World on the wire. (telecommunications; personal computer networks; includes related articles on computer network prices, services)
by Gregg Keizer
Telecommunications - connecting PCs with huge, remote computer systems via a modem and the phone line - is the network of the 1990s. Like cable television and the VCR of a decade ago, telecommunications and computers are poised to explode into the mass market.
New, intuitive, and graphical interfaces make telecommunications much easier. Also, price reductions and the spread of flat-fee rates now make constant connecting economical.
Five major telecommunications networks complete for your interest. Each network puts its own spin on the process and provides a different menu of services.
This guided tour gives you a preview of the networks. Pick one, or more, and jack your PC into the phone line for telecommunicating pleasure.
Channel 1: CompuServe
The oldest and largest telecommunications network, CompuServe is a collection of over 14,000 separate services and features under one roof. Known for years as the computer enthusiast's network of choice, CompuServe has recently been making convincing efforts to attract a mass audience.
Much of the credit has to go to CompuServe Information Manager (CIM), a mouse-driven, menu-laden program that insulates you from much of CompuServe's dated text-based operation. Although it can't handle everypart of CompuServe, CIM lets you get online quickly and move easily from place to place within the network. CIM's only flaw (a minor one) is a tendency to connect before you're ready.
CompuServe's services are without peer. No other network offers as many selections or as much information. A complete, top-to-bottom information provider, CompuServe lets you gather stock quotations, order transcripts fro most television news shows, and share experiences and information.
Still, CompuServe's strength is its software libraries. Special interest groups, called forums, pigeonhole public domain and shareware software by computer type and software application. Since no ambitious shareware developer dares ignore CompuServe, you'll find great software here, often before it appears on other networks.
Unfortunately, CompuServe's rate structure hasn't caught up with its interface. You still pay by the minute for network access, and surcharges are heaped on top of regular charges for such things as the Official Airlines Guide and current stock quotes.
CompuServe's minute-by-minute rates make it the most expensive choice by far. But CompuServe can't be ignored. It's the biggest network with the widest range of services.
Channel 2: Prodigy
Graphics galore mark Prodigy as the newest network around. Heavily dependent on a picture-based look and slow in delivering information (unless you have a fast modem), Prodigy is leading all the rest of the services toward cable TV-like flat-rate monthly charges and easier-to-use interfaces.
Prodigy knows its audience - ordinary consumer who think of the computer as tool and appliance - and serves it a smorgasbord of shopping, news bites, E-mail (electronic messages), and advice. Novices will find Prodigy friendly and easy to navigate with a mouse or the keyboard.
Only $12.95 per month provides unlimited access to everything Prodigy carries. And the list is impressive. Prodigy is best at providing lifestyle services like online shopping and banking.
Though Prodigy raised its rates (from $9.95 to $12.95 per month) when it went national (and reportedly raised some users' tempers when it began charging 25 cents for each message after the first 30 per month), new features such as an electronic encyclopedia and a movie database make the increase easier to swallow. Prodigy is the least expensive network. No other network even comes close to Prodigy's ease of use and graphic appeal.
Channel 3: GEnie
GEnie has always had a warmer, more personable feel than CompuServe. Subsections called round tables, the games arena is extensive, and some special interest areas are downright friendly.
Like CompuServe, GEnie puts text, not pictures, on your screen. Unlike CompuServe, GEnie's numbered menus always offer help and a clear way to return to the previous menu - both make navigation somewhat easier. Still, you've got to wade through several screen before you reach your destination unless you memorize the page number that take you right to the feature. GEnie's Aladin software helps. This free program (you download it from GEnie) calls up the network, sends you directly to the area you want, and even retrieves E-mail and new messages. Aladdin can't match CompuServe Information Manager for ease of use, but it takes some of the sting out of GEnie's text-based operation.
Price is where GEnie shines. This network has always been less expensive than CompuServe, and a rate restructuring last fall made it even more attractive. A flat $4.95 a month buys access to more than 100 services, including many essentials like E-mail, the online encyclopedia, airline reservations, and truncated news and weather information. The really enticing parts of GEnie, such as the computer round tables, the multiplayer games, and the realtime chat and conference rooms, aren't included, but at $6.00 per hour, those GEnie features cost less than half the price of those on CompuServe.
GEnie is started in the right direction, though the flat fee doesn't cover enough to make the $4.95 the only telecommunications outlay you'll make each month. Combined with its broad range of services, this foray into flat-rate telecommunications marks GEnie as a network to watch. GEnie may not be much easier to use (actually less easy if you compare Aladdin with CIM), but it's a less expensive alternative to CompuServe.
