With The Online Services
Selby Bateman, Associate Publisher
Every day and night, thousands of computer users log on to one or more of a variety of major telecommunications services to get information, play games, send mail, buy airline tickets, chat with friends, and take part in a host of other activities. These national and international online systems have shown they're here to stay. Now they want to prove that they can attract—and keep—an ever growing membership of computerists.
What will it take to get you to regularly log on to a telecommunications service with your computer? What combination of price, ease of use, services, features, and other attractions will bring the great majority of computer users into the online fold?
That's the big question that every telecommunications service would like to have answered. So far, there are many thousands of computer owners who regularly go online with services such as American People/Link, CompuServe, Delphi, Dow Jones, GEnie, PlayNet, QuantumLink, The Source, and others. But people who run those systems all know that they've just begun to tap the potential market out there.
What are the main stumbling blocks?
"There is a real fear of the whole process: of modems, of getting around in these services, and especially of getting a big bill at the end of the month," says Steve Case, a vice president at Quantum, the company that runs Quantum-Link, a Commodore-only telecommunications service.
But Case and officials at other major services are confident that they can solve these problems, that the future of online computing is bright. "The way these things tend to work is that there's a gradual building process, and then it takes off," he says.
"As with home video, videocassettes initially got a mixed reception. And then the machines got better and easier to use, and the prices came down, and it took off. There are increasing signs that this is going to happen in telecommunications. We're pretty bullish on the future of it," says Case.
In order to make their services ever more palatable, online systems are continually altering the mixture of ingredients to discover just the right recipe. While some of the systems stress the multitude of different features they offer, others are trying to find certain niches of interest in which they can build electronic forums, marketplaces, and information centers.
Each service offers its own variation on a common group of features: special interest groups (SIGs) on a variety of topics, online gaming, travel information and scheduling capabilities, public domain software that can be downloaded and used by members, computer industry and technical information, news and sports information, and many other items.
As the number of features offered is growing, telecommunications service prices—usually figured in terms of cost-per-minute—are generally coming down, either directly or indirectly, through alternate-pricing strategies. And the emergence of faster data transfer—through both improved software and modem speeds of 1200, 2400, and even 9600 baud—is changing the nature of working online.
Fine-Tuning The System
For the newcomer, trying to understand just how an online service works and what it offers can be an intimidating experience. It's not that the systems are so difficult to use or that there is a scarcity of information on how to use them. On the contrary—virtually all of the systems are regularly covered in books and magazines, and there are even free demos offered by some services. The early intimidation seems to stem from the same problem facing people who've never touched a computer: You really have to use it a few times before you understand just how useful, entertaining, and versatile it is.
At the same time, however, the various services realize that in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience, they must construct systems that are both simple for beginners and yet flexible for experienced members. That equation is a difficult one, and almost all of the services are constantly trying to streamline procedures, simplify the commands used, and offer just the right mixture of help screens, menus, and keyboard shortcuts.
The end result of having a fine-tuned online structure should ultimately be to have the user able to achieve something specific rather than wandering around from menu to menu or getting lost in a succession of submenus, says John Gibney, national sales director for General Videotex Corporation's Delphi service.
"I see in that a very high-perceived value for the user that is what this industry is all about," he says. "Get them on, get them to the information they want as fast as possible, and then if they want to get off, they can. We don't ever try to force-feed information that they have no interest in."
Many telecommunications services can be accessed via any of a number of terminal software programs. However, in certain cases, as with systems like QuantumLink that are dedicated to one computer, separate software is usually required to allow the user to include system-specific features.
The large online services are also accessed by members through a local phone call to one of the major telecomputing carriers, such as Tymnet, Telenet, and Uninet. Rather than placing a long distance call, as you might to contact a remote bulletin board system (BBS), these local access lines substantially reduce your online charges.
Bit By Bit By Bit
One of the biggest changes occurring now in telecommunications is the arrival of relatively low-cost modems capable of transmitting data at faster speeds. Many people who began using a modem at home, in school, or in a small business probably started with 300 baud, or bits per second (bps), transmission rate. Now, however, many people are using much faster speeds.
