CompuServe Memories

On June 30th, America Online finally shut down the original CompuServe Information Service, which they had purchased in 1997.  While I haven’t really used the service for several years, this is still bittersweet news to me due to strong personal connections.  CompuServe was my first exposure to the concept of online computing back in the 1980s and my first professional job in the early 1990s.

My first computer experience was with a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III that my father purchased in 1980 (when I was 10 years old).  Around that same time, Radio Shack made a deal with CompuServe to package and promote their service.  Under branding that Radio Shack called “Videotex”, they packaged CompuServe either with a dumb terminal or with terminal software sold for the TRS-80s.  My father bought a 300-baud modem and the Videotex package for the Model III, giving us our first look at connected computing.

My exposure to the features of CompuServe during this time was really just a taste as the service came with a pretty high hourly fee for use.  I mainly recall spending a little time watching over my father’s shoulder as he used it to access various news, weather, and information like that, although I recall that he generally preferred a competing service called The Source, which CompuServe eventually bought out and absorbed.  I also recall having a couple rare opportunities to spend an hour playing some of CompuServe’s primitive early online games.

Due to the hourly fees, I never spent any time in discussion boards or chat, instead getting early exposure to these via privately-run Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and, a few years later, with General Electric’s GEnie service, which was one of the first to offer discussion boards and a few other services at a fixed monthly fee instead of charging by the hour.  CompuServe was actually one of the last services to drop the hourly charges, which probably played a big role in their eventual decline.

After I graduated from college in 1991 with a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, CompuServe was one of the many technology companies to which I applied.  I ended up accepting a job with them as a junior engineer in their Entertainment Technology group, which focused on game products and the CB Simulator, which was their name for online chat.  I worked there for around 4 1/2 years, before I decided to move to California to pursue other opportunities in mid-1996.

The CompuServe headquarters was a campus in an industrial park located in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Upper Arlington.  It consisted of two major buildings, the larger one (where I worked) housing the corporate business offices and the operations managing the consumer service.  The other building mainly housed their very lucrative network services division.  There was a nice employee cafeteria (The Oak Room), which was run by Marriot and an employee fitness center.
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The Oak Room had pretty decent food and I generally ate there a couple times a week.  They had a selection of standard grill items (burgers, chicken strips, etc.) that were available every day as well as a featured entree.  They would occasionally do prepared to order stir-fry or pasta that were immensely popular and would result in long lines during lunch hour.  I’d typically eat there on days that the entree sounded particularly good or when my schedule made it tough to leave the office for lunch.  When I did leave, there was a Wendy’s, a Pizza Hut, and a sandwich place across the street as well as numerous other restaurants that were a fairly easy drive.  The Oak Room also served as a location for larger meetings and employee gatherings.  I even remember just about everyone in the building gathering in there to watch the OJ Simpson verdict on a big-screen TV.

A couple years into my employment, the company started construction on a large new office building in nearby Hilliard, Ohio.  Much of the operation was eventually to move there and it also included a new state-of-the-art data center.  I did visit the new building a couple times (mainly tours and the occasional meeting), but my department never moved over there.

After the complicated deal where AOL purchased the consumer service and MCI/Worldcom bought the network division (which eventually ended up at Verizon), it appears that the CompuServe headquarters remained in Upper Arlington while the new building went to MCI/Worldcom.  Looking up both locations on Google Maps, it appears to me that AOL still has offices in Upper Arlington and Verizon still uses the Hilliard building.

During the time that I worked at CompuServe, the company was owned by H&R Block, which had bought it in an attempt to establish a strong year-round business to keep a revenue stream going outside of tax season.  It wasn’t an extremely obvious fit for them, though, and I’m not sure that Block ever became overly comfortable with the product.  As employees, we did get some pretty nice discounts on tax services, though.  H&R Block’s sale of the company to AOL and Worldcom came about a year after I left.

The overall business culture was fairly traditional, particularly compared to the Silicon Valley technology companies that were starting to rise at the time.  The employees tended to be somewhat older and experienced.  Being fresh out of college, I definitely felt pretty junior there and was also in a minority being single and childless.  Weekend and evening hours were very rare at the company as well, with most people working pretty traditional 8-5 work hours.  The dress code tended to be “business casual”.  Jeans and t-shirts were not really acceptable, but at least I didn’t have to wear a tie to work.

