigy started off with lots of promise, only to wind up a disaster. Guest contributor Michael Banks gives a look back at Prodigy's tortured journey.

One of the early online destinations before the Internet was Prodigy. Like many child prodigies that share the name, Prodigy started off with lots of promise, only to wind up being a disaster. Guest contributor Michael Banks gives a look back at Prodigy's tortured journey.

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The Internet is one of those things that it is hard to remember what it was like not to have around. But before everyone got connected to the Internet, people who wanted to go online had to do other things. Choices were limited. You either used a local BBS, where all communication stayed local unless the sysop was connected to a network like WWIV or Wildcat, or you used a paid service with nationwide reach.

Prodigy was one of these premium services. It was the pre-Web online service that succeeded in spite of unbelievable blunders like censorship and taking away services that it had offered for free. But millions of people have fond memories of Prodigy because it was their first online experience.

Prodigy was a big hit, especially to those new to the online world, because it had smooth NAPLPS graphics and was easy to use. People who had ever been online were attracted by national TV and magazine advertising. And they were thrilled with what they found on Prodigy: news, weather, references, and sports reports; bulletin boards; e-mail; and advertising, one unobtrusive ad on nearly every page. But no downloads and no chat. But it didn't matter; most members had never seen anything else.

Unlimited access to this bounty cost just $12.95 per month -- no per-minute charges to worry about. Plus, Prodigy was the first online service to give members multiple user IDs. These boons were unheard of. It seemed impossible, but the backing of Sears and IBM made it real.

Designed to succeed, doomed to fail

There seemed no way anything could possibly go wrong. But the service got into trouble before it ever opened. Prodigy's designers assumed that members would spend most of their online time viewing advertiser pages, news, and related "passive" offerings. And so the system was designed with minimal long-distance usage in mind.

Points of presence (POPs) in every city would contain most of Prodigy's content. Once a day the POPs would refresh their content by dialing up Prodigy's main computer through leased lines. Members accessed the local POP's content via a local phone call. This way, there was no need to keep network connections open to send data to individual users.

However, Prodigy members' behavior wasn't all that passive. They gravitated right to Prodigy's interactive elements -- e-mail and bulletin boards. In 1990, just five percent of the membership sent over 3.5 million e-mail messages. The messaging volume meant the POPs made a lot of calls home every day, racking up millions of dollars in expense. Big-name advertisers helped underwrite the expense, but the problems were just starting.

Send in the censors

In 1991 Prodigy management decided to censor content. It probably began as an idea for reducing message traffic, but Prodigy started banning negative comments about advertisers and then any public comments about advertisers. Additionally, Prodigy banned profanity and anything else that might offend anybody. Next came a ban on flame wars among members. Soon the service literally outlawed postings that mentioned another member by name.

Eventually every message was examined by censors, and any that violated the rules were deleted. It was a Sisyphean task, and they overdid it. For example, members couldn't use the word "bitch" in a dog breeders' forum. And supposedly discussions of the Roosevelt dime were deleted from a coin-collector's board because there was a member whose screen name was "Roosevelt Dime."

Prodigy members were incensed. Thousands fought back by organizing users into underground e-mail groups. Conversation threads were picked up from the boards and circulated in listserv fashion, with each participant adding comments and passing them on. It was like having to send USENET newsgroups to thousands of recipients several times a day. E-mail traffic swelled to staggering proportions.

Prodigy returned fire with a limit on e-mail messages. If you sent more than 30 messages per month, you had to pay five cents per message. Carbon copies cost a quarter. And the flat rate went up to $14.95. Some members wrote Prodigy advertisers in protest and had their accounts cancelled.

From bad to worse

New rumors flew that Prodigy was reading everyone's e-mail. Then a much worse rumor spread like wildfire: Prodigy was attacking users' computers directly.

As with AOL, part of Prodigy's content was temporarily stored on members' computer disks.  Prodigy wrote elements of online sessions on its members' computers and read data back for certain operations. Sometimes sectors used by those cache files contained data from other applications that hadn't been wiped after being deleted. Several people who were working independently to find a hack to save BBS and mail messages to disk (something Prodigy wouldn't allow for copyright reasons) discovered this and started talking about it to other members. It was quickly garbled into a rumor that Prodigy was putting spyware on members' computers.

Never mind that not one tenth of one percent of Prodigy members had anything of even passing interest to strangers -- if Prodigy was reading members' disks, it had to be up to no good. So Prodigy rewrote its software to eliminate the data-caching. Despite many excitable people on and off Prodigy wanting to believe that something sinister was happening, the rumors eventually died out -- until real spyware came along.

Getting chatty

Through all the fireworks, Prodigy managed to keep hanging in there. The service added a file download area -- operated by Ziff-Davis and surcharged. More and more members signed on.  Then, in 1994, Prodigy made the biggest mistake of all: they offered unlimited chat rooms, with no surcharge.

Telecommunications charges went through the roof as thousands and thousands of members remained signed on for 8 or 10 hours a day -- some even longer. Prodigy management was staggered by the cost. Beyond that, what was being discussed in the chat rooms sent the Prodigy censors into fits.

Prodigy shut down chat. Bumper stickers and T-shirts carrying the motto "Prodigy Sucks!" appeared in all parts of the country. Hundreds of members waged a nonstop war with anti-Prodigy postings on BBSs and every online service in existence.

Prodigy was still losing so much money that it was forced to put per-minute charges on some services. Ironically, it was around this time that the other commercial online services began experimenting with Prodigy's original pricing scheme: flat-rate charges for basic services and surcharges for premium services.