To understand the differences, consider that each character (for example, a letter or numeral) you send is normally composed of eight to ten bits of data, depending on your computer. If we start with the assumption that there are ten bits per character you're sending or receiving, then 300 bps roughly equals 30 characters a second. At that rate, you can actually watch—and even read—characters as they appear on your screen. But figures show that over the past year or so 300 bps has been giving way to 1200, 2400, and even 9600 bps. At that rate, information is transmitted much faster, and that can add up to considerable savings if you're paying by the minute to access material on an online service.
"There has been an impressive leap in 1200-baud usage during 1986 and the first half of 1987," says Bill Louden, general manager of General Electric's GEnie telecommunications service. "In January 1986, over 60 percent of our subscribers used 300 baud," he says. "By the end of 1986, over 90 percent used 1200 baud." Although 2400-baud usage on GEnie is so far quite limited, Louden says that the company already has the capability to handle that speed in more than 70 major metropolitan areas.
Delphi's Gibney goes even further: "I think you're going to see 1200 baud disappear rather quickly. Right now, better than 60 percent of Delphi users are coming in at 1200 baud. About 30 percent are coming in at 2400 baud, and we're right now working on speeds higher than 2400 baud. We've been beta testing 9600 baud for some time."
External modems, and internally-mounted modem cards, have dropped in price dramatically. A 1200-baud modem that might have cost several hundred dollars just a year or so ago sells for about a hundred now. And these modems often come with a free membership to one or more of the major services, including a specified amount of free access time on the system to get you started.
Most of the services have been modifying their price structures to allow 1200-baud usage at or near the same price per minute as 300 baud. Since online services will collect more revenue for material received at 300 baud than at 1200, the services have in the past tried to make up for the difference by charging higher prices for the faster service. But, as noted, several of the major systems are now minimizing the price differences on the theory that the lower prices and faster speeds will eventually make online membership far more popular—and more profitable.
The Flat-Rate Alternative
For computer users, one of the developments with dramatic long-term possibilities is the idea of flat-rate online computing. In other words, rather than running up charges by the minute or hour of usage—like a taxi meter that's always on—the company would charge a flat monthly rate for its basic services, with an additional surcharge for premium services. Most cable television systems work that way, helping to take the sting out of the final bill and promoting wider usage.
QuantumLink has been using this system since it came into being. Members pay an initial fee of $9.95 to purchase the system software and then a monthly fee of $9.95 for basic services. The system's Plus Services carry a per-minute cost. This structure is one that Steve Case thinks is far more popular with users and is less inhibiting since there's no invisible clock ticking away money while the user is logged onto the system.
"I think it's very important, and will be increasingly used by other people," he says. "It allows you to provide a club of active members. People tend to want to keep coming back."
In a related area, GTE Telenet has been offering its PC Pursuit flat-fee system now in a growing number of metropolitan areas. With PC Pursuit, the computer user pays a monthly fee of $25 to Telenet and has access without further charges to bulletin boards, other computer users, and noncommercial data-bases. This does not apply to the commercial online services, however.
Although there are literally hundreds of commercial online services, a half-dozen or so have developed that are used extensively by computer users in the home, in schools, and in small businesses. Without in any way attempting to cover all of what these services offer, here's a taste of how each approaches its market and what they have added recently.
American Home Network has always stressed the social aspect of its online service, American People-Link. And the primary areas of focus include machine-specific and general-interest SIGs, message boards, a data library, and online chatting.
PeopleLink users, called P-Linkers, were recently given access to several new services, an online travel agency, and the TWA online airline reservations service as well as an online shopping area.
The service offers a variety of rate structures, including a new frequent-use rate for those who are most active on PeopleLink. Supersaver (frequent-use) rates (Monday-Friday, 6 p.m.–8 a.m.; weekends, 8 a.m.–8 p.m.) are $3.95 per hour for 300 baud, $4.95 per hour for 1200 baud, and $11.95 per hour for 2400 baud. Leisure-time rates (M–F, 8 p.m.–7 a.m.; weekends, 8 p.m.–8 a.m.) are $4.95 per hour for 300 or 1200 baud, and $11.95 per hour for 2400 baud. And prime time rates (M-F, 7 a.m.–6 p.m.) are $11.95 per hour for 300 baud, $12.95 per hour for 1200 baud, and $14.95 for 2400 baud. (Illinois residents pay no prime time rates.)
