Dialing for Data
by Robert DeWitt
Electronic information utilities are making a big splash on the American scene as more and more people buy computers. Most computers, including the ATARls, can "communicate" with each other using these utilities. Communication between computers has brought about an entirely new kind of business.
What's an information utility? Essentially, it is an electronic network that sells computerized information and services to connected customers. Just like the water utility sells water. At present this is done over telephone circuits, and soon it will also be done by TV cable.
Two such utilities are prominent now: CompuServe and The SOURCE. The American Telephone Company (Ma Bell) is expected to enter this field soon, and will certainly be a strong contender. There are other services around that connect computers but they are usually smaller, more specific, and more expensive. DIALOG, a scientific data-base, is an example.
CompuServe dates back to 1969 as a data-base service company for other big companies and government. It is owned by H&R Block, and is located in Columbus, Ohio. It uses DEC-10 mainframe computers and has about 20,000 subscribers. CompuServe publishes a monthly newsletter "Update," and a quarterly magazine "Today." These are free to subscribers.
The SOURCE began in 1979 specifically as a consumer-oriented information utility, although it does serve businesses too. It was bought by Reader's Digest in 1980, and is located in McLean, Virginia. It uses six PRIME-750 mainframe computers and has 15,000 subscribers. The SOURCE publishes a bimonthly magazine "Sourceworld" that is free to subscribers.
Both utilities transmit at 300 baud or 1200 baud, and charge more for the higher rate. Since 300 baud is about 300 words per minute, it is a comfortable rate for a human operator. This article refers to 300 baud service only.
Both utilities are available full time, but at higher cost during business hours (see below). The SOURCE officially closes daily from 4AM to 6AM EST for system work. This is 1AM to 3AM PST (western nightowls take note).
CompuServe claims to be up "99.4%" of the time. Both begin their evening rates at 6PM (local time), but The SOURCE initiates a still lower rate at midnight.
To get connected with each of these utilities, the user calls a telephone number, gives an ID number and password, and is "logged on." Herein lies a significant difference. The user calls the telephone number at his own expense. If the closest access number is long distance, the user pays the charge. The SOURCE is clearly superior here, providing a local (no charge) number in about 350 major areas, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
CompuServe provides free local numbers in 95 cities, and a TYMNET number in about 200 more cities for which the user pays an additional $2.00 per hour. City size is no guarantee of having a local CompuServe number.
The SOURCE has a $100 registration fee that dissuades many people. CompuServe charges $20 for a "dumb" hookup, or $30 for a "smart" one that includes software. Most ATARI owners will want the dumb package and get their software elsewhere.
All time charges are figured to the nearest minute local time. Regular time on The SOURCE is from 6PM to midnight on weekdays, and all day on weekends and holidays. This is billed at $5.75 per hour. Midnight to 7AM is $4.25/hr. CompuServe charges $5.00/hr. from 6PM to 5AM weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays.
Rates during business hours for The SOURCE are $18/hr., and for CompuServe $22.50/hr. Anyone interested in CompuServe should add any long distance or TYMNET charges that could affect comparison.
The SOURCE has a few services that cost more, for the time they are used; commodity prices and stock analysis, Compu-U-Star ordering, and Journal abstracts. These are designated as SOURCE*PLUS and cost $15/hr. in regular time, or $10/hr. after midnight. CompuServe has a few surcharges in the stock market service, and charges a flat fee for Comp-U-Star. CompuServe also adds $2.00 to your monthly bill if you do not use MasterCharge or VISA for payments.
Both utilities have news services. CompuServe is more expensive, offering Associated Press and 10 complete American newspapers including the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. The SOURCE offers United Press International and selected N.Y. Times stories and features. Indexing by key word and key-word search of news is available with The SOURCE, but not with CompuServe.
Another difference is that CompuServe purges its news daily and has no historical news files. The SOURCE purges weekly (Friday AM maintenance) so it has a whole week's news available on Thursday night. This could be an important difference for researchers or people with special news interests.
Both utilities offer shopping by Comp-U-Star. This allows on-line review of about 30,000 items, plus electronic ordering for delivery to the home. The SOURCE offers "ordering" mode at SOURCE*PLUS rates, and CompuServe charges an extra membership fee of $18 per year to order. "Browsing" can be done on either utility at regular rates. Comp-U-Star itself is offered directly at $25 a year plus 25 cents per minute, so getting it as a part of a broader utility services does represent a value.
The SOURCE offers a BARTER program for worldwide exchange of goods and services, and both utilities have bulletin boards in which users may advertise. CompuServe includes classified advertising from the newspapers it carries, but this is an expensive way to read classiffed ads.
The most popular feature of either of these utilities is the on-line communication between and among users. CompuServe's version is called "CB Simulator," and it's a conversational free-for-all, with participants identified by fictitious "handles." The samples I've seen were bawdy and inane. If one perseveres, it is possible to find a party with mutual interests, and arrange a private talk. Groups can even conference on-line, and the exchange can be encrypted if all users have an encryption password.
