Telecommunications talk. (CompuServe) Brian J. Murphy.
Welcome to the fourth installment of Telecommunications Talk. Looking forward to future columns, I am especially interested in collecting your tips and suggestions for better communication to share with other readers in these pages.
You may have suggestions on how to improve the performance of equipment or software, program listings of use in telecommunications, BBS software, you name it! I am not offering much more than glory, but if you have something worthwhile to offer, send it in to me c/o Creative Computing, 39 East Hanover Ave., Morris Plains, NJ 07950, and you may see your name and your ideas in print. CompuServe Profile
We continue our profiles of information utilities this month (and perhaps every month, considering the number of new utilities entering the market) with a profile of CompuServe.
In the field of information utilities there are really only two big contenders, The Source from Readers' Digest and CompuServe from H & R Block. Of the two, CompuServe is the more exciting. We are going to look only at parts of CompuServe, rather than at the entire system. CompuServe covers a lot of territory--hundreds of "pages" of information. To profile all of it thoroughly would require several columns. What we offer here is an overview.
CompuServe is first and foremost an information utility. The majority of its services involve the provision of data to the user. A few of these services are interactive on a user/system or user/user basis. We'll explore these aspects in a moment, but first let's look at the basics of signing up.
CompuServe memberships are available from dealers such as computer shops or supply houses for between $19.95 and $39.95 depending on the kind of deal you strike and how much "free" connect time (one to five hours) you want. This is a one-time fee. There are no annual membership dues.
A short time after you order, a box containing the CompuServe Information Service (CIS) Starter Kit will arrive. In the kit you'll find a loose-leaf binder with a very elementary users' handbook, a list of phone numbers you can call to connect, and an envelope containing your user ID number and system password. Logging On
The CompuServe Network Service is the least expensive way to connect to the system. There are about 160 numbers covering most of the contiguous 48 states and parts of Canada, and the connect time price is very right--free! You receive a list of these numbers with your kit, but it may not be complete. If your locality isn't serviced by a number, you can refer to the Network Access Telephone Numbers feature of CompuServe's User Information system or you can call CompuServe's customer service voice phone.
You can also log onto CompuServe via Tymnet, Telenet, and Datapac. This capability increases the available access numbers dramatically. With these four networks, CompuServe is available to users in all fifty states. The large number of numbers also means that a great proportion of CompuServe users do not have to pay telephone company long distance charges for the use of the line (on top of the data network and CompuServe connect time charges).
On your first log-on you will discover that parts of the CompuServe system (most notably the shopping services--a feature shared by The Source) are still closed to you. These are services open only to permanent members, who must complet and return a form enclosed with the starter kit and also "sign-up" on the system itself. Once you have done tha and received your permanent password, the restricted areas will be opened to you.
First, let's examine how CompuServe is structured. Like all the other information utilities, its various features are accessed by menu selection. The main menu, which comes up automatically when you log on, offers six choices, Home Services, Business and Financial, Personal Computing, Services for Professionals, User Information, and Index. Each of these main choices leads to several branch menus. Let's explore one to see where it leads us. Home Services
Selecting Item 1--Home services--from the main menu sends you to a branch menu from which you can choose:
* Reference Library, which contains a Grolier electronic encyclopedia; an information on demand utility; and articles on sports, hobbies, family matters, sex, and fashion.
* Communications, which includes the "CB" conferencing system, CompuServe's E-Mail system, a national bulletin board, the "Ask Aunt Nettie" advice column, and the CB simulation Sig.
* Home Shopping, a fascinating service on which we shall enlarge on shortly.
* Groups and Clubs, the access point for all the non-computer Sigs including CB, literature, issues, education, sports, golf, space, arcade gaming, and more.
* Games, including adventures, sports games, science fiction, and warfare simulations and more--but virtually all text only.
* Home Management, which includes home finance management programs such as loan amortization and checkbook balancing.
* Travel, which includes a travellers' Sig, reports on flight availability and fares prepared by the prestigious Official Airline Guide (OAG), where to stay and where to dine on vacation.
* Entertainment, including the Hollywood Hotline and information on movies and video.
On the day I tried the system out for this article, I selected Item 1, News/Sports/Weather. This selection led to another multitude of choices in yet another menu--using CompuService is like inspecting boxes within boxes within boxes--called News Services. The choice titles, which are organized by category and seem fairly self-explanatory, are The Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, AP Viewdata Wire, NOAA Weather Wire, Official PGA Tour Guide, and Hollywood Hotline.
When I was testing this, it was the day the U.S. Marines and Rangers invaded Grenada, so I selected the AP Viewdata Wire option.