One part of working at CompuServe that I particularly enjoyed was my involvement as one of the adult leaders of a company-sponsored Explorer Post, which focused on computer technology.  Explorers is a vocation-based, coed program run by the Boy Scouts of America, targeted towards teenagers.  Our weekly meetings typically featured presentations by various CompuServe employees, covering different areas of computer technology.  I think my favorite was probably the meeting where the head of security came in and talked to the kids about the various efforts to thwart hackers that were trying to subvert CompuServe’s systems.  Several of the kids weren’t entirely innocent in this area themselves, which made this lecture hit home.

I also accompanied the kids as one of the chaperones on one ski trip (where I stayed in the lodge reading and drinking cocoa, since skiing has no appeal to me) as well as putting in a lot of work on a booth that the kids manned at an annual scouting show.  Those of us that worked as the adult leaders of this group did develop pretty good friendships, including very enjoyable dinners out together after the meetings.  Two of my fellow leaders even eventually started dating and ended up getting married to each other.

Reflecting CompuServe’s pioneering position in the online services business, the corporate culture was somewhat ahead of its time in a few ways.  Already in the early 1990s, email was already the dominant form of internal communications at CompuServe, not too surprising considering that it was one of their key products.  I remember undergoing a bit of a culture shock when I left the company in 1996 for a new company that did not yet have an email system in place.

Via the same phone numbers that customers used to access CompuServe’s services, employees could access all the various servers that were used for developing, testing, and configuring applications.  That meant that we had access to the vast majority of our work from home, if needed.  My department even included one employee that had switched to primarily working from home after the birth of her child.  This was at a time when I don’t think the term “telecommuting” had even been coined yet.

While my department officially handled all games and entertainment products, the truth is that there really wasn’t a lot of internal development of games going on at the time that I was there.  With access still pretty strictly dial-up and the service still largely text based, online games just weren’t that big a business yet.  As I mentioned earlier, the CB Simulator (chat) was officially classified as a “game” product and it really was our team’s primary focus.  As the junior engineer on the team, I was the one that tended to be assigned secondary tasks, which means I probably did more that wasn’t chat related than anyone else on the team.

One story that was pretty widely circulated among the employees at CompuServe, although I admit I don’t have verification that it was entirely accurate, was that the classification of CB Simulator as a “game” was the single biggest mistake that CompuServe made.  The product was the first online chat room made available to consumers and the widely told story was that CompuServe had considered taking out a patent on it, but decided that it wasn’t worth the time and cost of going through that process for something that was “just a game”.  As a result, online chat never was patented by anybody.  Assuming this is true, it certainly seems very likely that owning the patent on chat could easily have resulted in a pretty dramatically different fate for CompuServe.  Even today, some of the CB radio inspired terminology is still often used for online chats, including calling individual chat rooms “channels” and referring to the user nicknames as “handles”.

Before delving into the specific projects that I worked on, it would be helpful to give a little overview of the primary technologies used at CompuServe, which did tend to reflect the age of the product.  The primary infrastructure was built around Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-10 mini-computers, which the employees pretty much always simply called “tens”.  While the operating system running on the servers was derived from DEC’s standard TOPS-10, it was very heavily customized by CompuServe’s engineers.   CompuServe was so dependent on the PDP-10 technology, that they licensed the architecture from DEC so that they could continue to manufacture them for years after DEC officially discontinued them in the early 1980s.

Those that used the original CompuServe service likely recall the difficult to remember numeric user IDs, which were generally in the form 7xxxx,xxxx, although they eventually expanded to 10xxxx,xxxx once they ran out of the lower numbers.  This was a reflection of the PDP architecture, matching its typical format for user accounts.  The numbers were octal (base-8), which meant that none included 8 or 9 among the digits.  Employee accounts were those where the first number was less than 71000.  I was issued two user accounts, one for use in official work-related tasks (this account had administration rights in some services) and a second free account for my personal use.  The work account had the very easy to remember ID of 70000,1111 and the personal account was 70004,1065.

The various CompuServe applications covered a range of technologies.  Many of the older applications were written in the Fortran programming language and quite a few were written in a now largely forgotten, language called Bliss, which had been pretty widely used in the early days of the PDP systems.  There were also a few applications that were in Pascal, while most new development was done in C or C++, including re-writes of some of the key systems and services.  Many of these newer and upgraded systems were being built on Intel-based servers, typically running BSD UNIX.

For much of the time I was working there, much of the focus of the company was on modernizing the existing systems. While CompuServe had long been the industry leader for online services, AOL, and to a lesser degree Prodigy, were experiencing dramatic growth with much more graphical and user-friendly systems.  While CompuServe never really had a plan to completely abandon its text-based user interface, they did create the CompuServe Information Manager (CIM) software, which was available for MS-DOS, Windows, and Macintosh, that enabled a graphical user interface (windows, pull-down menus, mouse-control, etc.) on some of the core services.