The SOURCE offers CHAT, limited to two users who must be on-line and agree to the exchange, which is private. If you don't know anyone to chat with, you can query any user whose ID number shows up on the "online directory."
EMail is sure to become a new English word. It means electronic mail, and we will all be using it soon. Even now, users of these utilities enjoy the advantage of instantaneops message exchange, which can be printed or copied with the right equipment and software.
With either utility, messages can be EMailed to any other user of that service. The user's ID is his address, and the message will wait for him until it is picked up.
The SOURCE allows for an unlimited number of letters to collect until read. With CompuServe, your mailbox is "full" with 10 letters, and no more can be received until the mailbox is relieved of at least one letter.
With either service, the same letter can be sent to multiple addresses.
The SOURCE has an extra EMail feature called VOICEGRAM. It allows the member to call into the toll free Customer Service number and dictate an EMail letter to any user, for a $1.25 extra fee.
CompuServe allows its memberes to use its text editor program, FILGE, on EMail.
Both utilities maintain toll-free Customer Service numbers available 24 hours a day, and both were helpful and courteous when called. One difference that seems important when you have a problem is that The SOURCE answer automatically, puts you on hold "airline fashion" if necessary. Waiting time was three minutes, at most.
The CompuServe people either answer immediately, or you get a recording that says "all reps are busy, call back later."
STOCK MARKET INFORMATION
Both utilties provide stock market quotations, news, and analyses.
CompuServe calls its service MicroQuote, and charges five cents per quote. There is a $1 minimum fee each time that data-base is used.
The SOURCE calls its stock quotation service UNISTOX, and offers it at no extra charge. Both services cover about 30,000 issues on the major exchanges. The SOURCE also covers trading in about 20 commodities. These quotations are charged at SOURCE*PLUS rates.
Users can post their own notices on the bulletin boards of their respective utilities.
The SOURCE calls theirs POST. It is categorized by subject or interest. For example, there is an ATARI section in POST where there were about twelve notices.
The CompuServe board is called BULLET. There are three separate sections: Sale, Wanted, and Notices. Each section has a few hundred postings at a time. Each is key worded and numbered. To find ATARI notices you must scan all three lists.
Each of these utilities provides services for computer programmers. You can, in fact, program on-line and store data files with the utility.
CompuServe supports BASIC, Fortran, APL, Pascal, BLISS 10, MACRO, SNOBOL and AID. They call this part of the service MicroNet, and it is available at the regular rates. Each MicroNet user gets 128K of free memory, if it is accessed at least monthly.
The SOURCE supports BASIC, COBOL, Fortran, RPG II, and Assembly. It sells storage in blocks of 2,048 bytes. One to ten blocks cost fifty cents per month per block. Both utilities allow word processing and text editing on-line. CompuServe calls their editor "FILGE." If you have only a terminal, these services make sense. If you have a computer, it is more economical to do these things off-line.
Believe it or not, some playing on-line is a very popular part of these services, perhaps reflecting the high percentage of juvenile users. Each utility has its own main adventure game, and other games.
CompuServe is probably more game oriented than The SOURCE. It has "Adventure (in Colossal Cave)" and two other adventure-type games, including "Scott Adams Adventure." It has Decwars and SpaceWars, which are interactive with other users, and it sponsors periodic game contests among its subscribers.
The SOURCE's primary adventure game is Blackdragon, though it also has a selection. The SOURCE has more games than CompuServe, but generally they seem more trivial.
Each of these utilities has a vast number of special interest topics, and the variety increases all the time. It will be important to home in on your own two or three high priorities and compare specifically how these are handled by each service. CompuServe publishes a onesheet Subject Index that you can review at any Radio Shack. The SOURCE has a pamphlet "SOURCE DIGEST" available at all Computerland stores.
Briefly, here are some special interest topics they provide about equally:
- film reviews
- airline schedules
- travel services
- electronic checkbook
- personal advisor
- legislation status
- sports information
Here are some specialties of The SOURCE:
- customized research (Information on Demand) extra fee
- Mobil Restaurant Guide
- some accredited college courses
- User Publishings (royalty to user for material accessed by others)
- employment service (wanted and offered)
- personal appointment calendar
Here are some of the specialties of CompuServe:
- SOFTEX programs for sale and on-line delivery (downloading)
- Printer Art Gallery (downloading) extra
- Future File, by Nathan Muller
- Better Homes & Gardens food, decor
- World Book Encyclopedia
- limited home banking
- Feedback to CompuServe (no charge)
- various contests
- general aviation information
CompuServe is going after the ATARI market, and vice versa. ATARI advertises on the back cover of each issue of CompuServe's magazine. There is also an official ATARI department in CompuServe where users can "TaIk to ATARI."
The SOURCE, on the other hand, has no official ATARI involvement at this time. But it does have an ATARI section on the bulletin board.
There is no clear best choice for everyone but there could easily be a "wrong" choice for anyone. We hope this analysis will help you get with the one you need.