Before the @ sign

In 1994, the US government decided it was way past time to make the Internet available to the huddled masses, much to the consternation of the academics and military contractors who ran the Internet to that point.

The computer world was a series of isolated islands that all used different methods to send email.   By far the largest island was CompuServe, which was owned by the unlikely H&R Block income tax preparation service.  Anyone who was anyone in the tech world had a CompuServe account and a monthly bill to prove it.   Using was not necessary because everyone you needed to contact was on the same online service and people often have accounts on every service, like AOL and Prodigy.

This post was inspired by finding this document as I was going through boxes starting the process of unwinding a life time of accumulating “stuff”

While the users of the ARPA net had email techniques to send to each other using the @ sign, sending between the coming internet and an island (like IBM’s PROFS system – intended for internal corporate email) only could get outside the corporate moat by traveling through a gateway with each extra destination needing its own gateway and ways to translate each proprietary format to another format.

The Internet sendmail program made all of that go away. All you needed to do was add the after the other user name and anyone in the world could send a message to anyone else in the world in a few minutes.

This change killed CompuServe – now living your electronic life inside the palace walls had little value – as support forums and discussion groups moved out onto the Internet where what you  you said and to whom was not limited by the income need of an online service. America Online greatly expanded its market share by offering online access without a per minute charge.  CompuServe cratered immediately and was purchased by AOL which refocused CompuServe as the simple service for people not smart enough to understand AOL.   For me, that was one of the darkest moments during the time existed.





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5 Responses to Before the @ sign

  1. CC1s121LrBGT says:

    I remember around 1994 having to create a Compu-Serve account for my employer because they did not yet offer technical support over the internet. Their technical support was through a Compu-Server forum and that seemed common in the early 90s, although some vendors allowed you to telnet in and download drivers and manuals.

  2. TheChairman says:

    Several of the founders were from my alma mater, University of Arizona (Tucson)… which is where first I logged-on, ironically. At the time, I was unaware of the origins of the service, and by then (late 80’s) their operations had long ago moved elsewhere.

    Back then, the cost of C$ was prohibitive for a college student, so I switched to GEnie (General Electric network) for their ‘unlimited’ plan. When AOL appeared, I signed up for a free trial, but it was GUI based, and thus it was glitchy and very slow on dial-up. Little did I know at the time how much AOL would become the bane of my IT support years, going from tech-savvy CS and GEnie users to: “why won’t AOL’s browser work?”

    • Fred Stiening says:

      Of course, the first question you had to ask was “is your computer plugged in?”

      If you have months to kill, Art Stone was very active in, which ultimately led to

  3. briand75 says:

    I had a CompuServe account and I lived not far from the CompuServe campus in Ohio. Missed opportunities killed it off – too bad. CompuServe was a decent world in which to live and communicate.

    AOL was the network for “Can’t even tie my shoes” users. No love for that disaster.

    • Fred Stiening says:

      Our Uber driver the other day was driving a 2010 Mercedes SUV and claimed to be user #57 on Compuserve. He also said he had a Tandy 16 because it had 16 MB of memory.

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