The graphical interface in the CIM software was based around a proprietary protocol called HMI, which stood for “Host-Micro Interface”.  In order to provide the graphical interface on services, their application had to be modified (and often re-written) to use the HMI protocol.  This could be somewhat complex coding, since there was generally a strong desire to keep the text-based interfaces around as well for those users that still preferred to use some other terminal software to access the service.

For the Entertainment Technology department, I was the engineer that was assigned the job of investigating and learning the HMI protocol.  As a test case, I used CompuServe’s existing Biorhythm charting game.  Other than the mathematical formulas for the actual calculations (which I never really understood), this was one of the simplest games on the service, making it a good choice for conversion.  I started off by converting the entire application from Fortran to C, re-organizing as I went to separate the user interface portion from the calculation and chart-generation.  I then put in some detection to determine whether a user was coming in via CIM or some other software and then branch them either to my re-designed HMI interface or to the original text version.  I suspect that some CIM users who stumbled on this game probably found themselves wondering why in the world we had gone to all this trouble to make a fancy user-interface for Biorhythms.

The largest individual project that I did for CompuServe was the development of a pretty complex package that allowed for creation of quizzes and surveys.  The project had started off as a fairly replacement for an existing multiple-choice quiz game.  As I started working on it, I quickly realized that it wouldn’t take that much effort to expand it to also allow fill-in-the-blank answers as well.  I don’t really recall for sure how extensive the survey capabilities were, although I’m pretty sure the data storage was pretty primitive.  The whole package was completely HMI enabled (while also working in text mode) and very customizable to fit different uses.  I designed and coded pretty much the entire product and it ended up being pretty widely used across the service.

I’m having a little bit of difficulty remembering the specific features set of the quiz/survey package.  A large part of the reason for this is that my current job has included some work on a very similar package and I have trouble remembering which features I implemented in which version.  I currently work for the web division of a large media company and have found that quite a bit of the experience that I gained at CompuServe very directly related to the work at my current employer.

As I mentioned before, the CB Simulator was the top focus in our department.  Much of the time I was there, most of my teammates were pretty focused on a complete re-write of the software in C++ running under UNIX.  I did very little in the way of actual coding or design work on this, but was involved in some engineering related to testing and reporting, work that ended up being very similar to some of the key initiatives that I have put into place at my current job.

I had the responsibility of doing load testing of the CB Simulator in order to ensure that it would work properly when large numbers of users were hitting it all at once.  This type of testing involves creating automated scripts that try to simulate some or all of the ways that real users would interact with the product.  I learned a lot about the value of this kind of testing and the techniques involved with implementation doing this work.  I was able to apply that knowledge in my current job by designing a load test lab and the surrounding procedures and policy and selling them to management in order to get them implemented.

The load testing work that I did at CompuServe was kind of primitive compared to the tools and resources available today.  Currently, there are a lot of commercial and open source tools available for scripting load tests and gathering and reporting test results, but at CompuServe I had to program the test scripts manually using the fairly low-level network protocols.  The CompuServe network didn’t really fully match any industry standard, but it was at least mostly based on the X25 protocol.  I had to learn the basics of that protocol and write programs that would open multiple connections to the network and then construct properly formatted packets to log a user in, go to the CB Simulator, and do some basic chat operations.  It was pretty complicated programming and most of the data gathering was largely focused on human observation, but it did provide a lot of useful information and uncover a number of bugs.

The other major task that I had for the CB Simulator was the very first project I was assigned.  In many ways, it was as interesting a lesson in human nature as it was a learning experience technically.  The CB Simulator was completely human moderated, with each active channel always monitored by someone designated by CompuServe.  The moderators were often trusted members of the online community who had been offered a contract by CompuServe.  These moderators had access to commands that allowed them to send private warning messages to users for inappropriate language or an inappropriate handle as well as to kick people out of the channel.

Whenever the moderators used any of these commands, an entry was written to a log file indicating the time, warning given, reason, and the user ID of the person receiving the warning.  For handle warnings, it would also log the handle that prompted it.  My project was to create scripts that would parse through these log files to generate reports that could be easily read and reviewed by the customer service team.  These reports also included some basic data about the frequency of each type of warning on each channel for any given day.  As you might expect, the log entries for the handle warnings could be especially fascinating and, within our department, we would often get some laughs out of the most interesting ones.  I wish I could still remember some examples, although even if I could I’m not sure that including them wouldn’t be less family-friendly than I usually strive for on this blog.

