Two years ago, the original Prodigy service, much derided in some circles as "everything IBM knows about marketing and everything Sears knows about computers", was put to sleep. At the time, Y2k considerations were blamed, though few of the subscribers believed it; the company did tell investors, though not subscribers, that updates to the old proprietary infrastructure would cost millions they simply didn't have. And I continue to maintain, despite my misgivings about the process itself, that killing off the old service, then branded Coca-Cola fashion as "Prodigy Classic", was essential to making the company's IPO come off as scheduled.

As one among thousands of ISPs, Prodigy Internet has been successful; thanks to acquisitions and internal growth, Prodigy now has three million subscribers, far more than the Classic service ever amassed in its eleven-year existence, and while it's way behind America Online in sheer numbers, so is everyone else in this business. More important, for the first time ever, the company isn't drowning in red ink. (You don't want to know how much money they burned through over the years.) But while Prodigy is finally getting a measure of respect from industry observers, some of the holdover subscribers from the Classic era (including me) are decidedly ambivalent about the company.

For one thing, the sense of community that used to exist on Classic, with its message boards and its panoply of chat rooms, is all but vanished. Classic chat was crowded, with 35, sometimes even 50, people in most major rooms; today, it's unusual to see 50 people total on irc.prodigy.net. Classic refugees have migrated to other services, and many of the relationships forged in the old days have proven to be enduring, but somehow it's just not the same. Even AOL's People Connection, the closest current equivalent to the old Classic rooms, garners little enthusiasm; everyone seems to sense that AOL exists primarily as a advertising-delivery medium, and everything else is just incidental.

The clock, obviously, isn't going to turn back. Nothing lasts forever, as CompuServe subscribers who found themselves belonging to AOL eventually found out. But now, two years after the plug was pulled, I find myself remembering that last night on Prodigy Classic, a night when a lot of things were said and many of them were meant, a night that truly marked the end of an era. It was an era I wouldn't have missed for the world.

The Vent

#263
1 October 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill