[Note: for a different view on the history of the various pre-Web online services, please see the excellent overview article by Ken Gagne and Matt Lake, “CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0“, published July 15, 2009 at Computerworld]
Since the earliest days that it was available, there have been Apple II users who have found ways to connect to other Apple II computers over the phone. Although some inexpensive imaginative methods have been employed (such as A.P.P.L.E.’s “Apple Box” that used the cassette port to send and receive programs via the phone line), the release of the DC Hayes Micromodem II for the Apple II in 1979 and the Novation CAT in 1980 made it possible for a new type of computing. Although some needed to use their Apple II simply as a home terminal to access a school or business mainframe or timesharing system from home, many users created their own self-contained dial-up message systems.
These message systems, which became known as “bulletin board systems” (BBSes), were started almost as soon as the first generation of home computers became popular. The first recorded use of a home computer for the purpose of hosting such a message system was the Computer Bulletin Board System (CBBS) in Chicago, which ran on a Vector 1 computer (an Altair clone). It was designed by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist Exchange (CACHE), an early microcomputer user group. The CBBS began in February 1978, and at first was no more than a computerized version of the club’s paper-and-thumbtack message board. With time it evolved into a more sophisticated system, allowing exchange of files and other features. Although not run on an Apple II, the event is significant because it was the start of a phenomenon that expanded to include nearly all models of personal computers, and ran strong for over fifteen years, finally waning in popularity because of the rise of the Internet.
A typical BBS consisted of a single computer that was always turned on, waiting to answer the phone. When it rang, the computer would answer the phone and establish two-way communication via the modem. A program running on this computer would then allow the calling computer to do various things, such as reading messages left by other users and posting replies for others to read. As with the original CBBS system, the software used for running Apple II BBSes became more complex over time, allowing file uploads and downloads (to and from the host computer), online games (text-based), and participation in online surveys. The system operator (“sysop”) who owned the computer and paid for the phone line used by the BBS was responsible for maintaining the software and the message databases, usually leaving this dedicated computer available for callers 24 hours a day.
There were many reasons for running a BBS. As with Christensen’s CBBS, some used it as an online meeting place for user groups. Others had a theme, such as games, programming, or just general upkeep and use of the Apple II. But one particular use of a BBS that made it popular was as a file repository, a place where users could share software they had written.
The ability to transfer files from one Apple II to another has evolved over time. In its simplest form, an Applesoft or Integer BASIC program might be “downloaded” (sent from the BBS to the calling computer) by simply doing a “LIST” of it. That was fine, unless the program had some machine language parts added on. Then, the bytes of that assembly code had to be sent as hex digit pairs (i.e.,
20 00 BF 65 10 03 04, etc.), since anything shared between the computers had to be in printable ASCII codes. With the noise possible on some telephone connections, this could result in a single character becoming garbled now and then, resulting in a program that wouldn’t run because of the error that was introduced. Various programs for the Apple II were devised over time to make this more efficient, including some that used the method of encoding the hex bytes (digit pairs) into single printable ASCII codes that were then decoded on the receiving end into a usable program. This created a smaller file than the hex digit files that were “EXEC”ed, but was just as prone to data errors.
Apple II BBSs were not the only ones that had to deal with file transfer problems. At least on an Apple II, a text file could be executed with the EXEC command in Apple DOS, and the resulting BASIC or machine language program could be SAVEd or BSAVEd to a disk. But on the S-100 computer series, a file transfer was even more difficult to translate from text to machine code. For this reason, Ward Christensen (who started the CBBS in Chicago) also developed a method to do realiable file transfers. His method, which used error checking to ensure a realiable file transfer, was called XModem, and became available in 1979. Because Christensen made it a public domain technique, it began to appear for other platforms beyond the original Intel-based computers, including the Apple II BBS and terminal programs.
As Apple software became more sophisticated, and as the files to send became larger and larger (particularly with the introduction of the IIGS), protocols were established to allow more than one file to be sent in a single transmission. The first major protocol that was agreed upon among the major online services was the Binary II protocol. Designed in 1986 by Gary Little, this allowed a standard method of grouping files that could work for any of the disk formats available on the Apple II. In 1988, Andy Nicholas designed a more comprehensive method of not only putting several files into a single file (usually called an “archive”), but also compressing those files to save time and space when transmitting them between computers. He called this protocol “NuFX” (NuFile eXchange), and implemented it and the data compression in a program called ShrinkIt (and later GS-ShrinkIt) that he released as freeware (that is, he did not charge for the use and distribution of his program). The NuFX protocol was adopted by Apple Computer as the official protocol for file transmission for the Apple II, and Nicholas later went to work at Apple after graduation from the college he was attending when he designed the protocol.
By the early 1990s there were several popular packages that could be purchased, including ProLine, Warp Six, and AppleNet. However, as the decade progressed, the popularity of BBSes began to wane. This was due primarily to the increased availability of Internet access, and the wealth of information available through that source.
The success of the small, local systems encouraged the larger, mainframe-based systems to expand and offer services to non-business users during off-peak hours. They figured that since the equipment was idle during that time anyway, they might as well have someone use it and earn them some extra money. By the mid-1990s, most of the major online services that had started in the late 1970s were still in business; competition had increased, the number of users accessing these national systems had grown, the number of features offered has expanded, and the hourly cost of online communication dropped. However, just as the Internet had pulled users away from the dial-up BBSes, it also began to have a detrimental effect on these major services, and by the latter part of the decade only a small number of online services still existed. The few online services who survived into the 21st century struggled to find ways to offer value and maintain their base of paying members.
Since there were far too many local systems to discuss in even a passing manner here, the material presented here will examine the various nationally available systems and their history as it applies to the Apple II. However, before a discussion of commercial services can even start, it is necessary to look at the origins of the biggest “online service” of them all, the Internet. Understanding the creation of the Internet helps to understand much of what was done with the commercial online services, and what is done today with the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Note: The end dates of the following entries sometimes refer to the end of their service for the Apple II or their classic text access, not necessarily the final end of the service.
When the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, not only was the American public taken by surprise, but also the United States government. To ensure that in the future the U.S. government would have better knowledge of technological advancements taking place around the world, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized formation of a research agency within the Pentagon. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had the mission of enabling communication between intelligence sources and the various branches of the military, as well as with the president and the secretary of defense. In order to carry out the task of managing the rapid interchange of information between these various agencies, one important bottleneck they discovered were the different mainframe computer systems used by those agencies. There was no easy means for data on one system to be moved or copied to another except by direct data entry on the destination computer, a slow process that could allow the introduction of errors. The director of the ARPA Information Processing Techniques Office had a room next to his office, which contained three different types of computer terminals, each made by different companies, and each directly conected to mainframe computers at different sites. They operated under their own, unique operating system and command set, and different log-in procedures.
As ARPA began to research ways in which to make it possible for computer installations in widely separated parts of the country to be connected to each other, national security was still foremost in their minds. One essential goal they had was for a way the network as a whole could still function even if part of it was destroyed in a nuclear strike on the country. The telephone network built by AT&T usually had central switching points, where a single location served a large number of customers. If the central switching office was not working, none of the customers would have telephone service. While this was an inconvenience, it was not acceptable for a computer network on which the defense of the United States would depend. So ARPA researchers devised a distributed network, with each node connected to more than one other, allowing a built-in redundancy that would allow the majority of it to continue to function even if parts of it were offline (or even destroyed).
Additionally, the network was designed not only with hardware in pieces all over the country, but the message traffic on the network was designed to be transmitted in pieces. These pieces (message “blocks” or “packets”) would possibly take different paths, but when they all arrived at their destination, the computer there would reassemble the packets into a copy of the original message. This packet approach would also allow the computers handling message traffic for the network to make use of nodes that were idle and bypass those that were either busy or not functioning.
During the 1960’s the details of this network were mapped out, the hardware was built to handle the traffic between the various nodes across the country, and it was tested. The entire project was a learning process, from the implementation of the data packet concept (“How big should a packet be? What format should it be in?”), to the design of the software to direct routing of the traffic across the network, to the design of the hardware to carry the traffic. The first public demonstration of this network was ready in time for the First International Conference on Computer Communication, held in Washington, DC in October 1972. It required a tremendous effort on the part of those who were finalizing the design and implementation of the components that made up the network, but they managed to make it all work together just in time for the occasion. It was an incredible time event, with most of the researchers working on networking in the country in attendance at the same time, showing how this network could function with many diverse types of hardware (terminals and printers) at the conference site, and at the remote locations to which they were connected.
The ARPANET project was very successful, and eventually the university research groups connected to it wanted to use the network for everything, not just Department of Defense work. The most predominant use of the network was something for which its designers had never forseen: electronic mail. Between 1972 and the early 1980s, network mail (also called electronic mail or “e-mail”) was discovered by thousands of users who had occasion to use the network. As the message traffic due to e-mail increased, the network required additional expansion to handle it. According to Katie Hafner, in Where Wizards Stay Up Late:
E-mail was to the ARPANET what the Louisiana Purchase was to the young United States. Things only got better as the network grew and technology converged with the human tendency to talk. Electronic mail would become the long-playing record of cyberspace. Just as the LP was invented for connoisseurs and audiophiles but spawned an entire industry, electronic mail grew first among the elite community of computer scientists on the ARPANET, then later bloomed like plankton across the Internet.
