Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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TECHNOLOGY Modem Operandi

Oh, so this is what my home computer is for. . .
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EVERY MORNING, WHILE THE FAMILY slept, John Aldrich sat in front of the computer in his Lake Highlands home and made critical business decisions. Build more production capacity? Increase the advertising budget? Borrow more money? Aldrich pondered these questions while the house was quiet-and before heading off to his real job as a commercial real estate broker. The early-morning decisions were all part of a complex simulation, a high-powered business game originating in the memory banks of a gigantic computer in White Plains, New York. Aldrich was one of this area’s first addicts of the “CEO” game on the Prodigy online computer network.

Games aren’t the only application the network offers Aldrich and his family. They can also check stock prices (real ones), make airline reservations, shop for merchandise. Online computer networks, accessible over regular phone lines, have been around for about a decade, yet they’ve never quite lived up to their original promise of allowing average people to do almost anything-shopping, banking, working-from their home computers. Now, two new networks, Prodigy and U.S. Videotel, offer a quantum leap forward in cost and ease of use. And Dallas is at the center of a marketing battle between the two.

Prodigy, the six-year-old joint venture between IBM and Sears, is by far the biggest and best, backed by three quarters of a billion dollars in research and development. The Houston-based upstart U.S. Videotel, however, is going to be more than a bothersome gnat in Prodigy’s ear. Both began serving Dallas last fall, and both offer a similar service for a flat monthly rate: Prodigy $9.95, Videotel $14.95.

While Prodigy is cheaper and more sophisticated in ease of use and graphics, Videotel offers something that could give it a strong advantage: you don’t need a home computer. Videotel w ill rent you a small black-and-white terminal that plugs directly into your phone line for an additional $5 a month.

When you sign on to the Prodigy system, a brightly colored screen displays a menu that leads to more than 750 specific services. You can read national and international news; see a weather forecast for any major city; check airline fares and make reservations through American Airlines’ Eaasy Sabre service that hooks up to every major air carrier; browse through back issues of Consumer Reports magazine; shop the online catalogues of Sears, J.C. Penney, or more than a hundred others; or write an electronic letter to any of the 315,000 other members nationwide. It can become addictive.

John Aldrich’s twelve-year-old daughter Erin has gone crazy on Prodigy. “If I didn’t have school,” says Erin, “I’d spend probably five hours a day on it.” She has electronic pen pals in Washington, D.C., Beverly Hills, Hawaii, and Georgia (there are no additional charges for long-distance electronic mail). “Erin doesn’t watch TV anymore,” says her mother, Susan.

Some Prodigy users do complain about the advertising that fills the lower quarter of the screen during an online session. Computer connoisseurs say the advertising takes space away from what they really want to see; others say it is relatively easy to ignore. Prodigy spokesperson Martha Griffin says it’s the way they keep the monthly fee low.

The U.S. Videotel network is similar to Prodigy but smaller (30,000 members, mostly in Houston), without the ads, and clunkier. Once you’re into Prodigy, for instance, you can “jump” to any of its services by typing a descriptive “jump word,” such as “CR VANS” for the Consumer Reports section on vans. In the Videotel system, however, you must always return to the main menu screen to move to another service. But while Videotel’s problems are obvious, its potential shines through.

Craig Spencer, Videotel’s Dallas district manager, says that Videotel plans to fill a local niche that the giant Prodigy cannot: restaurant reviews along with menus to order takeout and delivery; movie schedules updated constantly; a connection to neighborhood schools so that parents can check their child’s attendance record or homework assignments and children could consult with an online teacher for difficult homework tasks. Videotel is in negotiations on all these fronts, says Spencer, who predicts that many of these services will be available later this year.

Available now on Videotel are 120 separate services, including an enormous, well-written, easy-to-use encyclopedia that students Mill find useful. There is a Texas parks directory with all the information you need before you make a trip; soap opera updates; fun adventure games; a biorhythms calculator; and Gateway Square Mall, with eleven “stores,” anchored by J.C. Penney, where you can shop electronically.

Both companies also have some form of online banking, with electronic bill paying, account balance checking, and fund transferring between accounts.

Spencer would prefer not to compare his company to Prodigy, saying “We don’t consider them even as competition. First of all, our [rental| terminal will bring homes in that do not already have personal computers.” And that’s a big advantage, considering that, by Prodigy’s own figures, only about a quarter of the homes in the Metroplex have computers. Spencer stresses that Videotel’s future emphasis on offering local services will give it an edge over Prodigy.

The most controversial service on either network is Videotel’s Let’s Chat line, where subscribers sign on with a code name and let the alter egos fly. Last year, using the Let’s Chat line, a Houston man coaxed a thirteen-year-old girl to come to his apartment, where he molested her. In the wake of that incident, the Let’s Chat menu was changed to add more and stronger warnings not to use foul language or to exchange personal information. Many subscribers legitimately use the service much like a gossip line, but Let’s Chat still has a sleazy feel to it.

Spencer says Videotel has introduced a feature that allows parents to lock off the Let’s Chat line from children, and its programmers are creating new software that will check the text of every conversation.

Prodigy doesn’t have anything similar to Let’s Chat, but it does have bulletin boards where subscribers can read posted opinions and answer them. Messages, however, are closely monitored.

To get started on Prodigy, you need the basic start-up software kit for $49.95 (suggested retail) at most area computer stores. You also must have an IBM, Apple Macintosh, or compatible personal computer, which will cost, new, in the $1,500 range. (Same for Videotel unless, of course, you rent their monitor.) And you must have a modem, that little technological marvel that allows compu-babble to travel over phone lines. A modem will cost at least another $100 (and that’s a rare bargain).

U.S. Videotel’s start-up software kits are $4.95 for IBM or compatibles, Commodore, Apple (except for the I1GS); $9.95 for Apple Macintosh. To sign up for the kit and the service, you must call (800) 477-5000. Some Videotel features, such as the electronic bill-paying service, cost more than the flat rate.

Spencer says Videotel, available now on ly in Dallas and Houston, expects to have 30,000 subscribers in Dallas by the end of the year. Martha Griffin says Prodigy has con figured its computer to handle one million users online at once. Both services are bank ing on consumers like freelance TV editor Jud Archer. “I think online services are ab solutely the future ’thing’ to do,” says the Prodigy user. “No good home should be without them.”

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