I got another menu, but this time it was a selection of the type of news I could readd latest news--update hourly, weather, national, Washington, world, political, entertainment, business, Wall Street, Dow Jones averages, features, history, and sports. I selected world to see how the struggle for Grenada was coming along.
I got another menu, but this time it was a short listing of the stories currently on line. Three of the seven stories dealt with the fighting on Grenada and the rest with other world events. The story I wound up reading was the latest AP update on the combat in Grenada, leading with the seizure of 600 Cubans by U.S. forces (a story which later proved to be erroneous, by the way, but that was not CompuServ's fault).
It was exciting to read news in advance of seeing it in the afternoon papers. The news service, because it is so prompt, gives you a feeling of participation in the events of the day. I was also impressed to see that the update was filed less than an hour prior to my calling it up from CompuService. Incidentally, I found out that the stories are not kept on line forever. About seven hours later, when I logged onto the news service again, all the stories that had been available that afternoon had disappeared, replaced by a single Grenada story wrapping by events for the past several days.
That is the story of a typical CompuService access, traveling the menu route. The system is designed to zero in on your interests and needs as precisely as possible, reducing the amount of unwanted information thorugh which you must sift or read before you get to the data you are interested in. Once you are familiar with the system, however, there is a more direct way to get where you want to go right from the main menu prompt.
The shortcut is frequently the GO command. This command, followed by an alphanumeric code, takes you directly to the "page" on which you want to be. For example, suppose that I wanted to use a GO command to the Associated Press access page. I would type at the first prmpt GO APU-52, and it would take me right to the start of the Associated Press news service option, three menus away from the main menu.
Similarly, if I want to investigate the Comp-U-Store service, all I have to type is "GO CUS" and I am there. In fact, while we're here, let's look around for a minute or two and examine some of its features. Comp-U-Store
the Comp-U-Store itself is one of severeal shopping options, and is by far the most interesting. It is a part of CompuServe and The Source and embellishes both substantially.
One of Comp-U-Store's more exciting features is the weekly auction. In it, shoppers have the opportunity to bid for first-quality products at ridiculously low prices. On one week's lineup was a new Sony Walkman model WM10, a barbell set, and a stereo cassette tape deck with all the extras. The Walkman, which lists for $99 was getting bids in the $25-$35 range. What a deal for the bidder who wins! (I bid $28 but lost).
Elsewhere many lurk some rather offbeat bargains--anything from cases of light bulbs, several gross ofpens, or almost anyo ther type of dry goods available for purchase in quantity. If the selection seems a little off the wall, remember that from time to time you might just run across something you can use. It is a good idea to check out the super values every so often, jut to be sure.
Great buys also abound in the Databasement, where you can find all kinds of electronic equipment, computers, stereo, televisions, cameras, china, silverware, and other odds and ends at up to 50 percent off. The products are recognizable name brands, and the discounts are cut very, very deeply.
In the regular Comp-U-Store selection, the bargains are almost as outstanding. A glance at the listings of 19" color televisions, for example, revealed several outstanding buys, including a Sharp model listing at $379.95 for $296.80, a Sylvania listing at $519.95 for $331.32, and a Toshiba retailing for $449.95 for $315.35. I checked out speakers and found similarly great buys. It ws only by reminding me that my baby would starve if I started investing in hi-fi equipment again that my long-suffering wife was able to dissuade me from equipping every room in the house with woofers and tweeters.
One of the nicest things about the Comp-U-Store itself is the way it home in on exactly what you wnat, winnowing the selection to just those items and models you really want. For example, if you were to go lookng for a television set, you would be asked if you wanted color or black and white, screen size (about a dozen different categories), remote control or not, the maximum amount you are willing to pay, and what state and zip the item would be shipped to.
Using all this data, the system assembles a selection of all the models which meet your requirements of price, performance, and size with price quotes. As it turned out, when I called up a list of 19" color television $500 or less, I got seven pages listing more than sixty different choices--all name brands and all excellent buys.
Similarly, when I checked out watches, I was asked if I wanted Quartz or mechanical movement, electric or spring wound, bracelet or leather strap, gold or stainless steel finish, dial or digital display, day and date dispaly added or just current time, and my price range. Special Interest Groups
Looking at the other highlights of CompuServe, I have to stop for a moment at the very human heart of the system, the Sigs. As I outlined earlier, there is a wide range of interests covered in this feature. You can join sysop Captain Wookie of the Travel Sig if you like and read listings of great hotels and restaurants around the world compiled by Sig members, or you can join in their online conferences (these get-togethers are called COs by experienced participatns). In a CO, participants are on-line together to discuss a set topic or just to exchange views on their favorite topic.