In 1972, the name of ARPA (“Advanced Research Projects Agency”) was changed to DARPA (“Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency”), to stress the role the organization had played from the start, that being to help with the defense of the United States. With the ARPANET concept functioning and flourishing, DARPA decided to find a different group within the government to take over management of it, and the Defense Communications Agency (DCA) was given that task in the summer of 1975. Interestingly, when the DCA was first offered to manage ARPANET when it was just a concept in the mid-1960’s, it declined, disbelieving that a decentralized, packet-sending network had any advantages over the communications methods that were already in place. With ARPANET being managed elsewhere, DARPA was free to move its research money to other experimental areas.
By this time, other computer networks had come into being, not under the jurisdiction or control of DARPA. And with other implementations of networks came alternate methods of interconnecting the computers within those networks, methods that differed (sometimes significantly) with those chosen by the DARPA researchers. In Hawaii, where land connections were not easy to create to link the islands, there was a network (called ALOHANet) that used radio transmitters to send signals between computers on a network. DARPA also looked at the use of satellite (“SATNet”) transmission of network packets to exchange data between computers. And other countries had come up with their own unique computer networking protocols.
The presence of these different networks brought about similar problems as those faced by ARPA in the 1960’s, when it first tried to make individual mainframe computers communicate with each other. How was it possible to make different networks able to exchange data between each other, when they often used different connection methods, packet sizes, transmission rates, and error-checking protocols? DARPA then decided it needed to address ways to overcome this problem, and in May 1974 a paper was published that proposed use of a transmission-control protocol (TCP) to manage carrying data between different networks. According to Hafner:
The new scheme worked in much the same way that shipping containers are used to transfer goods. The boxes have a standard size and shape. They can be filled with anything from televisions to underwear to automobiles – content doesn’t matter. They move by ship, rail, or truck. A typical container of freight travels by all three modes at various stages to reach its destination. The only thing necessary to ensure cross-compatibility is the specialized equipment used to transfer the containers from one mode of transport ot the next. The cargo itself doesn’t leave the container until it reaches its destination.
As further work was done on finding ways to implement the TCP plan, an additional Internet Protocol (IP) was created to handle routing of the data packages the TCP handled. By 1978, the full protocol was referred to as TCP/IP.
Meanwhile, universities that were not part of ARPANET wanted network access, but a connection to this Department of Defense system would cost an institution $100,000 per year. The National Science Foundation was interested in aiding computer sciences departments in universities, and so helped design CSNET (Computer Science Research Network), a less expensive system. It would not be as fast as ARPANET and did not contain the redundancy ARPANET required, but it made the computer networking connections more affordable. It made use of TELENET, a commercial packet-switching service that started in 1973.
Other networks began to come into being after this. BITNET (“Because It’s Time Network”) interconnected IBM systems. UUCP was created at Bell Laboratories to handle file transfers and remote command execution. USENET began in 1980 to handle communication between two universities, and developed into a distributed news network. All of these diverse networks had the ability to communicate with each other due to the TCP/IP protocol. By 1982, the term “Internet” was used for the first time to describe this collection of networks. The continued addition of networks began to blur the distinction between the parts of the Internet that were sponsored by the U.S. government and those that simply connected into the network.
One change that became necessary was the way in which e-mail was handled. From its earliest days, e-mail had been transmitted using the original file transfer protocol, which worked nicely for files, but was awkward for mail. In August 1982, the simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) was devised to replace the older system. As part of this new protocol, new names had to be devised to be able to distinguish between different networks on the Internet. The committee working on this decided upon seven “domains” that could be used for various types of networks: “edu” for educational; “com” for a company; “gov” for government; “mil” for military; “org” for a non-profit organization; “net” for a network service provider; and “int” for an international treaty entity. These domain names also allowed for automatic translation of names into the numeric addresses that the computers routing the information actually used, with the help of a domain name server (DNS).
As useful as ARPANET and the Internet had become, the speed of communication became a problem as more and more nodes were added on to it. In 1985, the National Science Foundation began creation of NSFNET, a backbone to connect supercomputer centers from several places in the United States. The power, speed, and capacity of this new network exceeded that of ARPANET, and eventually made it obsolete. In 1990 it was decided to shut down ARPANET, and allow the various computers connected to it to connect instead to the faster NSFNET.
Bell Laboratories developed the UNIX operating system during the 1970s, first on a PDP-7 and then later on a PDP-11. They needed a multi-user environment to allow data and information exchange between multiple users, and it had to run well on the PDP architecture. Out of these efforts also came the development of the language “C”. As UNIX matured and grew, its power and affordability caused it to be adopted by many universities for use on their PDP and VAX computers. It also was important in the development of protocols for the Internet, since many of the computers that connected to that network ran UNIX.
One of the applications that was an important part of the UNIX system was the file transfer method known as UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy). It became a means for transfer of not only files but also email and other similar dats between different UNIX sites on the Internet.
In 1979, two Duke University graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, came up with the idea of a method of reading and posting messages that were organized into categories. Their system ran under the UUCP protocol, and the different categories were called newsgroups. It worked like a bulletin board system on personal computers, but on a much larger scale, since it ran on a mainframe that handled many users simultaneously. The system they developed became known as Usenet, and ultimately ran under a specific protocol that was called Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP). NNTP had a specific set of commands to retrive and post messages for the various different newsgroups that existed and were shared through the computers that made up the Internet. Because many of the systems accessing the Internet at that time were not online constantly as is the case today, many of these used the concept of “store and forward”; they stored message traffic until the computer was connected to the larger network, at which time it sent and retrieved messages, and then disconnected.
By the mid-1980s a specific method of organizing newsgroups was created and enforced. These groups were designed to cover multiple topics, and those topics that dealt with computers started with “comp”, with sub topics appended to that main category. So, “comp.sys” dealt with specific computer systems, and “comp.sys.apple” appeared to deal with conversations about the Apple II. In 1990 a proposal was made and approved to change the newsgroup name to comp.sys.apple2, since Macintosh users were posting on this newsgroup instead of on comp.sys.mac.
College students at institutions that offered Internet access as a paid part of their tuition were the primary early users of the Usenet newsgroups. These groups were a means of sharing and obtaining information on many topics (not just about computers), and did not require an hourly or monthly charge as did the commercial services (CompuServe, The Source, GEnie, etc.) Beyond students, education professionals at these institutions also had access to these newsgroups. Apple II users who dialed into BBSes that ran Morgan Davis’ ProLine software also could access UUCP traffic, by using a timed script to automatically dial into a Unix shell account, send outgoing messages, check for and retrieve incoming messages, and then hangup. These messages were then distributed to the appropriate ProLine users. (ProLine was a simplified version of UNIX for the Apple II that worked within the constraints of 48K of RAM. Some ProLine nodes were directly connected via a serial cable to a second computer that was itself running Unix and was connected to the Internet.)
Even though it happened late in the lifespan of the Apple II, several related newsgroups for the platform appeared soon after the change to comp.sys.apple2 occurred. Discussions about GNO/ME were held on comp.sys.apple2.gno; comp.sys.apple2.comm dealt with communications; comp.sys.apple2.marketplace was used to buy, sell and trade anything related to the Apple II; comp.sys.apple2.programmer was for programming; and comp.sys.apple2.usergroups dealt with user groups. Other groups that were related to the Apple II included comp.binaries.apple2 (a source for downloads of freeware or shareware software) and comp.sources.apple2 (software source code files). (Due to low traffic, these latter two groups were disabled in 2005.)
Unlike the commercial online services, the Usenet newsgroups typically were not moderated; no one was responsible for making sure that all posters behaved or were civil with each other. More or less, the group members managed issues themselves. Because the number of people accessing these groups was not large, a person posting messages either cooperated with the others in the newsgroup, or learned to stay away when their behavior was not tolerated. Each September, there was an influx of new students who had to learn the net etiquette (“netiquette”) of how to “play nice”, and so during that month the normal activity was somewhat disrupted with “newbies” who were either in need of education on how to do things, or specifically chose to be a nuisance. With time, these new users either learned the rules, or they got tired of this game and drifted on to something else, and things returned to normal.
However, in September of 1993 a major influx of new users hit the newsgroups, as America Online, CompuServe, and Demon Internet (a British internet services provider) made Usernet access available to their users. These new users were just as clueless about proper “netiquette” as the incoming freshmen were in past years. The near-constant influx of people who did not know how to make use of the newsgroups led to what has been called “Eternal September”.,
Activity on comp.sys.apple2 (also known as csa2) was busy throughout the 1990s, and for those who didn’t want to pay for access to the major commercial online services, it was ideal: They could talk about the Apple II, and as long as they had access to the Internet from school or from a work account, it was all free. Like many of the Usenet groups, there were no moderators who would censor or try to regulate conversation. Topics appeared about virtually anything regarding the Apple II, including how to break copy protection on commercial software (conversations that would NOT be allowed on the big online services).
