Online With START
Prodigy, Dialog and the Knowledge Index
by Gregg Pearlman
This month we take a look at two online services--one new and one old--that are worlds apart in approach. Prodigy is a new service for family use with heavy emphasis on graphics and easy menu operation, while Knowledge Index/Dialog is aimed at serious researchers, both scholastic and corporate.
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Prodigy is from Trintex, a partnership of IBM and Sears, Roebuck and Co. It's an online service along the lines of CompuServe and GEnie, but with a twist: it's graphics-oriented. When we first saw Prodigy demonstrated at the West Coast Computer Faire in April, 1988, it looked to be a service that would be excellent for many ST owners. Unfortunately, software for this extremely promising facility has been developed only for Apple and IBM computers, but not the ST--yet. So START editorial staffers harangued Prodigy's beleaguered booth-dogs to persuade the higher-ups at Trintex to develop software for the ST.
Then we thought of running Prodigy under pc-ditto, so we requested and received a 3 1/2-inch IBM demo disk. But because the weakest part of pc-ditto is the s-l-o-w speed of graphics handling, the demo just crawled along. However, the online demonstration (on an IBM) at Prodigy's booth was fascinating. The graphics aren't of Spectrum 512 caliber--it's an "Okay, now draw a house and fill in the colors" affair--but they're still impressive.
$9.95 Per Month
What really makes Prodigy stand out is the price: $9.95 total cost per month with no hourly charge. How can Trintex do this? The same way the networks can show television programs free of charge: commercials. As you while away a happy hour online, you'll see advertisements from Prodigy's many sponsors scroll across the bottom of your screen.
Prodigy is now online for the IBM world and should be ready for Mac users next year. According to Prodigy Communications Manager Brian Ek, the ST hasn't been ruled out as a possible market, but the company simply must feed the bigger audiences first. If you want to have access to this unusual service, why not contact Trintex and tell them how you feel? Write to: Trintex, 445 Hamilton Avenue, White Plains, NY 10601 or call them at (914) 993-8000.
And On The Other Hand
Dialog, the "world's largest online knowledgebank," began as a project commissioned by the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in the early 1960s and was developed specifically as NASA's "recon database," according to marketing representative Kathy Mulvey. As a commercial service, it's been available since 1972. Overall, Dialog has roughly 80,000 customers in 80 countries. It's clearly not for the general user--largely because the general user can't pay Dialogs price for information (up to $300 per hour). Rather, Dialog is geared toward a businessperson generating reports, or a serious researcher in a variety of fields, including business, law, medicine and technology. It's also useful to the very serious college (or graduate) student--with a healthy government grant or family trust fund.
Dialog's night service, Knowledge Index (KI), has been around since the early 1980s and it's far less expensive than Dialog: a $35 startup fee and 40 cents per minute while searching, but this includes telecommunications charges. There is also a surcharge for accessing certain databases within KI that ranges from $15 to $300 per hour. But for this fee, you can access about 65 of Dialog's 300-plus databases.
Dialog has many educational uses. Educators can compile reading lists for their classes and students can research term papers or doctoral theses. College bound students can research over 3,000 schools in the United States and Canada--or compile a list of prospective employers from thousands of company descriptions.
Professionals may make the best use of KI. Physicians can keep up with the latest research and have access to clinical studies on over 60,000 drugs. Over 3,000 engineering and technical journals are available, as are over 720 law journals.
On the home (or business) front, computer users can find articles about hardware, software peripherals and services. Other family members can find magazine articles on travel, entertainment and more.
Easy To Use? Not Quite
Aside from the surcharges for accessing individual databases within Dialog and KI, what might most discourage you most is that, according to Kathy Mulvey, neither service is remotely user-friendly "In fact," she said, "When you log on, there's just a question mark for a prompt. The rest is up to you." While KI is easier than Dialog, it's still completely command-driven--there are no menus.
The KI manual comes in a three-ring binder and takes half a day to read. The Dialog manual comes in four binders and may take you days to sort through it. (Dialog also has regular training sessions for users. If you phone the company's 24-hour customer service 800 number for assistance, the customer service representative will suggest strongly that you go through the training and read the manual thoroughly before asking any questions of them.)
No matter how unfriendly an online system is, it's always possible to master its command structure eventually. But because KI is Dialog's nighttime access service, there's another very real limitation on KI's use: its hours of access. It's only available Monday through Friday from 6 PM. to 5 A.M. the next morning, from 6 PM. Friday to midnight Saturday and from 3 PM. Sunday to 5 A.M. Monday All of these access hours are determined by your local time.
Take a look at the sidebar illustrating a typical search on the DRAM shortage. It may seem easy enough to use KI, but you really do have to keep the manual nearby at all times. If you master KI or its parent, Dialog, you will have at your fingertips a huge library of data. Then all you have to do is find the money to pay for it.
Gregg Pearlman is Assistant Editor of Antic Magazine
Prodigy, Trintex, 445 Hamilton Avenue, White Plains, NY 10601, (914) 993-8000, $9.95 per month.
Knowledge Index, Dialog Information Services, Inc., 3460 Hillview Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94304, 800-3-DIALOG (800-334-2564), (415) 858-3785, $35 start-up fee includes manual and two free hours, $24 per hour online searching fee including all network telecommunication costs, additional charges for specific services.