We far prefer the pseudo-free (meaning "somebody pays for this but it's not usually me") electronic services such as Usenet or local BBS's to the pay-per-millisecond-of-access-time services like CompuServe. Nonetheless, the pay services are often better organized and more comprehensive. They also offer easier connections - it is difficult to get on Usenet if you aren't at a university or large business.
In the latest happenings in the commercial service front, Prodigy has expanded their phone number coverage widely, even hitting our town of Ithaca, New York. Unfortunately, Prodigy raised the monthly rate from $9.95 to $12.95 (although there is no charge for access time), which apparently irritated large numbers of Prodigy users. We've come across three other drawbacks to Prodigy in talking to their support people. First, the Prodigy software looks like it was ported directly from the IBM version. The fonts are blocky and ugly, it has an on-screen menu that encourages you to maneuver it with the arrow keys, and it bears no resemblance to a Macintosh application, unlike American Online's software or even the new CompuServe interface for the Mac. Second, Prodigy has no program libraries so it isn't possible to upload or download public domain and shareware software - something that I like doing a great deal. Third and finally, the reason Prodigy's price is so low is that the bottom fifth of the screen is devoted to advertising. If I wanted to watch advertising, I'd get cable television.
More useful is GEnie, the online service run by General Electric. It is a full featured service with companies providing online support, program libraries, and electronic mail. Previously, GEnie was relatively expensive, at least in the same ballpark as CompuServe. As of October 1st though, GEnie is dropping its $29.95 signup fee and providing non-prime time unlimited access time for email, non-computer oriented bulletin boards, travel services, and the news and weather sections. Rates for the other sections have dropped from $10 to $6, at least for 2400 baud.
GEnie is still a command line based system, though, so for online services with decent interfaces you would have to look to America Online, CompuServe (with the CompuServe Information Manager), and Apple's own AppleLink. In November, AppleLink will be updated to version 6.0, which will include a number of new features and enhancements. The entire service will be reorganized to make it easier to find information, and more third parties will have their own sections. New group discussion areas will facilitate communications by adding threading capabilities so users can easily filter out unwanted articles and search for specific ones. Mail will get some of the same filtering capabilities, files can be attached to mail messages, and the address book has been improved. Unfortunately, AppleLink is still a tad pricey for most of us with the startup kit at $70, a $12/hour access charge, and a kilocharacter charge of $.045 for non-prime time access (we assume that this last charge is a simple fee for the number of characters transferred, though we aren't positive). Sounds like it would add up fast, though Apple did rescind the $45 annual membership fee.
Prodigy -- 800-PRODIGY
GE Information Services -- 800/638-9636
Adam C. Engst -- TidBITS Editor
InfoWorld -- 17-Sep-90, Vol. 12, #38, pg. 42
MacWEEK -- 25-Sep-90, Vol. 4, #32, pg. 14