It was the activity of some who took a more lenient view of software ownership who provoked some of the greatest controversy on csa2, starting in the mid 1990s. Some users were not just looking to make it easy to copy and share software, they were actually taking work done by others, making a small change, and releasing it as their own work. This led to a few years of heated conflict between three groups: Those who felt that NO commercially available software should be distributed via csa2, those who felt that only currently selling software should prohibited from distribution (and anything that was “out of print” was fair game for sharing), and those who felt that anything and everything should be shared. The conflict ultimately led to some leaving the community, but most who preferred csa2 for their Apple II conversations stayed around, and just ignored what conflict remained.
One of the common documents produced by newsgroups was an “FAQ” (frequently asked questions) document, which would be updated and modified as was indicated. There was no such thing as the current Wikipedia, and the FAQ for a particular topic was the closest thing available to an organized collection of knowledge on that topic. The comp.sys.apple2 FAQ was maintained and updated there for years, although after the turn of the century, it has become more and more common to find copies of it via a search with a web browser.
By the early part of the first decade of the new century, online services like America Online discontinued Usenet newsgroup access, as web-based chat rooms and message boards had become increasingly popular. This likely has not had much of an effect on ending the Eternal September, since anyone anywhere on the Internet can still get to newsgroups if they are sufficiently interested. Some Internet service providers are likewise dropping direct access to newsgroups, making it necessary to pay for access. However, other choices are available.
Back in 1995, a service called Deja News had started offering the ability to search through archives of Usenet postings. By 2001 this was replaced by Google Groups, offering much of the same functionality, and is still in place at the time of this writing. It is a means of accessing newsgroups that does not require software beyond a web browser.
The comp.sys.apple2 and related newsgroups are still functioning and still busy, even in the era of individual, focused web sites. It is the single largest Apple II community available online anywhere, and continues to have the advantage of being an un-moderated and freely available discussion site.
In 1978, William von Meister had a vision for a home information “utility” that would connect computers (including the new microcomputers) into a network that made it easy to access news sources, do shopping from the home, and more. He started an online data service for consumers the following year, called The Source. He announced his new service in July, 1979, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was sharing the stage at the time of this announcement, stated that this event heralded the beginning of the Information Age.
The new service had a slow start, due to the expense of getting the service started and a small number of initial subscribers. It was accessible through Telenet or Tymnet nodes; that is, through computers in a locality that acted as gateways to many other online computer services across the country. Often there was an additional fee for using the Telenet or Tymnet node, in addition to the charges for the specific service being accessed.
In a power struggle in 1979, von Meister lost control of the company, and in 1980, a controlling interest in The Source was sold to Reader’s Digest Association, $6 million for an eighty percent state in the company. The new majority owner had an interest in the ability of The Source service to create online news reports. In 1982 they created a newsroom and subscribers to The Source had access to these news reports. The connection with UPI (United Press International) was so close that it only took two and a half minutes after a story was filed before it was available to subscribers on The Source, and the reports were keyword searchable. Eventually the service offered access to excerpts from thirty major magazines, over twenty financial and business services, access to several national and international news services, and computer-specific news features. It offered travel services and the ability to lookup airline schedules and plan connecting flights. It would also connect to weather services, and offered reviews of restaurants and hotels. An online encyclopedia and shopping were also available, and another service called “Information On Demand” provided access to more than one hundred fifty research-oriented databases.
Some of the most popular features on The Source were electronic mail, bulletin boards, a Mailgram service that guaranteed next-day delivery (by paper), and computer conferencing. There were over sixty text-based online games available, with topics ranging from the Civil War to Star Trek. Additionally, access to mainframe computers was also made available, allowing storage on those mainframe computers in FORTRAN, Pascal, or Info-X.
One feature unique to The Source was the capability to create “scripts” that the mainframe kept track of (rather than being on the user’s local terminal program disk). These scripts could be used to quickly move to certain areas and perform repetitive functions (such as scanning and reading electronic mail, and checking for new files in the library).
In its first several years, joining The Source was expensive. For a only a 300 baud connection, it cost $100 to gain membership, and then it cost $7.75 per hour, up to as much as $27.75 per hour, depending on the time of day and connection speed. By 1984, after it had expanded to access in 400 cities, the access rate was increased to 1200 baud, and the fee to join was dropped to $49.95. It still was pricey, with a $10 per month minimum fee, and then was $7.75 per hour at 300 baud, $10.75 per hour at 1200 baud for non-primetime use (and $20.75 and $25.75 respectively for prime time use).
The Apple II had a presence on The Source from its earliest days, with the APPLESIG (special interest group). In 1987, after Reader’s Digest Association sold The Source to Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stower (a New York venture capital firm), many of the SIGs were updated, and Joseph Kohn at the age of 39 became the APPLESIG Chief Sysop. Kohn operated the APPLESIG from May 1987 until The Source closed down. His goal was to make APPLESIG a major information source for Apple II users. He arranged to have it registered with Apple Computer as an official user group, and provided subscribers a large library of articles and software, as well expert advice available. The online charges were lower for APPLESIG than for some other areas on The Source, which also made it attractive for users. The bulletin board section allowed users to have ongoing discussions about pertinent topics about the Apple II. Kohn also arranged for an area dedicated to The Apple IIGS Buyer’s Guide, and were allowed to reprint articles from MicroTimes and A+ Magazine.
At its peak, The Source claimed 80,000 members, but by the end of the decade it had declined to only 53,000. The costs of operation had not allowed the infrastructure to be updated, and lowering customer access costs would have further reduced that ability. According to Kohn, the persistence of a $10 monthly minimum charge one thing likely contributed to the decline of the service, long after other national online services had either eliminated or significantly lowered such charges. Another problem that he identified was that their system was not as easy to use as some other services (although some former users felt that The Source’s library search protocol was better than any other).
This service originally began as “Compu-Serv” in 1969 as an in-house computer processing center for Golden United Life Insurance Co. During the next several years they expanded their offerings to business users, making use of the computer for time-sharing when the insurance company was not utilizing it. By 1972 Compu-Serv had over four hundred accounts across the country. In 1977 the name was officially changed to “CompuServe Incorporated.” and by 1979 they were ready to begin offering service to computer hobbyists in the evenings, during their off-peak hours from business use. The new service was called MicroNET, and it started on July 1, 1979 after two months of testing with the 1,200 members of the Midwest Affiliation of Computer Clubs. Items available online were bulletin boards, databases, and games.
In 1980, CompuServe merged with H&R Block, and changed their personal computer service name from MicroNET to CompuServe Information Service. They continued to expand their services and capabilities, and were widely available across the country.
Each user on CompuServe was assigned an eight or nine octal digit ID code (digits 0 through 7), divided into five digits, a comma, and then the other three or four digits. For example, a user’s code might be 76543,4321. This was due to the PDP architecture on which the CompuServe system ran. This was a customer’s user ID as well as the way in which to send that person electronic mail.
The bulletin board and message sections on CompuServe were divided up into Forums, usually dedicated to a specific service. The Apple section covered more than one forum, since the volume of message traffic was too large to manage in a single forum. Messages within a forum were organized under major subjects, and then under minor subjects. Each message was assigned a number, and the various messages were linked together into “threads”. For instance, user #1 could post a question about a brand of modem. User #2 would link an answer to that message and answer the original question. User #3 might join the conversation and also answer the question, but add a comment about terminal programs. User #4 could then pick up on that comment, and add his views about the terminal program that he liked, without mentioning anything about the modem question that user #1 asked. The message thread could continue to expand in this fashion, or it may stop at this point. Eventually, another topic would be started later by someone else. The message thread could be followed when reading these posts, or one could simply read all the messages sequentially by their message number. A sequential scan would read all messages about all topics, whether the messages were connected or not. Following the thread pursued one conversation; following all of the messages pursued all conversations that were going on.
One problem that occurred with this type of system depended on the volume of message traffic. The software that CompuServe used assigned a new number to each new message, but when the total number of messages passed a certain point, the first message was deleted. If the range of messages in the Forum on Monday ran from 15000 to 17000, by Tuesday it may then run from 15500 to 17500 (and the first 500 messages from 15000 to 15499 would have disappeared). If there were any especially useful conversations going on, the Sysop (system operator) for that forum could choose to save the messages and their threads into a file in the library for access in the future by those who were not involved in the conversations when they were going on.
Each forum on CompuServe had the capability of supporting live conferences, where many users could be present at the same time and hold live interactive conversations (as opposed to the bulletin board conversations where you must post a message, and then log on later to see if there has been a reply to it). There was also a CB Simulator that was introduced in 1980, given that name to connect with the Citizen’s Band radio popularity of the time. This was simply a chat room, where people could join and leave as they wished, and post messages back and forth to each other, as if they were in the same physical room, or if they were on the CB, talking with each other.
