In a world before web browsers, accessing online information and services was a pretty complex undertaking.

Detailed knowledge of networking topology, communication protocols and low-level software tools were essential to take advantage of a fast growing but still embryonic internet.

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Launched in 1979, the CompuServe intended to deliver a far more user-friendly solution. The goal was to ensure any modem equipped PC could to take advantage of services hosted on the global communication network. Being the first commercial online services venture, CompuServe set a benchmark for rival companies.

Network access relied on low-tech acoustic modem devices attached directly to the telephone system. Users dialed into local access points, which then established a connection to centralized computer centers. Online access was charged by the minute, with separate daytime and evening/weekend rates.

However, email communication was restricted to other CompuServe subscribers, which prosed a problem if the person you wanted to contact used a rival product, such as Delphi's online service, Genie or MCI Mail.

Despite these restrictions, growth was rapid. By the mid-1980s, CompuServe had become one of the world's largest information service company, with commercial operations hosted in over 30 US cities.

Interface Evolution

The initial menu-driven, text-based interface was pretty basic. Yet, it provided straightforward access to email, chat, news, financial information, forums, bulletin boards and special interest groups.

The slow modem technology of the time was a limiting factor on interface design. Downloading graphical elements inevitably resulted in frustratingly long download times. However, with the arrival of the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows based PCs, CompuServe subscribers began to expect a different experience.

By 1992, faster modem technology encouraged the development of what-you- see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) interfaces. Even so fonts, colours and emoticons were all encoded within the 7-bit text- based messages to ensure download times remained within acceptable limits.

CompuServe UK

In 1994, before widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, the UK arm of CompuServe rolled out an online shopping service trial. Features included a secure payment system, with order fulfilment backed by Royal Mail postal deliveries. Included in the first batch of companies to sign up were many familiar names, including WH Smith, Tesco, Virgin, Interflora and Dixons. As online customer numbers pushed passed the 100,000 mark, lifestyle goods such as Sainsbury's Wine and Jaguar Cars were added into the mix.

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However, as the 1990s rolled by, the proprietary CompuServe system was in direct competition with a plethera of technology start-ups focused on taking full advantage of the burgeoning World Wide Web.

By the mid-1990, the Mosaic and Netscape Navigator browsers had already captured an audience of over ten million people, while the later availability of free web browsers led users to discover and experiment with other services that were in many cases also free to use.

This seriously impacted CompuServe's financial model, which started to look seriously outdated. The writing was on the wall. Yet as often happens, CompuServe failed to respond to the threat.

As we entered a new millennium, it was clear the most successful organizations were the ones who knew how to maximize the power, flexibility and virtually limitless potential of the world web. And online services once only available through pay-monthly subscriptions were offered free to anyone with a web browser and internet connection.