The final straw

Amazingly, Prodigy survived all the blunders. The backing of Sears and IBM helped, but the low price and the Internet were what actually saved the company from extinction, at least temporarily. Offering USENET and FTP kept people interested in Prodigy in general.

In 1997 Prodigy became an ISP, while still maintaining the online service aspect, much like AOL does today. Even more like present-day AOL, it tried to develop its own Web browser, but that flopped. In 1999, facing Y2K problems, the company turned off the lights. It continued to exist for a decade in various iterations, including an ISP in Mexico. Going to prodigy.com today takes you to my.att.net.

Oh, yes: Prodigy made one more mistake. It tried to claim responsibility for inventing the Internet, e-mail, and the online experience in general. To quote a 1999 Prodigy release, "Eleven years ago the Internet was just an intangible dream that Prodigy brought to life." The same press release went on to say, "Prodigy was the first to bring these early adopters services such as a World Wide Web browse, e-mail and online airline reservations and banking."

As outrageous as it all was, Prodigy was responsible for introducing millions of people to online services, helping make online advertising acceptable, and creating the concepts of flat rates and multiple user IDs.

What got you online first?

Were you one of those who got started with Prodigy? Or did you start with one of the other commercial services like CompuServe or AOL? Maybe you started like many did in the 80s on an old-fashioned BBS.Take the poll below and sound off in comments.

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Michael Banks is the author of On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders (APress, 2008) in which he writes about the histories of time-sharing services, databases like Dialog, and the consumer online services that paved the way for the Web: CompuServe, GEnie, The Source, Viewtron, AOL, Q-Link, Prodigy, Prestel, and many others around the world.< -->

11 comments
Charlieang
Charlieang

Prodigy might get a bad rap from people I spent hours on end in the Over 30 chat room and meet a lot of good people, even meet my current husband on a prodigy chat room Armydude...we have been together 15 years now BUT prodigy cost us a lot of money...I remember paying hundreds every month, but in the big picture It paid off I found my soulmate

lsb4000
lsb4000

Without a doubt this is one of the most inaccurate articles written about Prodigy. Not only was the description of how the service worked inaccurate, but the reactions of the executives and the basis for the various pricing models were way off base. This article is fiction, not fact. Didn't live up to the promise? The bottom line was that through Prodigy more than 4 million users were introduced to online services and ultimately to the Internet.

rh_77
rh_77

I first started on a local BBS as well as on a Free-Net Community System. I was a member at one time of both Prodigy Interactive Service and Compuserve. Compuserve was more business oriented I thought. I liked the bulletin boards that Prodigy offered better. I was a member of Prodigy Internet (the ISP) for all years that it existed. I still have email addresses that are prodigy.net The Prodigy Internet name started to disappear when they became part of Ameritech/SBC. I was not happy when AT&T took over SBC operations though. I've had DSL for 6 years first with Earthlink for a year then Verizon for last 5 years I kept my dial up account because it was $9.95 a month, when I agreed to a a year contract, for unlimited use for multiple accounts. That amount stayed the same for seven years until AT&T took over and raised the rate to $15.95 a month. I keep it so that I can keep the multiple email addresses as well as the Yahoo Plus account for functions like Yahoo Music Launchcast Plus. It is still cheaper to pay that amount and have multiple plus accounts then to pay for it individually directly through Yahoo.

DONC314
DONC314

We were in the unfortunate position of being at the tail end of a very old, overloaded phone system. My only real option at the time was dial-up. Compuserve was one of the first companies to offer service in my area. I made the mistake of signing up for a two year contract with Compuserve. This was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. It was virtually impossible to use and Compuserve refused to let you out of the contract. Those were the good old days.

Saurondor
Saurondor

as I type this on a Prodigy DSL connection from Telmex. And yes they still haven't learned. For example the contract prohibits using the service for VoIP. Not that I really care or can't obfuscate ports, but the principle stands. Block, limit and bill as much as possible. Triple play is putting and end to previously draconian practices and poor service like slow ping rates for gaming.

User94327
User94327

I still have an unopened Prodigy Membership kit at home on 5.25 disks. I wonder if it's worth anything?

dcolbert
dcolbert

But actually, realized that my first modem was a Vic300 with a Quantum-Link membership. I think I recall being a Prodigy member for awhile there during some point in between. I was also one of the earliest AOL members... which I think was spawned from QuantumLink. I never did CompuServe, though, and that is really the grand-daddy of 'em all, isn't it?

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

Thank you for the update, Saurondor. Slow ping rates ... that's really going after small money, but I imagine it adds up. Is Prodigy the largest? --Mike

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

I see Prodigy and AOL disks for sale on eBay from time to time. They go for five bucks and up. Sometimes you see a modem with the original disk, too. There are a few collectors who try to get every disk ever put out. --Mike

ganyssa
ganyssa

during those halcyon days of lousy service, incessant busy signals, constantly getting booted off and massive surcharges. I was eventually one of those people spending several hours a day in the chat rooms (Metal Forum) before I left for my first ISP, which sadly was Netcom.

Mikebanks
Mikebanks

You are correct: AOL was spawned from QuantumLink, via Apple. Same company, of course; different specialized software. I got into BBSs immediately after my exposure to CompuServe. At first that per-minute charge really rattled me, as it did many. It was easier to "pay" for BBS usage with file and document uploads. But yes, CompuServe was the first consumer online service. It went live earlier in 1979 than The Source. --Mike