The last really major project that I was involved in at CompuServe was probably the beginning of the end of the company’s independence.  In light of AOL’s ever growing market share, the decision was made that CompuServe needed a separate service that would attempt to more directly compete.  The product that they came up with was “CompuServe WOW!”, which was designed to strictly use a graphical interface (based around an enhanced version of HMI) and to also include extensive family-friendly features, including very strict parental controls.

Our team’s involvement with WOW! was, as you might expect, to adopt the chat application to meet the needs of the new product.  The biggest requirement that didn’t previously exist was the need to allow users to create their own self-named channels and the necessary moderation features surrounding that.  The family-friendly goal of the site and related parental controls also required that we build in much stricter controls for limiting access.  As with the previous CB Simulator projects, the vast majority of the coding and design work was left to the more senior engineers while I was more involved in the testing and troubleshooting work.

The WOW! product was not a success and the product only survived for less than a year.  The big problem was that it didn’t really offer much that wasn’t already available from AOL, which provided little motivation for users to sign up for it instead of the more popular and better established service.  The product had very little appeal to existing CompuServe customers either, since most were looking for something much more business and/or technology oriented.

It was during the WOW! project that I started to see the writing on the wall and realized that CompuServe was a company in decline.  When that was combined with my continued position as the low man on the totem pole in our department, my thoughts definitely started to focus on finding new opportunities.  A vacation to Southern California in late 1995 kind of clinched the decision for me as I had always thought I probably would be happier living out there, a feeling that was pretty much solidified by that trip.  Not long after I got home from that vacation, I updated my resume and started sending out applications.  I left CompuServe to take a job with a small Los Angeles based game developer in May of 1996.

As I mentioned earlier, employees received a free personal account on CompuServe and I did put it to pretty heavy use.  I particularly became a very active participant on the Showbiz Forum, which was a discussion board focused on movies and television (the TV stuff was eventually spun-off to a separate forum, where I also participated).  At the time, I was an extremely frequent moviegoer, typically seeing 1-2 movies in the theater every week as well as being an avid collector of Laserdiscs.  I had already been an active participant on similar boards on the GEnie service and it was great having another place to discuss these topics.

CompuServe had made a deal with Roger Ebert to offer his reviews on the service.  As part of that deal, Ebert was given his own section on the Showbiz Forum, where he was a very active, direct participant.  During those years, it was great fun being able to discuss movies directly with Ebert and he often used the forum as a source for some of his articles, especially his “Movie Answer Man” column.  At one point, he published a book of those columns and I was amused to find my name in the book’s index.  I even had more page citations than Martin Scorsese!

I did meet a few people from the forums in person over the years as well.  One participant on Showbiz was local to Columbus and wrote movie reviews for one of the smaller area newspapers.  On a number of occasions, he invited me to come along to some of the press screenings for new movies, which was pretty cool.  In particular, I remember seeing Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” at a screening that was held a couple months before it finally opened in Columbus.  During the Southern California vacation in 1995, I met up with a pretty large group of forum regulars for dinner and also met up with various forum members a few times after I moved out here.

I signed up for a paying account and continued to participate on the forums for a while after leaving the company, but eventually drifted away from them as my interests changed.  In particular, Disneyland became more of a leisure-time focus for me instead of movies and I generally found more active discussions about that on Usenet newsgroups and, eventually, on web-based forums.  Of course, the CompuServe forums generally declined greatly in activity as the web came into prominence anyway.

AOL is still keeping the CompuServe name around both for a web portal (essentially the old Netscape portal now carries the CompuServe name) and for the “CompuServe 2000” product, which is essentially a re-skinned version of AOL itself.  These products are really just CompuServe in name only, though.  The CompuServe that I knew and have written about in this post no longer exists.

As this very long post probably illustrates, CompuServe played a very important role in my life and I can’t help but feel a bit sad as the original service has finally passed into history.  I’m honestly a bit surprised that it lasted as long as it did, and I haven’t really used it myself for several years, but I still am sorry to see it end.

One Response to “CompuServe Memories”

  1. Ken says:

    Thanks for this inside look behind the scenes at CompuServe. I never got to visit the office, but I was a member and then a sysop of the service for decades. Its impact on my personal life and professional career is immeasurable.

    It’s especially depressing to note that many of the online management tools, CMSes, and social networks I use today lack the simplicity and functionality offered by CompuServe. It’s not the direction I thought we’d be going in.

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