CompuServe was the original internet service provider that competed with Prodigy and AOL during the 90s to constitute the “Big Three”. Founded in 1969 as a time-sharing service, CompuServe would be the first service to offer email and technical support to PC users in 1979. A year later it would unveil real-time chat and by 1989 it would be the first online service to offer internet connectivity, becoming a leading internet service provider.
The 90s were a time when few people understood the capabilities of the internet. Bill Gates had a hard time explaining the internet to David Letterman, so with that general lack of awareness in mind, CompuServe set out to explain the internet with its “I use it to…” campaign.
By the mid 90s CompuServe had over 4 million members worldwide. However unlike today, just 20% of internet users went online every day. CompuServe ambitiously wanted to get new members, and fast, explaining that they’d made it “easy and affordable to get the most from the dazzling new world of online communication, information and entertainment.“
Back when the internet was a novel concept, it was cool to say “surfing the net” or “surfing the web” when asked about your hobbies. CompuServe justified the phrase since traveling through the internet was a voyage of discovery. The internet gave access to E-Mail, Telnet, Usenet Newsgroups and FTP.
The World Wide Web or the “Web” – does anyone even call it that anymore? – was “the most dramatic and exciting part of the Internet.” While that may sound funny today, having access to information at the touch of a few buttons was revolutionary in the 90s, justifying the ‘dramatic’ and ‘exciting’ expressions.
It’s hard to explain the thrill and sense of wonder one would get when you first used the internet and knew you were communicating in real time with people from the other side of the world. Up until then, communication was primarily done in person, by written letter and one-to-one telephone conversations.
Some publications got onto the web early, The Economist being one of them.
CompuServe was keen to show that its internet service had value for many people. Some wanted to play games. Others wanted to communicate with people in different countries. Whatever you were looking for, the internet likely had something to offer you. The Hutchinson Encyclopaedia was a front runner until Encarta, Britannica and eventually Wikipedia came to dominate the encyclopaedia market.
“I used it to shop from home.” E-commerce was an exciting prospect for many companies. Now they could sell their products to customers who weren’t physically in their stores or to those ringing up after perusing a bulky, expensive catalogue. It’s around this time two little known companies decided to set up shop – Amazon and eBay.
“I use it to get help for my computer.” Yes, believe it or not, even back then people needed tech support.
In the mid 90s certain words that are widely used today weren’t understood. Words such as ‘download’, ‘site’ and ’email’ initially had to be included in glossaries for people to understand. A phrase such as “I was browsing a site and downloaded a file from its home page” might have thrown someone completely off guard, but this would change in the late 90s as more and more people gained access to the internet.
Something that made AOL stand out from CompuServe was the ability to have unique, self-chosen usernames and email addresses. With CompuServe, your ID would determine your email address. firstname.lastname@example.org didn’t quite have the same ring to it as LeetHacker@aol.com.
CompuServe set the scene for a lot of the services we access today on the internet. It was acquired by AOL in 1998. How would things be different today if CompuServe had won the internet wars? What if Google’s acquisition with Excite had proceeded in 1999? What if Facebook had accepted Yahoo’s $1 billion acquisition offer in 2006? We can only imagine what the internet would look like today if CompuServe had come out on top against AOL.