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
more ago, towns competed for railroad lines: a town with a train
had a future, while a town 10 miles from the track became a backwater.
rush to the Internet,
few have noticed that many people already had on-line access to
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
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.
have found benefits on-line, from tapping commercial databases such
as Dow Jones to running their own BBS, either as one more
to provide low-cost technical support or as a way for far-flung offices
and travelling employees to stay connected.
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.
recently as spring
1995, software supergiant Microsoft's decision to bundle
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
Internet service provider.
Computer got a head start on rival Microsoft--its eWorld on-line
service opened up several years ago, promising, in typical Apple
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.
second-tier service Genie (originally owned by GE) was
sold last January, and is getting a new, Internet polish.
on-line services like CompuServe, America On-Line, and Prodigy
are busy de-emphasizing their own unique content, while offering
as internationally available Internet access points--typically at
prices several times what you'll pay with any of Vancouver's local
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.
have older hardware,
you will be able to access a text-mode on-line service and even
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
the limits and organization of a good on-line service, compared to
the open-ended anarchy on the 'Net.
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).
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.
browsers like Netscape Navigator feature easy-to-use consistency,
BBSs and on-line services remain bastions of one-of-a-kind interfaces.
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.
BBSs and the larger on-line systems can be pretty nice places. Like
small towns, they can engender a strong sense of community.
somewhere else--in this case, the Internet.