Chapter 9



Prodigy


Prodigy is one of the larger online services, but membership has suffered significantly due to its pricing as well as policies regarding censorship. At one time, mail messages were subject to scrutiny and deletion, which offended many of the members. Still, if you buy into Prodigy's values, there is quite a lot of information to be had.

Prodigy is a joint venture by Sears and IBM, although Sears may have divested significantly over the past few months.

In any case, Prodigy's attitude towards the Internet can only be summed up as aggressive, although its marketing leaves much to be desired. In fact, Prodigy offers a decent set of Internet services -- primarily due to the introduction of World Wide Web access. As of this writing, Prodigy is the only online service to offer graphical Web access. Even then, it is limited to Windows users and not DOS or Macintosh users.


Internet Services


Prodigy is big on Internet. There are access points to the main Internet service just about everywhere. The people at Prodigy really want you to go there (see figure 9.34).

Figure 9.34: Prodigy's Internet main page.

Before you can enter the any of the Internet areas, you have to read, agree, and validate any users that may be offended with content that is out of reach of Prodigy's censors (and you have to do this with every service). I guess this is in line with its standard policies, but I still find it irritating.

NOTE: Actually, I found the interface quite puzzling. You must first enter one of the Internet areas, wherein you go through the "offending material" release -- and then you get kicked out. You then reenter as a validated user. It took a little getting used to, but eventually I got in.

Prodigy offers all the major Internet services except Telnet, but they take a sneaky approach to Gopher and FTP -- they're just part of the Web browser. I've never seen a Web browser that has all the features, or even a reasonable set, of the better standalone applications. It's doable, but I think it is cheating!


Advantages


There is no compelling reason to use Prodigy's mail; it's slow and ugly. Transferring mail to the Internet is easy, but other services do it much better. The main inbox screen displays about four or five message headers. If this were my primary mail system and I left town for two days, I'd normally have 100 to 150 messages in my inbox when I returned. I'd spend the next two days just cleaning out my mailbox.

Prodigy has no obvious way to include attachments in email, so that eliminates MIME or any other common message format. There doesn't seem to be a way to upload the file anyway.

Still, Prodigy's Internet mail, on a message-by-message basis, has some merits. After all, some people only access the Internet using email (see figure 9.35).

Figure 9.35: Prodigy's email composition window.


Usenet News

Prodigy, of all the online services, maintains the newsgroup naming heirarchy and conventions completely (see figure 9.36). Although it doesn't really use the wordy version found in both America Online and CompuServe, how difficult can it be to figure out the exact content of a newsgroup such as comp.sys.ibm.pc.hardware.video?

Figure 9.36: Prodigy's newsgroup list.

You'll notice also that Prodigy implements Usenet news as a Windows application. Prodigy's programmers probably felt that a 40-character line would be insufficient for displaying news. They were correct.

Subscribing to newsgroups is not unlike using one of the WinSock applications that you'll read about later. And again, Prodigy's newsreader is far superior to both America Online's and especially CompuServe's. In addition, Prodigy offers its own newsgroups, although I don't think I'd ever read them on a regular basis unless they had discussions on censorship (see figure 9.37).

Figure 9.37: Prodigy's subscribed newsgroup list.

Prodigy does a reasonable job of displaying articles and threads. The view is split into two sections: a list of threads and the current thread. Again, this approach is akin to some of the better WinSock newsreaders (see figure 9.38)

Figure 9.38: Prodigy's message reader.


World Wide Web, Gopher and FTP

Web browsing is Prodigy's second jewel in its suite of Internet tools. Entering the Web is easy, and when you do, Prodigy launches a full-featured browser that looks much like Netscape and Mosaic. In fact, Web browsers pretty much all look alike (I guess this is a good thing).

This browser abandons the clunky look and feel of Prodigy's interface, opting for a regular Windows-style application (see figure 9.39). In fact, the browser's window obscures the other interface. If only they'd abandon the older interface completely!

Figure 9.39: Prodigy's Web browser.

Prodigy's Web browser worked quickly (for a 9,600 bps line) and flawlessly. I commend Prodigy's programmers for doing what I thought would be difficult (are CompuServe and America Online's programmers listening?).

As I mentioned earlier, Prodigy handles Gopher and FTP through the Web browser's interface. I guess it buys them time until they can implement more full-featured, independent applications.


Disadvantages


Prodigy suffers somewhat from old age. When the makers of Prodigy decided on a video platform, they took the lowest common denominator: Color Graphics Adapter (CGA). This format hasn't been around for eons. In fact, it predates both EGA and VGA. As such, the graphics look cheesy and the colors garish. All the text styles are vector (stroke) and do not compare to any TrueType font.

If you have a big monitor and are running at 1024 x 768 resolution, the window for Prodigy's interface and the graphics and text in it only increase in size, rather than showing more text or graphics as would a standard Windows application.

Still, Prodigy is addressing some of the screen problems. In fact, with version 1.1 of the Windows software, many of the new products -- the Web browser and Usenet newsreader in particular -- are actual Windows programs. They have every bit the look and feel of Windows products. And it is only a matter of time until Prodigy abandons the older interface completely and goes with native platform applications (although I hear that the DOS version gets little or no attention, and the Macintosh version is severely behind).

Another problem is Prodigy's nickel-and-dime approach to pricing -- especially with email. Prodigy charges for every little item: size of email, number of messages, offline messages, etc. The only way to really price Prodigy is to use it for a couple of months and wait by the mailbox, hoping that you're not going to get sticker shock in the form of a bill. Nobody wants this. Give me flat rate any day.

The biggest problem that I see with Prodigy is that it is slow! I have a 14,400 bps modem and I can only use the service at 9,600 bps. If the percentage difference were the only problem, I'd say that I could live with it. However, Prodigy is consistently and annoyingly busy. There is really nothing to indicate that something is happening, short of looking at the modem lights blink on and off.

Despite Prodigy's attempts at bringing the Internet to the home, I'd give it a miss if only because email is so severely strapped. And in this case, the disadvantages certainly outweigh the advantages. Although the interface and configuration is far easier than SLIP or PPP, I don't believe it is worth it.


Addressing


To send mail from Prodigy out to the Internet, you must create a special entry in your address book and then give it a friendly name (or nickname). You can make either Prodigy addresses or Internet addresses. Internet addresses, of course, have the standard user@domain convention. Thereafter, you simply type in the friendly name and it automatically routes the message correctly.

To send mail to a user on Prodigy is easy, if a little cryptic. You simply append @prodigy.com to their userid. Unfortunately, Prodigy's idea of userid, while not as arcane as CompuServe, still leaves much to be desired. My userid is akuw56a. So, my Prodigy address is akuw56a@prodigy.com. I would imagine that a lot of mail goes to the wrong user or is bounced by Prodigy just because the userid is so cryptic.


Connecting


I visited my local Egghead software store ready to fork out $30 -- typical of software for online services. However, the salesperson pleasantly surprised me. Prodigy for Windows, DOS, and Macintosh is free (or at least while supplies last). And for a while, many modem manufacturers bundled Prodigy with their modems. You can still find the software bundled with many new computers.

Even though I obtained the software for free, it turned out to be one version older than the current one. So I had to download the current version: Prodigy for Windows 1.1, which has support for all of the new Internet services. It took about 30 minutes at 9,600 bps.

Setting up Prodigy on your computer is a painless process. It goes out and detects your modem, dials an 800 number to register and acquire a local access phone number. Prodigy operates only at 9,600 bps, which is unfortunate since 14,400 and 28,800 modems are commonplace.