Neil Shapiro was an early Apple II user who joined MicroNET in 1979. After spending some time in what ultimately became the CB simulator looking for help with his new computer, decided to start an Apple special interest group. Shapiro and those who helped him get it started named it “MAUG” (for “MicroNET Apple User Group”). It attracted many Apple II users, and for years was the national place to go for Apple II info and files. Even Apple employees could be found there providing technical information to companies who were producing hardware and software for the Apple II. The MAUG libraries held programs that had been uploaded for years; some from the early part of the 1980s (if you could wait for the file scan to get back that far). There were also many new files, added daily by the active people on the forum.
In 1984, with the introduction of the Macintosh, Shapiro created separate forums for the Mac under the MAUG umbrella, and turned over management of the Apple II areas to Shawn Goodin for general supervision, to Jason Harper for provided technical and programming help, and Joe Walters, who wrote on technical matters. By the late 1980s there were four primary areas for the Apple II on CompuServe:
APPUSE: for Apple II end users
APPROG: for programmers
APPFUN: for gamers
APPVEN: for hardware and software vendors to provide service and support
As with the other major online systems, there were many other services available online besides the MAUG forums, including news services, online shopping, games, and much more.
By the late 1980s, MAUG was beginning to feel the pinch of Apple II users who had left for the less costly competing service, GEnie. As mentioned in the previous section, CompuServe bought out The Source in 1989, and shortly afterwards closed it down. By the early 1990s, CompuServe was itself struggling to accommodate to the advances being made in the online world, particularly the burgeoning phenomenon of The Internet. Competition with other online services made it necessary to make adjustments in the cost of the service, and the cost was dropped from $10 per hour to $1.95 per hour. A portal to allow access to the Internet was added. By 1997, pricing was changed to offer a flat monthly fee of $24.95, to compete with rates offered by America Online. The company also began to convert its forums from its proprietary format to one compatible with HTML.
About this same time, CompuServe’s owner, H&R Block, decided to sell the online service. It actually consisted of two main divisions, CompuServe Information Services (where the forum and file activity was managed) and CompuServe Network Services (which managed the computer network on which the Information Services was hosted). The Network segment was sold to WorldCom, which also purchased MCI (a telephone long-distance company) and renamed itself MCI WorldCom. Eventually, WorldCom went into bankruptcy and again became just MCI, which was sold in 2006 to Verizon. With this change of hands, the original CompuServe Network Services is now part of what is in 2012 called Verizon Business.
The CompuServe Information Services division was sold in February 1998 to former competitor America Online. Apple II users who remained members of MAUG realized that this was likely not going to be good news, as AOL had previously excluded direct Apple II access by failing to continue to provide a graphic access program that worked on the Apple II. About the same time, Neil Shapiro announced that MAUG and CompuServe had parted ways. The new managers of CompuServe appointed veterans Ray Merlin and Loren Damewood as new sysops for the APPUSE area.
Soon after the purchase by America Online, the predicted loss of text-based access came true, when the new owners announced in December 1998 that access to CompuServe would require a “front-end” program to manage access (available only for the Macintosh and for Windows), rather than allow use of any generic text-based telecommuncations program. This move accelerated the exodus of Apple II users from that service to elsewhere (often going to Delphi).
In 1999, this process moved forward as the mainframe computers on which CompuServe was run were upgraded from the very old 36-bit architecture PDP-10 systems to newer 32 bit computers, which finally did break access for text-based computers. It was in February 1999 that the APPUSER forum for Apple II computers disappeared because of this change. A space was made available on the MACHW (Mac hardware) forum for Apple II issues, and the first message posted there (by former APPLESIG Chief Sysop from The Source, Joe Kohn, who discovered the change) was “Apple II Forever!” The new area there was still managed by Ray Merlin and Loren Damewood.
For a while, AOL continued to operate CompuServe’s dial-up services (called “CompuServe Classic”), but with the increasing popularity of parent AOL and of the World Wide Web, it became more difficult to compete. By 2007 CompuServe international divisions were closed down, and in 2009 CompuServe Classic was also discontinued.
The General Electric corporation was itself a manufacturer of mainframe computers during the 1960s. It sold its hardware operations to Honeywell in 1970, but continued to offer timesharing computer services for a number of years afterwards under the name GEIS (General Electric Information Services). As with other timesharing services, after-hours usage was very low. To make use of this time, and to try to compete with CompuServe, Bill Louden started a service called GEnie in October 1985. Just as GEIS had an acronym name, “GEnie” stood for “General Electric Network for Information Exchange”. Unlike CompuServe, which had two different pricing levels for access at different speeds, 300 and 1200 baud, GEnie service offered both speeds at $6 per hour during non-prime time, which was a significant decrease over the cost of CompuServe. They later offered 2400 baud service for a higher price.
Like other online systems, GEnie offered many different services to its subscribers, including news, an online encyclopedia, online shopping, games, financial information, and areas of interest to users of various brands of computers. GEnie became known for its multiplayer games, popular because of their variety as well as the comparatively lower cost to participate in them.
Where CompuServe’s sections were called Forums, GEnie called their sections Roundtables (or RTs for short). Each RT was divided up into a bulletin board, library, and conference rooms (called “Real Time Conferences.” or RTC’s). The bulletin board was divided up into a number of categories, and each category consisted of a number of topics. Each topic then had individual messages that (hopefully) deal with that topic. Unlike CompuServe, messages did not disappear from a topic until the Sysop decided to delete them (which did not occur until the number of messages either got too large to be manageable, or they became old and outdated). If a topic contained messages that were particularly helpful (such as information about the use of a common computer utility program), the messages were maintained for years. If it became necessary to purge old messages, they were often placed into the library so they could still available for future reference.
As for user ID’s, GEnie decided to use a combination of letters and other symbols to give each user a unique name, instead of the number system employed by CompuServe. A new user was typically assigned a user name that consisted of their first initial, a period, and their last name. If there was another user with the same user name at that point, a number would be added. For instance, Joe Smith would be given the name J.SMITH; if there were already three Joe Smith’s on the system, then this name would be changed to J.SMITH4 to tell him apart from the other ones. A user could ask for a different name (for a price) if the one assigned to him or her was not satisfactory. These tended to be as varied as vanity license plates on automobiles. If J.SMITH4 owns a restaurant, he might ask GEnie to give him a name such as EAT.AT.JOES instead of his original name.
GEnie started supporting the Apple II computer on October 27th, 1985, about five days prior to its going public. Kent Fillmore had run a successful BBS affiliated with the San Francisco Apple Core user group, was the first Apple Information Manager, and the first Sysop was Cathy Christensen, and later with Chet Day. Fillmore started the “America Apple RoundTable” (AART), for the Apple ][ and /// Computers, as well as the A2PRO RT (Apple II Programmers) with Michael Fischer (MFISCHER), A+ Magazine RT with Maggie Canon (A.PLUS), the Apple/Mac User Group RT with Leonard Reed (BIBLIA), the ProTree RT with Bob Garth (PROTREE), and the GEnie Sysop’s private RoundTable. Fillmore left GEnie in October 1987 to work with AppleLink Personal Edition, and Tom Weishaar of the Open-Apple newsletter took over some of those RTs. Fillmore later returned to GEnie in June 1992 to become the Product Manager for Computing RoundTables/ChatLines.
To stay competitive with the older CompuServe and The Source, GEnie kept its online costs below that of the other systems. The association with Tom Weishaar was beneficial for both. GEnie’s 100,000th member in March 1988 was an Apple II user that joined because of a special offer through Open-Apple. Weishaar was also able to keep more direct contact with Apple II users, both those who worked professionally with the II and with those who were casual users of the Apple II.
As discussed in Chapter 21, one of the special contributions to the Apple II world accomplished by the A2 Roundtable on GEnie was the production of the platform-specific online monthly newsletters, GEnieLamp A2 and GEnieLamp A2Pro, which started in April 1992 and outlasted all other editions of GEnieLamp produced for other platforms.
Since dealing with online services like CompuServe and GEnie meant every minute online was costing money, one popular way to access the message boards and files for download was with what became know as “offline readers”. These consisted of a terminal program that could be scripted (that is, controlled with a text file that automated the commands of what to do and where to go) and a text reader/editor that could create those scripts. One popular system in the Apple II RT was GEnie Master (GEM), written by Tom Hoover. This package was compatible with three different terminal programs, Talk Is Cheap, Point-to-Point, and ProTERM 3.0, and made use of AppleWorks with UltraMacros. To use the program, one would leave the terminal program running, and at the pre-determined time it would dial-up the GEnie access number, connect, and then visit each Roundtable that had been configured, download the new messages, get a list of the new files in the Library, and then log off. The captured content was saved as a text file, the terminal program would then quit, and transfer control to AppleWorks. That program, starting with the UltraMacros script files, would then load the saved text file, and leave it ready to read.