Channel 4: Delphi
The only network that doesn't insert a software interface to mediate between you and the system, Delphi offers the basic in an easy-to-navigate text-based interface. Though you move from place to place by selecting from the standard menu lists, in Delphi you just type the first few letters of your choice. That means more typing, but you'll quickly feel comfortable with the English commands.
Delphi handles the communications staples - news, weather, E-mail, travel, conferences, stock quotations, games and puzzles, computer advice and software ready to be downloaded, online shopping, and electronic encyclopedias. Don't look for much beyond those essentials. The shareware and public domain libraries in Delphi, especially in the PC Compatibles/IBM Group, are well stocked but not as extensive as those in CompuServe or even GEnie.
Bright spots in Delphi's offerings include travel (there are three services that make plane reservations), two ready-to-read encyclopedias, and a topnotch science-fiction special interest group manned by professional writers and loved by fans.
Delphi has left high prices behind. You can connect for as little as $1.00 per hour with the network's 20/20 Advantage plan, which gives you 20 hours of access time a month for only $20.00. Or if you're a light user, you can opt for the basic program, which has rates comparable to GEnie's: Pay the $5.95 monthly fee (which gives you 1 hour of time); then pay $6.00 per hour for any additional time. Only Prodigy is cheaper, but the comparison isn't quite fair since Delphi lets you download software, a popular pastime among users of networks like CompuServe and GEnie.
Delphi isn't an alternative to CompuServe or GEnie, but it can be a replacement if you scale back your telecommunications expectations. This network takes good care of you if you're looking for the basics.
Channel 5: PC-Link
Toss pull-down menus and mouse control in with a broad range of PC-specific telecommunications features, and you've got PC-Link, the Tandy-sponsored network. PC-Link's special telecommunications software leans heavily on Tandy's DeskMate, a clean-cut, low-end graphical interface that looks dated when compared to Prodigy or CompuServe Information Manager. But then, time on PC-Link costs less than half that on CompuServe; and though it's poly here and there, it breezes by Prodigy in any race.
>From registration to sign-on to day-to-day viewing, PC-Links make extensive use of menus and pop-up text boxes to simplify your telecommunications experience. Help is always available, and most sections have a how-to item to fill in specific details. Everything you need to run the network is on pull-down menus. If you have a mouse, you'll point and shoot your way through the network easily. Even on the keyboard, PC-Link is the easiest network to navigate, next to Prodigy. The only complaint of substance is the herky-jerky way text flows onto the screen at 1200 bps.
PC-Link is a solid network, with news, sports, entertainment, financial, travel, software, E-mail, and more - all the basics you expect. More than 500 demos of commercial software are ready to be downloaded, and there's enough shareware and public domain software to satisfy most PC users.
PC-Link, the country's sole PC-only network, began with flat-rate charges and struck with them. Your $9.95 per month gives you unlimited access to PC-Link, the basic set of telecommunications features. The extended set, PC-Link Plus, costs an extra $6.00 per hour (but you get one hour free each month). You'll spend most of your connect time in PC-Link Plus, where you can download software, send E-mail, play online games, and chat with other PC-Link viewers.
PC-Link's advantage is its interface. If you want the features of a text-based telecommunications network but don't want to work through text to get them, PC-Link is a natural.
Winds of change are blowing: rate reductions, flat-rate service, beefed-up features, graphical interfaces, gung-ho games that keep you glued to the screen and modem, and more.
Telecommunications is transforming itself from a hacker's social hall into an information provider for the masses. Along the way, the five networks duplicate each other here, distinguish themselves there.
Prodigy's low price and fascinating set of services make it a must-have for any home PC user. But it leaves out too much - necessities like access to shareware and public domain software, sophisticated forums of knowledgeable PC owners, flexible E-mail, and fax capabilities. You need another network to fill the gaps. If money is no object, CompuServe is the pick. Unfortunately, it's simply too expensive for many. That's why I'd choose GEnie. GEnie may not have the same quantity of features and services as CompuServe, but its low cost - a third to half of CompuServe's - more than makes up for its deficits. Delphi and PC-Link each have something to recommend them as your channel of choice - Delphi's low cost and PC-Link's snappy interface and funky games. But neither stacks up against the two major text-based networks.
Telecommunications is heading in the right direction - down the same road cable TV and the VCR took ten years ago. Your TV is already wired to the world. Now it's your computer's turn.