The frequent-user rate system lets you pay a $10 monthly fee that saves 25 percent on all per-hour rates. To become a "Frequent P-Linker," there's a one-time $12.50 signup charge unless you join when first registering to use PeopleLink. The service now offers both voice and modem signup procedures.
American PeopleLink, American Home Network, 350 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610
Online since 1979, CompuServe's main focus over the past year—as with many of the other services—has been centered on enhancing existing features rather than adding new ones. CompuServe calls itself the largest commercially available online information service in the world, with more than 350,000 subscribers split fairly evenly between business and consumer use.
Because of that broad base, electronic mail has always been an important feature of the system. CompuServe's own electronic mail, called EasyPlex, has established ties with several other large communications companies—including MCI and Telex—allowing two-way messaging across these systems.
In addition to its many other services, CompuServe, in association with Addison-Wesley's Information Services Division, recently placed online Einstein, a gateway to some 90 databases selected for their usefulness to secondary school students and faculty. The databases include newspaper and wire services, articles, book reviews, and an online version of the Reader's Guide To Periodical Literature,
CompuServe has also been expanding its services for the at-home financial investor. One new feature, for example, lets users look at specific stocks through a detailed group of 24 analytical filters, including market/book ratio, cash flow, and four-year growth. Further tracking and analysis functions are available; and the information can be downloaded directly into a variety of software packages, including Lotus 1-2-3 and Symphony.
There is a $39.95 registration fee to join CompuServe. Non-prime time rates are $6 per hour at 300 baud and $12.50 per hour at 1200 or 2400 baud. Prime time access is $12.50 per hour at 300 baud and $15 per hour at 1200 or 2400 baud. CompuServe recently reduced its 2400-baud rates to the same level as that for 1200 baud.
CompuServe, P.O. Box 20112, Columbus, OH 43220
General Videotex's Delphi service has recently added several enhancements to its system, in addition to the electronic mail, teleconferencing, bulletin boards, and other features that have been a part of its offerings.'
First, the company is issuing a revised and illustrated handbook, published by Simon & Schuster. With purchase of the manual, a new user doesn't have to pay the service's $24.95 registration fee.
Delphi officials expect to add the one-hundred-thousandth member to its service before the end of the year. Recent additions to the service include a personalized astrology service that has proven to be very popular and new auction software that allows users to bid on products. Delphi hosted an online fund-raising auction for public television station WGBH in Boston that netted the nonprofit PBS station $25,000.
New "Advantage" rates are available for as little as nine cents a minute, or $5.40 per hour. To take advantage of those rates, a user simply agrees to use a minimum of $24 a month in log-on time. The $24 charge is applied toward your monthly usage, and there is a onetime fee of $19 to use the Advantage rate. Prime time standard rates are $17.40 per hour, while non-prime time rates are $7.20 per hour.
General Videotex Corporation, 3 Blackstone St., Cambridge, MA 02139
Dow Jones News/Retrieval
Dow Jones emphasizes its news and information for the business and financial community. There are more than 40 business and financial databases, and selected stories from the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and the Dow Jones News Service.
You'll find a wealth of data on all areas of business, such as excerpts from SEC records, ownership information on more than 10,000 public companies, company profiles from Standard & Poor's, research reports from brokerage houses, and 15-minute delayed stock quotes with a special news alert feature.
The company recently introduced an enhanced version of the Dow Jones Tracking Service for automatic tracking and analysis by members through their own computers. The service lets them automatically retrieve stock prices from the Dow Jones Current Quotes Service and late-breaking news from the Dow Jones News Service for each company in the profile.
New stock analysis programs have also been recently made available for Macintosh computers, similar to those already offered for IBM PCs and compatibles, and the Apple II-family of computers.
The Dow Jones registration fee is $29.95, with an annual $12 fee (waived the first year). Non-prime time access ranges from 10 cents to 80 cents a minute at 300 baud, depending on which services are used. Prime time access ranges from 30 cents to $1.20 a minute at 300 baud. The fee for 1200 or 2400 baud is 2.2 times the 300-baud rate.
Dow Jones News/Retrieval, P.O. Box 300, Princeton, NJ 08543
GEnie's round-table SIGs continue to be one of the most popular areas on the service. More than 40 of them are offered, focusing on all major brands of home computers and operating systems. GEnie has also added non-computer-related SIGs for photography, genealogy, scuba diving, and a host of other hobbies and interests.