While using AppleWorks to read through the messages in the text file from a GEnie Master session, various UltraMacros commands could be used to reply to a message, start a new topic, copy content to a different file for storage, or download a file from the Library (or even upload a file to the Library). The output from that AppleWorks session was saved to a different text file, which was saved. That file could then be used with the next terminal session to automate replies or file transfers, while also downloading new messages that had been posted since the last time the user was on. It was a very efficient way of participating in a Roundtable, and was not limited to just the A2 and A2Pro RTs; it worked with nearly every Roundtable on GEnie. In 1994 GEnie Master was updated to work with AppleWorks 4.0
Another offline reader popular in the A2 Roundtable was Ken Gluckman’s GE CoPilot, which was designed to work specifically with the Apple IIGS, but used the same terminal programs as did GEnie Master.
Besides its popularity with those playing multiplayer games and with the various computer platform Roundtables, one popular RT was the Science Fiction RT. It ultimately had to be split into four different RTs, and J. Michael Straczynski, writer of the television show Babylon 5 developed the show while a member of this Roundtable.
Despite its success, GEnie still never had the membership numbers of CompuServe. Furthermore, General Electric would not put any money into the service to expand its hardware or available access lines; the GEIS executives saw GEnie only as an after-hours revenue source, not as a business itself. As it moved into the 1990s, GEnie faced the same challenges as did other services with the rise of the World Wide Web and rising use of the graphic user interface, particularly from users of the Macintosh, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95. This type of computer use was beginning to make the classic text-based services less and less relevant. Furthermore, subscriber losses from users the older text-based platforms (including the Apple II) who were moving on to Macintosh and Windows were having a detrimental effect on GEnie’s business model.
By the end of 1995, General Electronic Information Services announced that it was looking for a buyer for GEnie. IDT Corporation was an internet and international telephone service provider, based in Hackensack, New Jersey. The company created Yovelle Renaissance Corporation as an “investment vehicle” to acquire GEnie. They envisioned using Genie’s digital assets to create an Internet-based service that could compete with America Online. In January 1996 it was announced that Yovelle had purchased the service, and would be changing its name to “Genie” (without the uppercase “E” that had linked it to GE, General Electric). Initially it was stated that Yovelle planned to convert Genie into a World Wide Web service. However, one of the first steps taken by the new company was to announced a significant hike in the subscription cost, from $8.95 per month to $18.95 per month. New subscribers were penalized by being charged $23.95 per month. The cost for European users of Genie was even greater. The initial effect of this change was, as expected, a high number of subscribers choosing to cancel their accounts.
As a token effort to slow the hemorrhage of customers, April 1996 saw an announcement by the new Genie management to offer a service called “Genie Lite”, which was five free hours of email per month. There was no free access to the Roundtables, but the cost was only $7.95 per month. As would be expected, a large number of members tried to change from their $18.95 per month charge to the more reasonable $7.95 per month. Genie management cancelled this new program in early May, barely one month after it had been started. By pricing their customers out of the market, Yovelle/Genie also found it necessary to close down some of the Roundtables. That same year, DigiPub, the digital publishing Roundtable was closed, and GEnieLamp A2 editor Doug Cuff rescued all of the GEnieLamp A2 and GEnieLamp A2Pro issues from the DigiPub library, and moved them into the A2 Roundtable library.
In August 1996, IDT Corp announced it had purchased Genie from Yovelle, which was odd since Yovelle had been set up by IDT for the express purpose of buying Genie from General Electric. Apparently since the original sale in January, there had been conflict between GE, IDT, and Yovelle about ownership of the over 100 GB of content that made up Genie’s Roundtables and libraries.  The sale did not, however, bring about any resolution to the problems that the members of Genie had been having since the start of the year.
Syndicomm was the company that had been formed by Tom Weishaar to manage the A2 and A2Pro Roundtables on Genie. He had later sold this company to sysops Gary Utter and Dean Esmay. During 1996, it was becoming clear to them that Genie was failing, that Yovelle seemed to have no clear idea of what they were doing, and that it was only a matter of time before the service would be shut down. Syndicomm began to make plans for where to make space for Apple II users when the inevitable happened. At KansasFest in the summer of 1996, Gary Utter gave the keynote speech and pointed out the necessity to diversify online access for the Apple II. He specifically stated that Genie’s new direction was not a positive one, and it was necessary to look for at least an additional place to put resources. He later announced that Syndicomm was opening an A2 and A2Pro forum on Delphi, that Syndicomm had started a web site (www.syndicomm.com), and the they were looking at creating a moderated newsgroup for the Apple II (more useful than “wild west” of comp.sys.apple2). Many Apple II members were already beginning to leave for Delphi, and even CompuServe (always a more expensive choice) was beginning to look attractive, though Utter pointed out that text-based access there was also likely to go away sooner than later. By January 1997, Utter announce his departure from Genie in an emotional post. He expressed his regrets for what Genie had become, and his hopes that he would see his many Apple II friends again, over on Delphi. Many A2 Roundtable members had been moving over to Delphi, which still had text-based access available, compatible with a standard Apple II with a modem.
The ongoing exodus to Delphi resulted in another casualty: A2Pro became another of Genie’s “low-traffic” Roundtables, and was closed in June 1997. On June 26, 1997, the A2 sysops merged all of the content of A2Pro with the A2 RT, which resulted in several hundred messages to suddenly appear as “new” to those looking at the A2 Roundtable.
One project that had been going on since 1995 was the production of a GUI interface for Genie for the Apple IIGS. Sponsored by Syndicomm and led by Richard Bennett-Forrest, the program had been code-named “Albatross” and then later “Cassidy”, but was finally named Jasmine, selected from a poll in the A2Pro RT. It was designed to be a real-time interface for GEnie, and was not an offline reader like GEnie Master and Co-Pilot. In fact, it was not even necessary to have a separate terminal program, as was necessary with those offline readers. It required an Apple IIGS running System 6.0.1, as well as an error-correcting modem, a feature included in many new modems of the day. It was intended to support Zmodem and Ymodem batch transfers, and could also be used to access the Internet using the Lynx text-based interface. Bennett-Forrest showed a preview of it at KansasFest 1995, with the help of Nate Sloan. They had help of several beta-testers, but the progress was slow, and by the time it was released in February 1997 (version 1.0f3) it was provided more as fulfillment of a promise than as the planned final product. The problem by then lay primarily in the ongoing changes being planned by Genie’s management, making it hard to hit that moving target.
Another change happened late in the summer of 1997. In July, Genie’s management announced that the structure of the messages on the remaining Roundtables on Genie would change by September 1st. This would cause all of the offline readers that were being used to “break”, since they were dependent on catching known prompts in order to know when a function was ready to start or had completed. The announcement further discouraged use of Genie services. (However, this planned change did not come to pass.)
By early 1998, traffic on the Delphi Apple II Forum and Genie’s A2 Roundtable were similar. However, major cracks in the Genie infrastructure were becoming apparent. Because there were no longer any of the original programmers or staff engineers working for Yovelle, it was not possible to fix things when they went wrong. One of those things was related to the infamous Y2K bug: The old Genie mainframes were computers that were definitely affected by an inability to express years in four digits. It turned out that beginning in 1998, because the system could not handle dates beyond the end of 1999, it was not possible to even sign up new Genie users, because their credit card expiration dates went past 12/99. The problems of system maintenance became more apparent by April 1999: For three full weeks of this month it was impossible for either users or staff to access the A2 Roundtable. Email was still available, and a group mail was sent out to all A2RT members with the message, “We are sad to note that the A2 RT on Genie seems to have breathed its last. It’s been shut down for over a month, and all the Genie people have to say is that they’re looking into it. We believe it’s gone for good, after ten years of great service to the Apple II community … Apple II users are welcome to join the Mac RT and talk about the Apple II in several topics there.” Although the A2 RT came back for a short time by early summer, another blackout happened soon after, and Apple II users found it necessary to continue to post messages in topics in the Mac Roundtable.
By late in the year, Yovelle announced that after December 27, 1999, all Genie content would have to be accessed via a web browser. This led to conflict between Yovelle management and sysops of some of the Roundtables, as they had not been asked permission for the text-side contend to be mirrored to the web. Some sysops even took a scorched-earth policy, and systematically deleted content from their Roundtable, before it was taken out of their control.
Dean Esmay, sysop for the Apple II Roundtable, recalls looking through the A2 RT near the end, but found little to no activity. He went into one of the main chat areas on the last day, looking for anyone who might have shown up, but there was nothing going on. He typed “goodbye” into chat room 1, and logged off for the last time. Like a family who has moved out of the house they grew up in before it was demolished, the A2 RT was deserted, and held nothing but memories. The “family” had found a different home, at Delphi.
