Is CompuServe Still a Company?

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If you’re old enough to remember the burgeoning digital world of the ’90s, the name CompuServe might ring a bell. The online giant seemed to be everywhere during that decade, although it got its start more than 20 years before that. In the early days of the online world, CompuServe played an integral role in many people’s first experiences with the internet.

In its heyday, CompuServe was one of the most popular and best-known internet service providers that enjoyed widespread usage thanks to its engaging programs, forums, chat platforms and games. But the information service closed its doors in 2009 after some tumultuous later years, leaving behind a fascinating history of innovation.

The Early Days of CompuServe

CompuServe got its start the same year America achieved another technological milestone by landing on the moon. In 1969, Jeffrey Wilkins of Columbus, Ohio, started CompuServe in an effort to computerize his father-in-law’s company, Golden United Life Insurance. CompuServe essentially began as a subsidiary of Golden United and became one of the first corporate computer departments in the country. Golden United turned CompuServe into its own company in 1975.

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Wilkins wanted more from his company, and, because Golden United owned large, mainframe-like computers, he began allowing other companies to rent time on these computers so their employees could get work done using the machines. Called “time-sharing,” this was an early form of computer networking and a way for multiple employees to work in the same files simultaneously. Wilkins also created a similar software package to the one he used at Golden United and repackaged it for other companies to use.

Pioneering the Online Experience

In 1979, CompuServe became an early innovator in the online revolution. The company adopted a type of technology called videotex that allowed customers to use dial-up modems to read information and news, conduct banking transactions and shop via an interface displayed on a TV-like screen. CompuServe had great expectations for this new service, but it was difficult to convince everyday consumers to turn to computer screens rather than using telephones for commerce. Early use fell short of the company’s projections, and only about 1,200 people tried the service that first year.

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The following year, tax-preparation giant H&R Block acquired CompuServe as the service expanded its offerings to include purchasing tickets to sporting and cultural events and making travel reservations. As the 1980s wrapped up, the online marketplace was getting ready to explode, and CompuServe found itself poised to be a leader.

Leading the Charge of the Internet Revolution

In the ’80s, CompuServe experienced steady growth and continued to innovate. The company pioneered internet bulletin boards and forums that decade, and it expanded into countries as diverse as Japan, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. In 1989, CompuServe boasted half a million subscribers — another first for the online world. During that year, it became the first company to offer internet connectivity packages to consumers, and it also offered a proprietary email service for subscribers.

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CompuServe continued furthering its reach to consumers in the early ’90s. By 1995, CompuServe had more than 3 million subscribers on board, and it was the largest internet service provider at that time. As competition grew, CompuServe saw threats to its hold as the leader in online services from upstart competitors America Online (AOL) and Prodigy — a venture from unlikely partners Sears and IBM.

The End of the Line for CompuServe

By 1997, CompuServe had 5 million customers, and H&R Block sold the company to telecom giant WorldCom. After negotiating this deal, WorldCom sold CompuServe’s subscriber list to its biggest rival, AOL, which by then had surpassed CompuServe with 8 million subscribers.

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AOL continued operating CompuServe as a separate company, but it neglected the popular service and didn’t update CompuServe’s interface to meet changing needs and the growth of the online world. When AOL merged with TimeWarner, the new company made some small attempts to improve CompuServe’s offerings, but as AOL and TimeWarner were negotiating a split in 2009, AOL finally shuttered CompuServe in the summer of that year.

Want to Experience CompuServe Today?

Even though CompuServe is a part of the glorious history of the internet, you can still get a glimpse of the classic experience of the once-powerful online giant today. Verizon Media, the parent company of CompuServe’s parent AOL, has allowed to continue to operate, giving new users the classic CompuServe experience.

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Today’s CompuServe homepage includes current news headlines and the site’s classic “channels” where you can find links that match areas of interest like sports, weather and pop culture. There’s also a link to a brief history of the company with quaint wording that still promotes classic CompuServe as a leader and innovator. AOL users can even check their email accounts from the site. It’s a fun way to enjoy a retro internet experience.