The service, responding to requests for more online access to financial information, has begun offering GEnie Quote$, a stock market utility that gives information on over 67,000 securities. Users can also put their personal portfolios online.
The company charges no additional fee for 1200 baud, and now offers 2400 baud in over 70 cities. Prime time access is $35 an hour, but non-prime time access is only $5 an hour. A one-time registration fee of $18 is also required.
General Electric Information Services, 401 N. Washington St., Rockville, MD 20850
PlayNet began operation in October 1984 with a primary audience of Commodore 64 owners who wanted to meet others online and to play games that incorporated color and sound. The non-prime time rate is a mere $2.75 per hour, with a monthly maintenance fee of $12 required. The registration fee is $19.95.
PlayNet has recently undergone a streamlining of its system, remodeling the menus, bulletin boards, and other areas of the service. Improvements were made in the online conversation section, which continues to be the most popular area on PlayNet. There are 14 online games incorporating color and graphics, as well as three text-only games: bingo, poker, and blackjack.
The most recent addition to the service is the online shopping center. This shopping area focuses on small merchants, crafts people, and artisans, unlike most of the other services. There is also a new discount shopping area in which nothing is priced higher than $9.99.
PlayNet, 105 Jordan Rd., Troy, NY 12180
QuantumLink has become a focal point for a great deal of Commodore 64 telecommunications activity during the past year or two. Commodore itself has provided marketing and some funding for the service in trying to build a major Commodore forum.
The QuantumLink software that comes with membership means that the 64's excellent color graphics and sound can be included in all of the areas of the service. And QuantumLink follows a busy schedule with guest speakers and topical forums—all aimed at helping Commodore 64 users get more out of their machines.
QuantumLink has expanded its regular service to include online forums hosted by such major software companies as Electronic Arts, Timeworks, and other publishers; Commodore enhancement areas such as the GEOS forum developed in conjunction with Berkeley Softworks; and the recently added casino area in which you can play interactive, multiplayer blackjack and poker, as well as slot machines and other games of chance.
One of QuantumLink's most ambitious projects is called Habitat, a completely interactive world developed in association with Lucas-Film. Users first log into Habitat and then can move throughout the world with their cartoon character personas, meeting others and building an alternate life. After considerable development delays, Habitat is still not ready for full use. But QuantumLink officials believe that, when all of the problems are worked out of the complex project, it will be a breakthrough in online gaming.
Quantum, the parent company, is now experimenting with the beta version of a similar service for Apple II owners. Apple owners who would like to apply to become beta testers for the planned service can log in through their modems at 1-800-833-9400. Note, however, that this service is not yet ready for full public use.
There's no registration fee to join QuantumLink other than the $9.95 software. Users pay $9.95 a month for unlimited use of basic service, plus additional per-minute fees for some extra services they may want.
QuantumLink, 8620 Westwood Center Dr., Vienna, VA 22180
The Source offers a wide variety of online information to both home and business users. In the consumer area, a games SIG has been added to other SIGs on personal computing, PC software, professions, and arts and entertainment. Two of the system's realtime conferencing capabilities, involving both public and private conferencing, have also been enhanced.
Several financial services have been added. The home investor may want to make use of Risk/Reward Analysis, a decision-making support tool that provides analysis for stocks, bonds, warrants, and convertibles. Volatility data is drawn automatically from Standard & Poor's.
A new tax service that's offered is a compilation of tax information and a tax question-and-answer service. A mutual fund analysis feature provides performance histories for more than 800 mutual funds and 40 different market indices.
The Source has also added MEDSIG for the discussion of chronic illnesses; COOKSIG for communication about cooking, recipes, and dietary concerns (part of these revenues go to the American Cancer Society); and Educators' Exchange, a professional exchange for teachers and administrators to share information, learn about educational software, and stay informed on educational issues.
A registration fee of $49.95 is required to join The Source. A monthly fee of $10 is also charged, although this is credited against the user's online time. Prime time access is 36 cents a minute at 300 baud, 43 cents a minute at 1200 baud, and 46 cents a minute at 2400 baud. Non-prime time access is 14 cents a minute for 300 baud, 18 cents a minute for 1200 baud, and 20 cents a minute for 2400 baud.
The Source, 1616 Anderson Rd., McLean, VA 22102 ©