Users of the Science Fiction Roundtable (SFRT) were more determined to see it out until the end, and held a wake on December 27th, to watch the service’s last hours. It continued to be sporadically available for the next three days. On December 30, 1999, members of the SFRT were still gathering, but were having a difficult time doing so. According to a post made on a Usenet newsgroup (alt.online-service.genie) by SFRT managing sysop Nic Grabien, the official “time of death” was 14:15 PST on 12/30/99. However, even into the latter part of the day, SFRT members were still leaving messages on one of the Roundtables they had previously inhabited, but many folks posted that they were getting “PAGE NOT FOUND” messages when trying to get there. It appeared that the various Roundtables were being deleted one at a time. By late in the day, it was possible to make a modem connection, but the system would not respond to any typed commands, something like a fatally ill person who still has a beating heart but no brain activity. [Note: For a fascinating read about the subculture of the Science Fiction Roundtable on GEnie, with descriptions that nicely explain not only the behavior of members there but also very reminiscent of the members of the A2 and A2Pro RTs, read Chapter 4 of Science Fiction Culture by Camille Bacon-Smith.]
Beyond that time, further communication with Genie was only possible via the web at www.genie.com. However, Yovelle/IDT could not even get that to function as planned. Although for much of 2000 and 2001 that page displayed the heading “Genie Online Services”, it certainly did not have any useful content. According to a Usenet post on alt.online-service.genie by Andy Finkenstadt (who had been with GEnie from the beginning), all email from the old system was completely gone, and other content that did survive had been ported “imperfectly and haphazardly” to the web service. Furthermore, what content was there had many broken (non-functioning) links. To further rub salt into their wounds, some former members of the text-based Genie were even having problems getting IDT to stop billing their accounts for service that they were no longer getting! One user who posted his story on alt.online-service.genie said the customer service person he called told him that Genie had sent out an email in April 1998 (because they knew of the planned changes that far in advance??) and on December 27, 1999 telling of the change and the need to get a new username and password. That user told the customer support representative that he had tried to contact them by email to ask about the changes before the December 27th cutoff date. The support person responded that they would have to find that email before any refund could be offered. When he finally got an answer from Genie about the time he had been billed for, he was told that since he did not cancel his service before December 27th, they would not issue a refund. By late in 2001, www.genie.com was redirecting to “Genie.net”, and in 2002 it simply redirected to the IDT Corporation page.
It is unknown outside of IDT whether they truly had planned to create a competitor to America Online, and were grossly incompetent, or whether they had purchased Genie with the express intent of killing off the service by running it into the ground, presumably to get its hands on Genie’s assets (old mainframe computers and content that was taken elsewhere by the members as they left). In 2012, the genie.com domain name is owned by Genie Oil And Gas, a subsidiary that IDT spun off in October 2011. In defense of Yovelle, however, it was certain that GEIS had no strong affection for GEnie, and had they not found a buyer for the service they would likely have simply shut it down well before the 12/30/99 date, and would have made absolutely no effort to move it to the Web.
At this point, I want to step out of my narrator mode, and make some personal remarks about GEnie. After Tom Weishaar issued an invitation to his Open-Apple readers in early February 1988, I became motivated to get a modem of my own and investigate the online world. It was something that I had only previously experienced on local BBSes over the previous several years, and that only intermittently. Joining GEnie was pretty intimidating for a beginner, with all of the veteran members who were on, and the steep learning curve in figuring out how it was organized. But with time came familiarity, and when I downloaded Genie Master to use as an offline reader, I was able to read most of what was going on in the Apple II Roundtable and even begin to participate. I became acquainted with some of the most knowledgeable and friendly people I have ever had the privilege to meet (even though I didn’t see any of them face to face for several years). It is because of my experience with GEnie that I began to collect news that I could contribute to my local user group newsletter, my own A2 News Digest. It was that newsletter experience that led to the creation of version 1.0 of this very history, written and distributed from 1990 to 1992, and researched by questions and answers with people online that would have been otherwise impossible to reach. It led to attendance to my first KansasFest meeting in 1994, during its heyday. And although I had to drop out of the online world for several years, GEnie (without the lowercase second letter) is still my favorite memory of my adolescence in the Apple II world. It pained me to learn of the death by strangulation that IDT inflicted on what had been a great service. I want to tip my hat to the many people who went the extra mile as unpaid volunteers (in many cases) to make GEnie into the focus of the Apple II world for over ten years. Many thanks to Kent Filmore, Chet Day, Dean Esmay, and Gary Utter and many others for their leadership and dedicated service. Your efforts made a difference in many lives, and took a faceless online service on the other end of a modem and gave it a heart.
The late 1990s was a difficult time both for Apple II users and for text-based online services. The oldest of those services had been started as a way to make money on their time-sharing computers when they were not busy. Being successful was a double-edge sword: If the after-hours use as an online service was successful, it put extra load on the mainframe computers. The other cut was that as the World Wide Web continued to gain ascendency, it was lessening demand for those text-based services. The increasing availability of Internet access and web browser improvements were drawing customers away from a boring text-only interface to the colorful point-and-click world being offered by Netscape and Internet Explorer. The lure of riches promised by investors in this era of the dot-com bubble caused each online service to try to find a way to transform itself into a web presence. In this environment, those who used a computer that didn’t care about HTML or web pages with pictures (8-bit pioneers like the Apple II) were finding it more difficult to continue to have a nationally available home base for their online activities. And as text access for CompuServe and Genie began to fall apart in the last half of the decade, the next safe harbor that appeared on the horizon was Delphi.
Delphi had its origins with the world’s first online encyclopedia back in 1980. Wes Kussmaul had designed a database of entries hosted on a VAX computer that could be accessed via modem using software written for the Tandy Color Computer and the Apple II. The cost was similar to that of purchasing a printed encyclopedia set, and it used an early form of hypertext to allow linking between entries. The following year Kussmaul expanded the information available with this dial-up service and gave it a shorter name, Delphi., The additional features included email and some simple chat functions. By 1982, bulletin board-like areas were added, and the chat service was enhanced. The service was further expanded in 1983, with access via dial-up through Telenet, Tymnet, and Sprintnet, and the company that ran Delphi had been renamed as General Videotex Corporation. Delphi offered the unique feature of allowing members to create their own forums and special interest groups. It also offered online shopping, real-time stock quotes, and access to multiple news services.
Over the next decade, Delphi enjoyed slow growth, but was well behind that of CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online and GEnie. By 1993 it had around 100,000 subscribers, but did not have the finances to expand its offerings to compete with the larger services. Delphi’s directors began to look at outside funding, and one of the companies they approached was Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Murdoch’s company had significant offerings in media that none of the other online services had available to them, including newspapers, book publishers, and television. News Corporation did not have an online service, and the other four services were already owned by larger companies. The deal made between Delphi and Murdoch became more than just funding, and became an outright purchase of Delphi, every share of stock, for a bargain price of about $3 million.
Like The Source, Delphi featured a number of SIGs (special interest groups) for all computer platforms and for many other topics. This included an Apple II SIG that began in 1985. Erik Kloeppel was head Sysop for that SIG for a number of years. By January 1990, Mike Edwards was running the Apple II section on Delphi, and Erik Kloeppel and Jeffery Mintz were assistant Sysops.
Posts on Delphi were organized into a threaded message base. Posts could be read in numerical order, or in the threaded order by using a “Follow” command that grouped related messages. There were fifteen main topics in the Apple II forum. The Apple II Database was a library of files available for download, and also offered quick access outside of Delphi to Internet files via FTP (file transfer protocol). As early as 1992 it was possible for email from Delphi to be sent or received outside of the system to the Internet at large, well before it was possible on the other national online services. Additionally, Delphi made it easy to access Usenet newsgroups.
In 1996, traffic and revenue was down, and News Corporation sold Delphi to a group of investors that included Bill Loudin, who had started GEnie back in 1985. They began to work on migrating the content and function of Delphi to the Web. They changed the service to free access, supported by web-based advertising (at the height of the dot-com bubble).
That same year at KansasFest, Gary Utter (who had been a chief sysop in the A2 Roundtable on GEnie) gave hints that changes were in the wind. In his keynote address, he had said it was necessary for the Apple II online community to spread outside of Genie, due to its uncertain future. A formal announcement was made in November of that year that Syndicomm had created forums on Delphi for A2 and A2Pro, with similar topics as were found in the Genie counterparts. As on Genie, Delphi had online conference areas where they planned to have open nightly to help Apple II users, and special conference events were planned. The new A2 forums went live on November 18, 1996.
The advantage of using Delphi was that it could be accessed via Telnet from any internet connection, and did not have to depend on Delphi-specific local dial-up phone numbers. The cost for Telnet access to Delphi could be as low as $3 per month, if paid a year in advance. Furthermore, users had a choice of text-based or Web-based access. The message base that was displayed was drawn from the same database, and so should be identical whether read through Telnet as text, or using a web browser. At that time Delphi management stated that they were committed to maintaining text-based access for their users.
Utter’s frustrations with Genie came to a head, and on January 1, 1997 he regretfully announced in a post there that he was abandoning the A2 Roundtable for the new forums that had been created on Delphi. He urged other Apple II users to join him there, as he strongly felt that it was Delphi that held the future for Apple II online access and community. Some others who chose to stay on Genie criticized this move, as they felt that it would certainly kill off Genie if everyone left.