One of the most exciting COs in recent memory was the meeting of the Apple Sig in October at which Apple founder Steve Wozniak came on line to exchange views with prominent Apple users and computer journalists. The following week I witnessed an Apple conference with a similar distinguished cast of characters--sans "The Woz"--at which a lively exchange of ideas on how Apple can improve its product took place. It was the sort of meeting at which anyone who owns an Apple or who is interested in personal computing would have loved to participate.
The important thing to remember is that this is the sort of exciting activity that goes on every week--not just in the Apple Sig but in the education, issues, space, Atari, and sports Sigs as well. The Sigs offer lively talk and stimulatin g ideas. They also offer opportunities to exchange E-Mail between uses with the same interests and to read up-to-date news on Sig activities. If you join CompuServe, plan to join a Sig. In fact, knowing what I do now, I would consider joing CompuServe just to be in the Apple Sig. You may well feel the same way about the Sig that caters to your special interest area too.
The Sigs and the computer shopping services are an important part of CompuServe's allure, but they are not the only interesting things going on in the system. Here is a selection of some of the other highlights. System Highlights
* The Grlier Academic American Encyclopedia: I have grown to love electronic encyclopedias. Even though ther is surcharge of $5 an hour, it is a treat to have the information you need, however infrequently, without having a set of books gathering dust and filling valuable bookshelf space.
To find the article you need, just type in the name of the subject in which you are interested. I chose Grenada for the purposes of this article and I was soon given the choice of the texts of the three articles on the island or a "fact box." The fact box turned out to be an abstract of everything you ever wanted to know about the island, such as its population, products, economy, government, topography--even its divorce rate. In the text section, three articls covering all aspects of Grenada past and present were available.
This is the kind of service which can make CompuServe especially valuble to families with children. There is no denying that Grolier is an old and respected name in refernce works. Having virtually an entire encyclopedia at you r fingertips (and not having to pay for it except when you actually need it) is a real asset.
* Business and Financial Services: This section of CompuServe includes such options as News and Financial analysis (includes five differnt reports), a service offering investment information (including Standard & Poor's ratings of about 80 different corporations and commodites reports), a communications option and E-Mail that amounts to a businessman's Sig, a reference library, discussion forums, travel services (largely duplicating the travel services found elsewhere in the system), and programs to assit with personal financial planning.
* Personal Computer Services: This is an obligatory stop for anyone interested in personal computers, if only to sign up for the system-specific Sig of your choice. There are also product reviews and shopping to scan. It is worth noting that the programmer's section offers a big selection of languages and ample storge space for the use of software authors.
* Service for Professionals: This is just what the name implies. For some of the areas, such as Aviation, the selection is lavish: computer mapping, flight planning, weather reports, etc. and for others, such as Legal, there are just two services listed. The most interesting: the jeweller's service, including diamond wholesale quotes.
* User Information: Nothing exciting here, but you will find assistance with your bill, ways to change your password, phone numbers you can use to log onto the source, manuals you can order, and miscellaneous information for computerists.
* The Index: This is the most useful of the system utilities. This contains the GO code for every menu in the system. You can go right to your Sig, your favorite news or financial report, to the game section or anywhere else in CompuServe without having to page through the intermediate menus. CompuServe is the most interesting and user-friendly of the three info utilities I have examined. CompuServe isn't just a good introduction to information utilities; it is the best possible introduction. Judged as a whole, it may well represent the state of the art in its field. What do I like best abou the system?
first, it offers help options (which let you step out of the program whenever you wish to review command and protocols) every step of the way. The system is so user-friendly that it is really quite hard to get "lost."
Second, the selection of news and business information is not as extensive as that found in The Source, but it is more diverse, with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Washington Post lines as options in addition to AP. for the casual consumer or investor who just want to keep up with current events, the news service is more than adequate. Again, kudos for the timely updates and for not letting stories sit around on the wire forever. Also kudos for including the Comp-U-Store among the extensive and helpful catalog of home service options.
Finally, there are the Sigs. What they have to offer depends largely on what you make of them. The Apple Sig is a demonstration of just how great they can be when people put their enthusiasm and interst into the group. If you subscribe, join a Sig and participate! Prices
No discussion of CompuServe would be complete without a discussion of the connect time charges, which happen to be very competitive. There has been a big rollback in prime access time charges (for 300 baud service, 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) from $22.50 an hour all the way down to $12.50 an hour. This might cause some of the strictly "after dinner" users to consider becoming lunch hour participants as well. Connect time at all other times including weekends is $6.00 an hour.
Extra charges are levied for such servics as the encyclopedia and some of the news and business information services.