The internet offers a vast, worldwide storehouse of information, with more Web sites and information added to it every day. All you need to get unlimited access to that information is a Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator, and a $20-per-month subscription to an Internet service provider (ISP). You even get e-mail free of charge.
With all the information available on the Web, does anyone still need to subscribe to an online service such as America Online (AOL), CompuServe or Prodigy? After all, on the surface, both Web and online services seem to provide similar features. Both offer news, reference information and e-mail. And all the commercial services even furnish Internet interfaces--although they are not quite as easy to use as Netscape Navigator.
Most of the commercial services charge a monthly fee of $9.95 for five hours of free access to most of their services (though CompuServe charges a premium for some services), with subsequent time at $2.95 per hour. Heavy users can get special rates. CompuServe's Super Value Club, for example, lets members pay $24.95 monthly and receive 20 hours of online time with additional hours costing $1.95 each. With Prodigy, you get 30 hours per month for $30. AOL's value pricing runs $19.95 per month for unlimited use.
A Changing World
Online services such as AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy retain their market because they provide:
- easy access to content. With a wide array of sites across the globe, the Web provides more content than any online service, with new sites going online daily. But it can be difficult to find that content, even if you're experienced and have a good Web browser.
While online services can't compete with the Web in terms of quantity of content, they are continually adding original content, including a wide range of references and technical support for a variety of products. More important, that content is much better organized and easier to find than anything on the Web. Online services even help organize information from the Web by providing hot links to Web sites.
- a feeling of community. Often in this technological age, people work alone on computers in offices cut off from all human interaction. One of the biggest differences between commercial services and the Web is that online services recreate a sense of community. All have virtual communities where members can congregate to chat, network or share information about specific topics of interest. While some Web sites have chat rooms, those on online services are often easier to use.
- downloadable online applications. Another big draw of online services has always been their vast libraries of freeware and shareware, which you can easily find using key words. True, you can also use a Web browser to access millions of files scattered across thousands of sites, but it takes more effort to find them.
With online services, you can access programs from the services' own software libraries or directly from the World Wide Web.
- technical support. If you're looking for technical support, stick with an online service. AOL has online technical support from 7 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. EST, and both Prodigy and CompuServe offer 24-hour phone support.
- sites and support for your own Web page. One of the most interesting trends in online services is that all three major services now offer tools that let users create and post their own Web pages. Not only do the online services offer publishing programs to help you, but they'll even maintain your Web pages.
Strengths And Weaknesses
As a busy entrepreneur, your goal when going online is to find what you need as quickly and easily as possible. And, unless you're quite technically minded, an online service is still the most convenient way of doing this.
But even among online services, each has unique advantages. Here's a look at the strengths of each major online service:
- America Online: With nearly 7 mil-lion subscribers, AOL is the largest commercial online service. Not surprisingly, it also has the largest online "community," with a huge selection of chat rooms where users can discuss mutual interests. So-called "auditorium" events feature lectures by and interviews with people who field real-time questions from the audience.
AOL has also worked hard to develop proprietary content. In late 1994, it introduced the AOL Greenhouse to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to work with AOL to build creative new content.
AOL is easy to use; it provides windows and list boxes throughout so you can find things quickly. AOL also categorizes services based on areas of interest; it even has hot links to Web sites related to each area of interest.
But just because AOL is the most popular online service doesn't necessarily mean it has the most to offer business users. The downside for entrepreneurs is that AOL's primary focus is consumer use. Many of the chat rooms are devoted to hobbies and the like, and the auditorium events tend to focus on celebrities rather than more substantial topics.
- CompuServe: With more than 5 million subscribers, CompuServe's strength has always been its proprietary databases, which are great resources for business users who need fast access to top-flight information. For example, you can access TrademarkScan and the Patent Research Center, get demographic data from Supersite, scan newspaper and magazine archives, and dig up information about a company from a wide range of sources.
CompuServe is also highly regarded for its forums, which are a combination of message boards, conference rooms and file libraries. Here you'll find technical support forums for hundreds of hardware and software vendors. You might even get a faster response on CompuServe than you would by calling a company's technical support line. These forums are also home to clubs and professional organizations.
Like AOL and Prodigy, CompuServe offers e-mail, which can be easily exchanged with the Internet or other online services. In addition, CompuServe has added sophisticated features for processing mail once it comes in. Its SmartRules feature lets you pre-define how you want the system to handle different message categories. For example, you might forward all messages to an alphanumeric pager, a fax machine or an Internet mailbox. You can set up message filters or only forward messages sent from a specific address. For instance, you could set up a virtual corporation and forward messages from specific clients to that corporate e-mail address. Need to tell people you're on vacation? An automatic message reply feature can be set up to inform e-mail senders of this and other things.
Members can also send e-mail to other CompuServe members who have electronic pagers, and the service will notify those members by pager when they receive e-mail in their CompuServe mailboxes.
- Prodigy: Although Prodigy is one of the top three online services, it is less relevant for business users than the other two commercial services. Prodigy's strengths are in its material for children, students and parents. Although it offers in-depth news and financial coverage, its bulletin boards focus mostly on topics such as parenting, health and sports.
If You Cant Beat Em . . .
In the fast-paced, fledgling world of online services and the Internet, anything can happen and probably will. Even as we speak, commercial services are revamping the way they do business in response to the popularity of the Internet--note AOL's recent conversion to the $19.95 flat-rate usage fee.
You might say commercial services are taking an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach to the Web. The Microsoft Network (MSN), which was originally designed to be a commercial online service, started a new trend by becoming the first online service available exclusively through the Internet. Any Internet user can access MSN simply by logging onto its Web site (http://www.msn.com). Like the other online services, MSN offers chat rooms, e-mail and original programming, such as Web sites that feature humor and drawings. And it provides a comprehensive search tool to help you locate subjects or sites on the Web.
A number of MSN services are free to users with Internet access, such as travel services and Microsoft Investor. To access its other services, users can choose from a variety of plans ranging from $6.95 per month for five hours with each additional hour costing $2.50 to unlimited service for $49.95 per month.
Even AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy have announced plans to move their content to their own Web sites, mixing free pages with subscription-based offerings.
All that is good news for users. Accessing the best from all services is likely to get easier as users surf the Web and pick and choose from offerings on commercial services and the Net.
Cheryl F. Goldberg is a former editor of PC Magazine and has reported on the computer industry for more than 14 years. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614. You can reach her via Compuserve at firstname.lastname@example.org