Like a wrinkle in a crisp cotton sheet, sometimes our past and present come together all too abruptly, leading us down memory lane, a trip that often brings a wistful smile. I had that same feeling when I read the news that CompuServe, the ground-breaking online service that presaged the commercial Internet, was shutting down after 30 years. I am not sure how many people remember CompuServe, but it was a major influence in my life and helped define my future as a technology writer.
I first encountered CompuServe in 1992 — before that I was too poor to own a computer and a dedicated phone line. At the time, I was fairly young and struggling to find direction in my writing career. I also had started reading about the information superhighway and the Arpanet.
I bought a very expensive AST PC. It came with a 3.5-inch CompuServe disk and a speedy 9600-baud external dial-up modem. Within a matter of minutes, I was signed up. I got an awkward numerical email address and a welcome email. A few hours later, I was checking out online bulletin boards and reading magazine content online.
But my eureka moment came with the arrival of the initial welcome email from CompuServe. Like a photographer who sees the image slowly take shape on paper submerged in his development tray, my future became clear to me. Suddenly, the information superhighway, connectivity, and what would eventually be known as the commercial Internet were what I was going to write about. Thanks to CompuServe, I had stumbled onto the biggest story still being told.
CompuServe was a great tool for a novice like me to become wise in the ways of the Internet — from FTP to bulletin boards to Internet email and eventually web browsing. Sure, it cost a lot of money — something that was scarce in my early days as an immigrant. Eventually, I graduated to Pipeline and enjoyed the raw Internet. My work life allowed me to write about the early days of Netscape and many such companies, but it was CompuServe that remained a constant.
It was a great tool that I used to research stories and to communicate with many like-minded people. It allowed me to tap into a lot of databases including Forbes magazine’s archive. I used that archive to learn about David Churbuck, my eventual boss at Forbes.com, whom I stalked and talked into hiring me. As a reporter, I wrote about the online wars of the mid-1990s as Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL (s twx) competed with each other and emerging Internet service providers.
These were the glory days for the ISPs and online services. I remember visiting Columbus, Ohio, just to get a glimpse of CompuServe’s campus, gawking at the enormous building with awe. Weeks later, I would visit Prodigy’s offices in downtown New York and meet with AOL executives at some Silicon Alley breakfast. It was a thrilling time, and these companies were the stars, no different than today’s Facebook and Twitter.
I also wrote about America Online buying CompuServe. That consolidation only presaged my own evolution as a writer. Eventually, both those companies became less relevant to my job and me, as I started writing about optical networks, broadband and the future of the web.
At the turn of the century, CompuServe fell out my immediate memory. But it always remained in the back of my mind, a mile-marker of sorts, defining my journey not only as an immigrant to this great country but also as a technology reporter.
So with a sense of sadness, but mostly with gratitude and fond memories, I bid adieu to a service that has played such a pivotal role in our online lives.