In an article discussing the change in Juiced.GS in late 1996, Utter had stated that efforts were underway to create offline readers that would work for Delphi in the same way that GEnie Master and Co-Pilot did on Genie. He stated that not only was Co-Pilot being adapted to work under ProDOS 8, but plans were in the works for Macintosh, DOS, and Windows versions. By early 1997 there were several offline readers that were actually available (and not just planned). Delphi Messenger was a set of Spectrum scripts written by Kit Graham. It allowed automated log-on to Delphi, retrieval of email and forum messages, and posting of replies. It was compatible with dial-up and Telnet connections. Don Zahniser created OLRight!, which was made to work with ANSITerm.. Ewen Wannop, author of Spectrum, also created an offline reader that he named Crock ‘O Gold (or COG for short).
By August 1997 there were quite a few new Delphi members in the A2 Forum, and activity was increasing. The primary limitation was the sparse numbers of files in the A2 library on Delphi. However, for months before starting on Delphi, Syndicomm had been systematically downloading files for archival purposes from the A2 Roundtable on Genie, and efforts were being made to upload those they could to the Delphi library. It was a large collection of as many as 14,000 files, and the process of uploading these files was slowed by the need to create descriptions and keywords for each file, and also to make sure that the original uploader had not specified that the file could only be uploaded to Genie.
A unique event for Apple II users was held from 1998 through 2000, originating from Delphi. Joe Kohn of Shareware Solutions II began weekly online chats each Monday night. Having a chat or online conference was not so unusual, but what WAS unusual about these chats was the way in which they were conducted. Through the technical efforts of Tony Diaz and Dave Miller, these chats managed to connect Apple II users in the CompuServe, Genie, and Delphi chat areas, and did so in such a way as to make it look as if all of the connected users were in a single large online conference. This had never been tried before, and likely will never happen again. It was accomplished through the use of some special scripts on ProTERM Mac. A message center core directed traffic between various script modules, one for each online service to which it was connected, and kept track of the last fifty lines of text submitted to it. Each script would send out to its respective online service any messages that had not yet appeared on that service. With ProTERM Mac in control, a message typed by someone on Genie appeared on Delphi and CompuServe, and responses on one of those other systems were likewise mirrored to the other two. These weekly tri-system chats continued until March 1999, when CompuServe’s text access was closed down. Kohn tried to keep it going as a dual-system chat, but was hampered in his efforts in April 1999 when Genie’s A2 Roundtable became unavailable for three weeks (as mentioned previously). When Genie A2 RT was functioning again, the Delphi/Genie chats were resumed for a while. Kohn continued these weekly Monday night chats into 2000, but they were less well attended than they had been when there were three systems to hook together.
During 1999, Delphi programmers continued working on building up the service’s web access, mirroring content posted on the text side so it was also available to anyone visiting with a standard web browser, and vice versa. Synchronization between the two was still a problem at times, and became very apparent when daylight savings time began in April of that year. A bug in their software resulted in a large number of messages being duplicated in the A2 Forum (and in many of Delphi’s other forums). By late in the year the company was focusing almost entirely on web access, and paying less and less attention to the text part of the service. In fact, it was late in the year that Delphi discontinued its dial-up access, and made text access available only via Telnet. The Lamp! took time in November 1999 to explain to those who had previously only used dial-up about the process needed to connect to Delphi via Telnet.
To try to keep itself going, Delphi and another Internet service called “Well Engaged” (which originated years earlier as “The Well”) combined forces in January 2000 to create a company called Prospero Technologies. Prospero was designated to manage message boards and chat services. Along with this, Delphi was reducing its technical staff, which added to the dysfunction of the A2 Forum. Those remaining staff were experiencing more and more problems keeping the text and web sides synchronized with each other. In August, Delphi announced that as of November 1, 2000 they would no longer be billing users for the service. For those who were using Delphi’s “legacy services” (text-based access), they would keep it running but would do no technical support. This made direct access of Delphi by an Apple II very tenuous, as it could disappear at any time.
By late 2000, Delphi announced its plans to move entirely to web-based access, and could not promise that the text side would continue to work. The technical support was further decreased, and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the text side would fail. It was only a short time before this came to pass, and by mid-January 2001 the synchronization between the text and web sides of Delphi was not working at all. On February 22nd, they announced that no further attempts at synchronization between the text and web side would be attempted. Within a month, Delphi told its customers that as of May 1, 2001 all text-based services would be discontinued. This included email accounts, text posted to forums, and text-based chat. Syndicomm quickly took archives of bulletin board messages from Delphi and made them available on A2Central.com.
Since so many Apple II users on Delphi depended on their offline readers to automate their sessions, it was felt likely that activity in the A2 Forum was going to drop quickly as users continued their move to A2Central.com. Despite Delphi’s official cancellation of the text-based access, some users were still able to connect via Telnet as late as the start of 2002, though it quickly disappeared after that.
During the first decade of the 21st century there was a lot of shuttling back and forth of what was left of Delphi. Prospero sold the Delphi Forums in 2001 to Rob Brazell, and sold the www.delphi.com domain name to the Delphi Corporation, manufacturer of automotive parts. Brazell had high goals and plans for the Forums, but within a year Prospero had reacquired Delphi Forums from him. By 2008, Mzinga, Inc., bought out Prospero. Finally in September 2011, Dan Bruns (who was in the group of investors who had purchased Delphi back from News Corporation back in 1996) bought Delphi Forums back from Mazinga. These forums still exist as of 2012, with free access for posting in forums, and two paid levels of premium access that provide a type of web hosting.
After the failure of Telnet access in 2002, activity continued in a much reduced extent in the A2 and A2Pro Forums on Delphi. Gary Utter continued to act as host, until his untimely passing in March 2004. Hangtime, a Syndicomm and A2-Central staff member from the early 1990s, was asked to take over as host, and his name still is listed in 2012. However, the forum is infrequently visited, and sometimes weeks pass with no new posts. With effort, it is possible to find and read old posts from as far back as 1998.
Prodigy is mentioned here only in passing, as it did not have an impact on the Apple II world. It was designed as a joint venture between CBS, IBM, and Sears. It was an online service that had a graphic user interface before even America Online, and was focused on the IBM PS/1 and PS/2 computers, as well as PC-compatible clones. Since the software that connected to Prodigy was PC-only and proprietary, it could not be accessed with any 8-bit computers, and even the Macintosh client was not well designed. At its peak, Prodigy was second only to CompuServe in terms of its number of subscribers.
In 1996, Prodigy transitioned itself into an Internet service provider, and became “Prodigy Internet”. The older proprietary service became “Prodigy Classic”, and was discontinued in 1999 due to Y2K issues on the hardware on which the service was run. Prodigy Internet continued to be a product in the first decade of the 21st century, ultimately merging with Earthlink and Mindspring. As an ISP it no longer had unique content, but was simply a means of connecting to the Internet at large, and in 2012 access to www.prodigy.com redirects through a Bellsouth address and immediately redirects again to an AT&T / Yahoo news and search page.
William von Meister, who had started The Source back in 1981 and then was later pushed out in a power struggle, bounced right back and found other computer-related ventures to pursue. He tried a concept called the Home Music Store, in which music would be beamed to a satellite, then sent to a cable television system and piped to a customer’s home, where it could be recorded on their home stereo system. Initially Warner Bros had agreed to license their music to von Meister’s venture, but later decided to back out of the deal, stating that the retailers who sold their records across the country would not allow this threat to their business. The executive from Warner suggested that von Meister consider using his idea for something different, like computer video games.
With this little setback, von Meister turned his attention to doing just that – he started a company called Control Video Corporation, and a dial-up connection service called Gameline. It was made to work with the Atari 2600 game system, and was actually an Atari VCS cartridge with a phone connector on it. It used a 1200 baud modem, and allowed the customer to connect to a data center in Virginia and pay one dollar to download a VCS game. This game would expire after eight plays, and then the customer had to pay to download it again. Planned enhancements included email, news, banking, and searchable information.
Control Video Corporation hired Steve Case as a marketing executive in January 1983. Unfortunately, the crash in the video game market that began in that year put considerable stress on the finances for Control Video, and by May 1983 the company was near bankruptcy. The CEO and other remaining employees worked on ideas to try to keep the company going, but by 1985 von Meister had left. In May of that same year the company was reorganized under a new name, Quantum Computer Services. They made use of the company’s dial-up service and created and launched Quantum Link, a dial-up service focused on the Commodore 64 and 128 computer platform. The software used its own take on point and click, using the cursor keys to select options from a colorful screen. It was a popular way for Commodore users to get online with a world larger than a dial-up BBS.
Meanwhile, Apple Computer had created its own online network that went live in July 1985. Called AppleLink, its target audience was not the general public, but was exclusively for Apple employees and certified dealers, and later for software developers. It made use of a graphic user interface, looking different from that of the Macintosh but utilizing the same concept of files and folders, with the addition of bulletin boards and email (within the system).
