My colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols waxed nostalgically on Monday in his Computerworld Cyber Cynic blog about CompuServe, the long-time service that shut down recently, and which Vaughan-Nichols says he's going to miss. As much as I like SJVN, I have to say good riddance to old technology. It long outlived its time and I'm frankly surprised it lasted this long.
Back in the Day
As Vaughan-Nichols pointed out, in the early 90s, before any of us became aware of a concept known as the World Wide Web, we used services like CompuServe and AOL to communicate with one another on the Internet. In fact, I jumped on board this band wagon in around '93 and went the AOL route. I wanted an email address to communicate with my tech writing clients (and I wanted to be on top of things).
If I must wax nostalgically with my colleague, my first modem was a 300 baud and I used it to send files to a client in the late 80s. By the time AOL came along, I'm guessing I was zipping along at 2400 baud rate.
I chose AOL because it let me have a human-readable email address (email@example.com) where as Compuserve used geeky numbers like 72407,334. I think it was supposed to protect your privacy, but it always seemed silly to me from a business perspective. After about a year, I tired of AOL, and its automatic updates that tied up my 386's resources, and I moved to a local ISP.
AOL's Still Hanging In
Of those early service providers only AOL remains and it doesn't provide ISP service much anymore outside of Europe. But AOL has remained viable by buying up companies like MapQuest and Userplane, and creating the AOL Developer Network (for which I've written a couple of case studies). These tools took AOL far from its earlier mission, and that might have helped keep it going (at least for now).
Along Came the Web
By the late 90s the Web was firmly established. By the turn of the 21st century, services like CompuServe were already dead and buried but sheer momentum kept them going for a time. Sure, they tried some new business models and they managed to survive and roll along as its various pieces got bought and sold. In fact, in a a bit of historical irony, the last bits of the CompuServe Information Service became part of AOL itself.
Vaughan-Nichols is right that CompuServe deserves credit for giving the idea of community on the internet some legs, but like everything else in this fast-moving world, time passed it by.
Time Waits for No Man
I have the feeling in 2 or 5 or 10 years we'll be saying the same thing about Twitter and Facebook, or perhaps like CompuServe (and other brands like Napster that live on in spite of themselves), they will roll along for a time, then like so much digital flotsam and jetsam, they will fade into history, just another vestige of a by-gone era.