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COMPUTER FILE

Genie: A Low-Cost Information Service

March 23, 1987|Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid is vice president and senior analyst at Seybold Group, a computer consulting and publication firm.

I have long been an on-line junkie, addicted to dial-up information services such as the Source, CompuServe, Dow Jones News/Retrieval and Knowledge Index. Trouble is, with the price of those services ranging from $12 to $40 an hour, it has been an expensive habit.

Now, however, there is a cheaper alternative. It's Genie, a service of the General Electric Information Service Co., or GEISCO.

Used at speeds of either 300 or 1,200 bits per second, Genie costs only $5 an hour during the evening (6 p.m. to 8 a.m.) or on weekends and holidays. Weekday, or prime-time, use costs $35 an hour. There is a one-time, $18 sign-up fee but no minimum monthly charges.

GEISCO claims to be the world's largest "teleprocessing" company. Its customers, mostly large corporations, use its battery of mainframe computers to move large chunks of information all over the world. By day, these computers keep the wheels of commerce greased. But by night, they become the mainframes for the rest of us, at a price most personal computer users can afford.

Genie doesn't have as many services or users as CompuServe, its biggest competitor. But many services it offers are quite useful, and new ones are added regularly.

When you log on, a main menu appears that leads to all of the services. Menu items include What's New With Genie, GE Mail, News, References & Financial, National Real-Time Conference, Roundtables: User Groups & Clubs and Genie Shopping Services.

"What's New" summarizes services that recently have been added or modified. GE Mail allows you to correspond with other Genie subscribers. Unfortunately, there is no link to other mail services such as CompuServe or MCI mail.

The news and references section offers a number of useful services, including Cineman, which provides reviews of more than 350 films from 1984 to the present. Reviews of about 4,000 older movies are being added. Genie also hosts Hollywood Hotline, which provides more in-depth reviews and recommendations for recent movies.

Genie offers two services that provide financial news and analysis. Vestor, from Investment Technologies Inc., evaluates more than 6,000 securities and advises users on how to handle their personal portfolios. The other investor service, Genie Quotes Securities Database, contains current and historical information on more than 67,000 investments, including common stocks and mutual funds. For both services, Genie levies a $10-an-hour surcharge ($35 during prime time) in addition to the normal access charges.

Genie also draws on Grolier's Encyclopedia. Grolier's offers a 10-million-word database with more than 31,000 articles. To use the encyclopedia, users pay an extra subscription fee ranging from $7.50 for one month to $49.50 for a full year. Although the electronic edition doesn't offer the illustrations or the hefty feel of a bound volume, it does provide "key-word" searching and cross-referencing and, for the occasional user, can be a lot less expensive than buying and updating an encyclopedia set.

Roundtables, or user groups, are popular Genie attractions. Roundtables are organized by computer type (including IBM PC, Macintosh, Commodore, Apple II, Amiga, CP/M and Tandy) as well as other categories including electronic hobbyists, nonprofit organizations, science fiction, genealogy and photography. Roundtables offer an opportunity to share ideas and ask questions. It's not uncommon to find advanced users helping novices.

The user group for each computer has its own software library, full of programs that you can "download" to your own disks at no charge beyond the normal hourly rates. Programs are either public domain or "shareware," meaning that you are free to copy and use them but encouraged to send a voluntary donation to the program's author. There are literally thousands of on-line programs for each of the c omputers.

Genie is one of several on-line services to offer airline and other travel information. Unlike most others, however, Genie does not tack on a surcharge for the service. Called Eaasy Sabre, the service is a scaled-down version of the computer reservation and information service that American Airlines offers professional travel agents. In addition to providing information, it can be used to make reservations.

It also allows you to reserve rental cars and hotel rooms if you participate in American Airlines' frequent flyer program. It's the only on-line travel information and reservation system that I am willing to use. The others are either too expensive, too complicated or both.

TravelData, another Genie service, lists thousands of hotels, restaurants and rental car companies. I found 85 restaurant listings in San Francisco, including some of my favorites. The service also has a directory of toll-free 800 phone numbers for airlines, cruise lines and rental car companies. And if you don't leave home without your American Express Card, then you can have Genie check your account for past statements or recent charges.

My only complaint about Genie is that it lacks world, national and local news. CompuServe and Source subscribers can access wire services and some newspapers. Dow Jones News/Retrieval offers the full text of stories from the Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones publications.

Genie officials are aware of this deficiency and say that a remedy is in the works. When they do add a news service, I hope it allows you to search historical data by key words, a useful feature. As for current news, I'll stick with my trusty newspapers. They're much less expensive, more portable and a lot easier on the eyes.

Genie's customer assistance center can be reached at 800-638-9636.

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