To operate this on the server end, Apple contracted with GEIS (General Electric Information Services), the same entity that was running the text-only GEnie service discussed previously, using their Mark III timesharing computers. The software that ran on the local computer to connect to the system was written in Pascal, on contract by Pete Burnight of Central Coast Software. GEIS charged a high price for use of their system, about $30 million per year, which translated to $15 per hour during business hours for users of AppleLink, and provided no income to Apple.
Steve Case of Quantum wanted to expand his Quantum Link service beyond the Commodore market, and Apple wanted something like AppleLink to connect with its customers. It took months of meetings with Apple before Case could get the company to agree to let Quantum handle the project, but by 1987, they were ready to start what was known internally as “Project Samuel”. Quantum would create and operate the online system, and Apple would help with development of the client software. This software had to meet Apple’s requirements that it look like an Apple product, have screens designed the way Apple wanted them, and Quantum was required to make available adequate customer service. Apple promised to help promote the product, and would get a royalty of ten percent on all subscribers. It was designed initially to be used with the Apple II, but its ultimate target was the Macintosh market (typical of the internal company focus at the time).
The final product, AppleLink Personal Edition (or ALPE), was announced at AppleFest in Boston on May 20, 1988. (To differentiate this new consumer system from the older, private network, the old AppleLink was renamed to “AppleLink Industrial Edition”.) To use the ALPE software cost $15 per hour during prime time, and $6 per hour evenings and weekends. It was planned to offer Apple reference materials, software that could be downloaded, and a store. The system would also offer access to other general services, similar to what Quantum offered with Q-Link. To prepare for the launch, Quantum had previously in October 1987 hired Kent Fillmore away from the A2 Roundtable on GEnie to help recruit sysops for the various areas that would be hosted on ALPE.
While the development process was finishing on the Apple client, Quantum had been working on a product for the IBM PC market. In August 1988, Quantum started their PC-Link service, developed in conjunction with Tandy. This gave the company three similar services, with three target markets, all with similar names – AppleLink Personal Edition, Quantum Link (by this time known as Q-Link), and PC-Link.
Quantum and Apple had conflicts in distribution of the ALPE software. Quantum wanted to see it given away, bundled with new computers and other products sold by Apple, in order to gain as wide a distribution as possible. Although Apple did give away a lot of system software to its customers in this era, the company decided that this was one product that they would not give away. Though announced in May, it did not officially launched until October of 1988.
AppleLink Personal Edition (and likely PC-Link and Q-Link) was unique for an online computer service in its use of a custom terminal program. Rather than requiring the user, possibly a novice, to spend a lot of time in learning how to use a terminal program, a modem, AND ALPE, Quantum and Apple designed a special program that handled all the communication details, including the sign-on password (in the early days of its use). Each time that the user signed-off from ALPE, a new, randomly selected password was selected and saved on the ALPE disk for the next time. ALPE was aware of this password, and so the chances of someone breaking in on another user’s account and using time (and money) was nearly eliminated.
The ALPE client was easy to use with somewhat of a graphic interface. It was not a full GUI on the Apple II or IIGS, though there were graphic icons that could be selected with a mouse (if present) or keyboard cursor keys. Once initially configured for the modem card in the Apple II, the ALPE client transparently handled making the call and logging in. When the connection was made, icons allowed choice between Apple-specific or general services. Although the icons gave it a graphic interface appearance, when actually interacting with the system the screens displayed were 80-column text dressed up with MouseText to draw boxes, scrollbars and other graphic-like elements. The general section was directed to entertainment, business services, online shopping, and general education. There was also a place for playing online games, alone or with other users. An “auditorium” (chat room) could be used for members to attend conferences with special guests, allowing direct questions and answers with the guests.
The Apple Community section was the part most important to the dedicated Apple II (or Macintosh) user. Here, direct contact with Apple Computer, Inc. was available through the “Headquarters” icon, as well as other hardware and software vendors. Apple product announcements and information about products in testing could be found here, as well as direct access to Apple engineers and developers. There were Forums for to allow users to discuss various aspects of Apple computing, an “Apple University” that offered courses on productivity, programming, and specialized software applications, and a library of programs available for download.
Considering the rocky relationship between Quantum and Apple, it is not surprising that by 1989 a divorce was in the works. However, like any divorce, it turned out to messy and expensive. The original contract Apple had with Quantum allowed that company exclusive use of the Apple logo in association with an online product. This amazingly bad decision on the part of Apple now could hamper the ability of the company to create its own service with its own logo! To resolve the situation, in June 1989 Apple paid $2.5 million to Quantum to recover the rights to use the Apple logo in the context of an online service. By October of that year, Quantum gave AppleLink Personal Edition a new name, America Online (or “AOL” for short), still at that time exclusive to the Apple II and Macintosh. It continued to be still slightly less expensive than the other major online services, and because of the ALPE software still the easiest to use for the beginner.
Quantum Computer Services went through some changes as the business grew. In 1991, Steve Case became CEO of the company, and the America Online service was expanded from its Apple II and Mac base to add an MS-DOS client. By 1993 they added a client for Windows 3.1. As the Macintosh and Windows clientele increased, the company decided on November 1, 1994 that it was time to discontinue its legacy services (Q-Link and PC-Link). Unfortunately, the company also decided to cancel the Apple II and IIGS editions of its AOL software. (For this reason, I give the end date of America Online as 1994, referring specifically to direct use of the service by Apple II computers.)
Meanwhile, the original AppleLink Industrial Edition network continued to be in use by Apple employees, dealers, and software developers. However, it was costing Apple quite a bit of money to continue to participate in that system, (even though an internal study found it saved far more money than it cost, when compared with the previous system of telephone support). Efforts were made to reduce employee use of AppleLink, and by 1992 it actually generated a small profit (though it still cost a high price to pay GEIS to maintain and support the service). Apple tried again to get into the world of online services, contracting again with America Online to create what they called eWorld, a Macintosh-only service that began in June 1994. It never grew sufficiently to make it worthwhile to continue, and Apple pulled the plug in March 1996.,,,,
In its post-Apple II era in the mid-to-late 1990s, AOL became a significant player in the introduction of the casual computer user to online activities. Not only did the service offer a wide variety of services within its “borders”, America Online also became a popular portal to the World Wide Web in general – so much so that in the eyes of some people, AOL was the Internet.
America Online became such a powerful company that with the Dot-com “bubble” of the last half of the 1990s, it even merged with Time Warner. It was constantly sending out introductory disks to lure new users to the service, first with 3.5-inch floppy disks, and then CD-ROMs. After the collapse of the “bubble”, all tech stocks saw a significant decline in value, and the importance of AOL to Time Warner also declined, to the point that by 2003 the “AOL” part of the name was dropped. The importance of AOL has also continued to decrease as public understanding of the World Wide Web has increased, and as more people began to access the Internet using a local service provider and a standard web browser. At this time, many people still have America Online accounts, and use it as the home page on their web browser, but the content unique to AOL has significantly declined in importance.
One early use of the Internet that went beyond typical e-mail was the development of newsgroups. In 1979, two Duke university graduate students created a means to allow them to share information with the Unix community at large, while another student at the University of North Carolina wrote the first software program to handle a news. These messages differed from typical e-mail because they were sent out to large numbers of people at a time, rather than the usually smaller group of people to whom e-mail was typically sent. To receive messages that were broadcast to the group would require subscribing to that group, and any message sent to the group would go to all subscribing members.
The messages were sent out on the UUCP network (which was fee-based), and sometimes using the NNTP network (which was free). Although they started out with messages being held until specifically asked for by a subscribing system, it is now more common to have the news connections open continuously, so that a message appears almost immediately after it is posted.
With the widespread penetration of the Internet across the country in colleges and universities, many different groups and forums developed, including ones that were specific to the Apple II. Since the newsgroups on the Internet were already in existence when the Apple II was first released, and long before any home users with modems created single-user bulletin board systems, newsgroups probably represent the first online message “service” available for the Apple II. The original newsgroup dedicated to Apple II topics was called “comp.sys.apple”, although in 1990 its name was changed to “comp.sys.apple2” to distinguish it from newsgroups that were dedicated to Apple Computer’s other major product, the Macintosh. Using Internet addresses, Apple II users were even able to communicate directly with employees of Apple who had accounts that were accessible to the Internet.,
Unlike the commercial online services, which usually took steps to make sure that everyone participating “played nice”, Internet news groups tended to be anarchic, run by their own standards. With free access to literally anyone with an Internet-ready account, there were few rules of behavior that had to be observed. Anything from disagreements to arguments to all-out virtual fights could occur, and there was little that anyone could do (or wanted to do) to reign it in. Although it was (and still is to this day) a good source of information, it could be difficult to participate.
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- The name likely was borrowed from the ancient Oracle of Delphi in Greece, a place where prophecies and wisdom was passed down to worshippers of the Greek god, Apollo.↩
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