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POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

A First Look at CompuServe's 3.0 Interface Lift--and a Mixed Opinion

August 12, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Last week I looked at America Online's new version 3.0 interface, and one reader sent e-mail saying, in effect, "What about CompuServe?"

Well, who says this column isn't interactive? It so happens that CompuServe has just released a beta, or testing, version of its new version 3.0 interface. As a long-standing CompuServe user and fan, I was eager not just to try the new program, but also to find out what CompuServe is doing to counteract the phenomenal success of America Online and the Internet.

After all, CompuServe--one of the first online services and long a favorite with high-tech hobbyists--had a huge head start and a great wealth of content. More recently, though, the service has had its troubles. After going public this spring at $30 a share, CompuServe stock lately has traded at less than half that as subscriber growth has unexpectedly slowed.

CompuServe has avoided the fate of Genie and Delphi, other old-timers in the field that have all but disappeared, and has done much better than rival Prodigy. But AOL has made huge inroads, and the Internet is a major threat.

For instance, Microsoft used to run the Word forum on CompuServe but now runs its own Word-oriented newsgroups on the Internet. Similarly, CompuServe has for a long time been the home office answer to Nexis, the giant database of publications that charges high prices to corporate users and law firms. CompuServe, after all, offers Knowledge Index, Magazine Database Plus and other such databanks.

But Nexis plans to make its services available on the World Wide Web, perhaps late next year. Prices may start out high, but it seems unlikely they will stay that way.

CompuServe was also slow to update its interface and simplify its prices. And a long-awaited move toward more comprehensible e-mail addresses (instead of, say, 71603,144@compuserve.com) has been delayed for months. At times CompuServe has seemed bent on proving that content in fact isn't king in the online world.

I've spent some time with CompuServe 3.0 lately, and my response is mixed. The good news is that 3.0 presents CompuServe as tightly integrated with the Internet. CompuServe pages are presented in HTML format (you can even use Netscape or Explorer to look at them), and users can follow links in and out of the service without launching a separate Web browser.

Also, CompuServe will now offer multi-tasking, enabling users to do other things on the service while downloading shareware or other files. This can save time, money and frustration, and is quite an improvement.

On the other hand, I must confess to being a little underwhelmed. As far as I can tell, CompuServe version 3.0 is a transitional, hold-the-fort kind of product designed to carry the service through its difficult move to open Internet standards, the company's stated goal for the future. In other words, CompuServe will become an Internet-based service; you'll still need to pay to use it, though.

My biggest gripe with release 3.0 is that it's slow, perhaps because the connection is winsock-based (in other words, it emulates a full-blown Internet connection, rather than a mere modem connection). A CompuServe spokesman says the service is addressing this problem and hopes to have things running faster when the final software is released. That will happen in September or October, when CompuServe will send the new version on CD-ROM to its subscribers without charge. A Macintosh version is due four to six weeks later.

For Windows users, the new software will be shipped with the premiere issue of what CompuServe is calling its CompuServe Cyberzine. The first issue of the magazine will be mailed to all CompuServe subscribers free of charge and will be packaged with a CD-ROM containing the new 3.0 software. But after that, the magazine (which will always be packaged with a CD-ROM) will cost extra, CompuServe says. The old CompuServe Magazine, which has been discontinued, was sent to subscribers for free.

Predictably, CompuServe's new software is larger than its old releases. The full installation on my machine is roughly 15 megabytes. That's large enough for most users not to want to get it by downloading, although it will be available that way online.

Subjectively, the new CompuServe interface still doesn't seem as jazzy or friendly as that of America Online. It's kind of an odd hybrid between an Internet browser and WinCIM. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the new interface is that it has taken the focus of CompuServe management off adding content. A spokesman acknowledged that in the great push to transport the huge service onto the Internet (a project code-named Red Dog), the company hasn't emphasized new content.

All in all, CompuServe version 3.0 is an improvement and will especially please the service's Internet-oriented users. But CompuServe has yet to retake the initiative from America Online, and that demon Internet remains a threat as well as a promise.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at dan.akst@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.well.com/~akst/

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