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.
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.
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.
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.< —>