Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 96

What you get with the net. (computer information networks)
by Orson Scott Card

Most computer users don't have modems. Why? Probably because most people haven't had a good reason to get one. Who would they send messages to? Why not just pick up the phone and call?

But all that's starting to change. More and more people are finding the "good enough" reason to buy a modem is an online service like Prodigy, CompuServe, Delphi, or GEnie. There's something exhilarating about getting on an electronic information service and finding yourself in public conversation with people whose books or columns you've read or whose views you find fascinating.

I've been been online (off and on) for years. For instance, I uploaded this column by modem and my book Ender's Game, published back in 1984, was the first novel I know of that was published electronically first (on Delphi).

The rest of my family never even tried to log on until recently. Up to now, they just looked over my shoulder as I fumbled through Delphi and CompuServe. They added comments like, "Cool, I guess," or "What in the world are you doing?" or "That is so confusing." Then they walked away.

Until Prodigy. I tried it out to take part in an electronic conference with a Illinois college class but the service was so interesting, I hung around awhile. And I like a lot of what I've seen.

The Prodigy concept is simple. Instead of using your own communications program and turning your computer into a dumb terminal with the mainframe a thousand miles away, Prodigy is loaded as a program in your computer, and most of the routine tasks are handled right there in your home. Only when you absolutely need to upload or download something from Prodigy do you access the main system. And when you do, the Prodigy program handles that automatically.

This means each person signed on to Prodigy uses only a fraction of the mainframe processing time needed to accomplish the same tasks on another online service. That lets Prodigy charge you a flat rate instead of a fee for each minute OF COLLECT time. Paying by the minute encourages you to get off as fast as you can, but a flat monthly fee encourages you to play around with the system to explore its possibilities. (There's a surcharge of 25 cents per message for every message you send above 30 in any given month.)

Another Prodigy innovation is its humane interface, which is far less intimidating than the mostly blank screen you get from Delphi and CompuServe. To their credit, some of the other services have been making progress. CompuServe Information Manager (CIM) and GEnie's Aladdin automate many online task. CIM even has mouse support and pulldown menus for the IBM version. Aladdin is a keyboard-driven program, but it makes managing GEnie RoundTables and software libraries a breeze. Just set up your Aladdin program with the areas you visit most, and move to your favorite places with the touch of a finger.

But when my 12-year-old saw me dinking around with Prodigy, he didn't just walk away. He sat down, and in a few minutes, I had him signed on with his own membership (each household gets six memberships for the same fee). He was off and running.

Prodigy offers games online, but they're simpleminded--nothing to write home about. You can shop and browse through online catalogs, although my orders arrive much faster through telephone shopping than by means of Prodigy. On the other hand, I don't have to spend an hour on hold, and most companies are a pleasure to deal with.

But Prodigy's main attraction--and the best entertainment--comes from other users. The conversations and messages on the club bulletin boards are a great way to strike up some friendships. Best of all, from my point of view, there are lots and lots of kids online.

So not only did my computer-Literate son, Geoffrey, take to Prodigy at once; so did my ten-year-old daughter, Emily. She cheerfully hooks up and carries on her own conversations with long-distance friends.

But there are drawbacks. You can't upload or download long files, and the message-length limitation, though lately improved, is still-pretty severe. I've found, though, that the forced brevity of the messages helps me. On Prodigy it takes only a couple of minutes to read and answer letters from my fiction readers--so I actually complete my online correspondence. That doesn't happen very often with the U.S. Mail!

Of course, you can do all this--and a lot more--with GEnie, CompuServe, Delphi, or America Online. But can you do it as easily as you can on Prodigy? And will your less-than-expert family members feel as comfortable exploring these other services on their own? Not a chance!

Is Prodigy worth buying the modem for? You'll have to answer that yourself. But when I see my kids typing away, corresponding with people all around the country on an incredibly wide range of subjects, I can tell you my answer. Prodigy has made my kids use the computer for something besides homework and games, and it's made their world a little larger, too. Prodigy claims that 700,000 households are signed on to its system. I'm glad mine is one of them!