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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Networks are losing ground as the Internet pushes local bulletin-board systems and on-line services to the fringes


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #344 May 28, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    A century or more ago, towns competed for railroad lines: a town with a train station had a future, while a town 10 miles from the track became a backwater.

    In the rush to the Internet, few have noticed that many people already had on-line access to international e-mail, files and software galore, and lots of instant information. While the Internet might be a 25-year-old "instant success," for most of that time, it has co-existed with a thriving on-line community. This community covers a wide spectrum from free, local, hobby bulletin-board systems (BBSs) consisting of a high-school kid using a computer in the basement to chat with a couple of friends to four-million-member on-line services like Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe, owned by H & R Block.

    Many businesses, too, have found benefits on-line, from tapping commercial databases such as Dow Jones to running their own BBS, either as one more channel to provide low-cost technical support or as a way for far-flung offices and travelling employees to stay connected.

    These services aren't dead yet, but while they may continue to exist on the fringes of the Internet, there's an increasing sense of being out of the mainstream, kind of like living in Port Moody after the CPR decided to put the Pacific terminus in Vancouver. Consider the following:

    * Toronto's CRS Online had been around for nearly 20 years as one of Canada's best-known and biggest bulletin board services. Last year, like Vancouver's Mindlink and Wimsey, it was purchased by Ottawa's iStar Internet service provider. Now it has been turned into yet another Internet access service, and the local chat and information areas have been shut down. No one in iStar's Vancouver office is prepared to comment on plans for the local operations.

    * As recently as spring 1995, software supergiant Microsoft's decision to bundle connection software for its new Microsoft Network (MSN) brought the company to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. It needn't have bothered: within a few months of its start-up, Microsoft dramatically refashioned MSN, playing down its unique content, and refocusing it as--what else?--an Internet service provider.

    * Apple Computer got a head start on rival Microsoft--its eWorld on-line service opened up several years ago, promising, in typical Apple fashion, a user-friendly interface, based on finding your way around the streets of a small town. By this spring, the small town had become a ghost town, and Apple quietly put up the shutters at midnight, March 31.

    * H & R Block is looking for a buyer for CompuServe, while rumours abound that Prodigy, jointly developed by IBMSears, has just been sold. Longtime second-tier service Genie (originally owned by GE) was sold last January, and is getting a new, Internet polish. and

    Longtime big American on-line services like CompuServe, America On-Line, and Prodigy are busy de-emphasizing their own unique content, while offering themselves as internationally available Internet access points--typically at prices several times what you'll pay with any of Vancouver's local service providers.

    There are some advantages to using such a service to contact the 'Net. If you travel often, for instance, you can almost always find a local access number, not just across Canada or the U.S., but in many other countries as well. Also, as the Internet becomes increasingly overloaded, users seeking information may get better performance from a big on-line system.

    If you have older hardware, you will be able to access a text-mode on-line service and even graphical America-On-Line, but will be left out of the new wave of Web browsers (although you can access the 'Net in text mode with older, slower equipment). And many users, especially those new to on-line, may welcome the limits and organization of a good on-line service, compared to the open-ended anarchy on the 'Net.

    However, many of the businesses, retailers, and content providers that had populated the traditional on-line services are jumping to the 'Net (where they don't have to pay anyone a percentage of sales).

    And despite a constant barrage of free connection offers, bundled with magazines, hardware and software, or sent as junk mail (I haven't had to buy a floppy disk in a couple of years), it's hard for the big services to compete with agile local Internet startups, offering hours of connection for, say, $20 per month.

    And while Internet Web browsers like Netscape Navigator feature easy-to-use consistency, BBSs and on-line services remain bastions of one-of-a-kind interfaces.

    Free local bulletin boards will probably continue to exist. There is a still-thriving community, with an ever-changing population of about 400 or so in just the local Vancouver calling area, for example. But while a few businesses operate their own BBSs, for the most part, they're hobby systems, often with flamboyantly quirky personalities.

    Like Port Moody, these BBSs and the larger on-line systems can be pretty nice places. Like small towns, they can engender a strong sense of community.

    But the railroad's stopping somewhere else--in this case, the Internet.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan