Getting The Line On On-Line -- You Don't Need To Be An Astronaut To Visit Cyberspace, But Choose Your Rocket Ship Wisely

When you heard last weekend that radio icon Rush Limbaugh got married to a woman he met on CompuServe, you might have decided it was time to get on line yourself.

Then again, maybe you're simply inspired to discuss topics dear to your heart and download computer files related to them.

Or you'd like to second-guess your broker and do your own research, or confirm that the person you'd like to hire really was featured in the Washington Post last month.

Or electronically exchange virtual scenery with other flight-simulator aficionados, or automatically "clip" daily wire-service stories having to do with Boeing.

Or maybe you don't know what you want - but you'll know it when it appears on your screen. Some of us just like being connected by modem to the outside world.

And we'd like to do it without learning the text commands of the Unix operating system that governs the Internet, or telnetting through computers in half a dozen cities before finding the words we want to read, or getting to know the Internet's Archie and Jughead and Veronica software. (What is the Internet - a comic book?)

As an alternative to the complicated Internet, easier-to-use commercial on-line information services have exploded in popularity recently.

No one is quite sure where it's all headed - probably to your TV cable instead of today's modem-and-phone-line links - but it's clear commercial on-line services aren't just for stockbrokers and

software developers anymore.

They're the cyberspace for the rest of us.

The trouble is, evaluating them is a little like comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of general-interest newspapers in five different cities. They're all trying to do the same thing, and they look similar, but they have distinct personalities and aptitudes.

Before you make a choice:

-- If you are a miser, forget the whole thing. By the time you pick a service and actually use it to do something besides read and agree to the terms of use, you're going to be spending some money.

It could be $10 a month. It could be $100 a month if you get addicted to live chat, in which you use your keyboard to converse in real time with people all over the world.

In any event, the money you spend is for brain candy. There are worse vices. Give yourself a little financial leeway at first to muck around. Theoretically at least, the money you spend will decrease as you get savvier and faster at using the service.

-- Instead of comparing the cost of each service, which will make you cuckoo (see last week's Personal Technology section), explore more than one and see which best matches your interests. Settling on a service that seems to be the least expensive doesn't make sense if its content doesn't suit you.

Some services have introductory programs that cost little or nothing the first month. Limbaugh may have ended up getting hitched from his involvement on CompuServe, but choosing an on-line service is not a lifetime commitment, and it can be canceled at any time.

Choosing a service on a friend's recommendation may be fine if he or she has like interests and abilities. But do you read all the same magazines or have the same hobbies?

You'll want to test-drive services to see for yourself, but here are some general assessments of the Big Five - America Online, CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie and Prodigy - by someone who has tried them all. Coming soon are two more, from Microsoft (code-named Marvel) and Apple (eWorld).


One of the simplest interfaces belongs to Prodigy, but the price of a no-brain-required, point-and-click front end is enormous: The movement from one screen of information to the next is glacial.

Unless you have a lot of time on your hands or a 9600-baud modem, don't even think about Prodigy.

For example, at 2400 baud it took a minute and 20 seconds to get from the top Prodigy bulletin-board menu to a particular bulletin board - one mouse click. It took 30 seconds to get a list of message topics, and it took nearly a minute to display a 17-word message.

If you are the least bit aesthetically inclined, you will also find Prodigy's garish and typographically challenged design hard to look at.

Comparable in ease of use and tops in visual elegance is America Online, which isn't always lightning-fast itself but is swift compared with Prodigy.

America Online's problem is your ability to get connected in the first place. The darling of media has suffered an explosion of new users and sometimes you just plain can't get connected. AOL claims it has added, and continues to add, computational power, but it's not always evident.

CompuServe is next in the ease-of-use arena and straddles the text-command and point-and-click worlds. You can use text commands to talk to CompuServe but hardly anyone does, and especially if you're new to on-line services, you'll want to use CompuServe Information Manager (CIM), a point-and-click facade that works with Windows or the Mac.

Some portions of the system, however, still demand text commands, and CIM leads you in and out of those areas of "terminal emulation," as they are called.

There are also several task-specific, third-party software interfaces for CompuServe - most notably Navigator for the Mac and for Windows, and TAPCIS for MS-DOS. They allow you to compose and read electronic mail and forum messages off-line, when the meter isn't running. CIM also provides this capability, but the other programs automate the tasks.

GEnie has a text-command interface but also sports Aladdin, which does for GEnie what Navigator does for CompuServe. Aladdin is available for MS-DOS, Windows and Amiga users, and a Mac version is in development.

GEnie's text-command interface is straightforward and flexible for advanced users but can get complicated for novices once you get deeper than the main multiple-choice menus.

Delphi also has a text-command interface, but it's a little easier to use than GEnie's. It feels a little less like a rigid mainframe-computer menu. Maybe it's because the menu items aren't numbered - you type the first few letters of each item to get where you want.

E-mail and the Internet

Because all five on-line services offer electronic mail and e-mail links to the Internet (and, consequently, to the other commercial services), ease of use might be your guiding factor here.

Their graphical interfaces make America Online, CompuServe and, to a lesser degree, Prodigy the easiest to use for e-mail. They employ windows to read, write and edit messages and save them to files on your computer disk. Delphi has a full-blown door to the Internet, in all its arcane text-command glory, for only $3 a month extra. If you feel you're ready to explore the Net but want the comfort of a commercial on-line service, too, Delphi would be the best choice.

America Online has partial access to the Internet now and promises full Internet access any month now. It will be interesting to see if AOL can impose its universal, easy-to-use interface on Internet's anarchy.

Special interests

Many don't realize the wealth of information and shop talk available in the special-interest areas of on-line services. It's one of the reasons people get hooked.

It's also a good way to measure a service's worth to you. If you have a particular area of interest - genealogy, Amiga computers, astronomy, fly fishing, wine, music, soap operas - see which on-line services have an area for you.

All five services have special-interest areas - alternately called forums, round tables, bulletin boards - that include public message boards and libraries of computer files and software you can download.

Live chat

In the realm of live keyboard discussions, in which the conversation scrolls on your screen as it happens, America Online shines.

Everything from the metaphorical "rooms" and "auditoriums" for live discussions to the windows-oriented private messaging features are well thought-out on America Online.

The level of discourse tends to be better than on most of the other services, but as on all of them, there's a whole lot of sexual tension awaiting resolution in many chat rooms.

CompuServe's CB Simulator is relatively easy to use with the service's CompuServe Information Manager software, but the conversations, as on real CB radio, don't seem to rise much above people shouting "Hello!" to each other.

The small-town atmospheres of the smaller services, GEnie and Delphi, seem to lend more casual and thoughtful tones to discussions in their chat areas. Because there are fewer users, it's more likely you will run into the same people often and it starts to feel like a true cyber-neighborhood. GEnie's chat area is organized more along the lines of the CompuServe CB metaphor and is harder to use. Delphi pioneered America Online's room metaphor years ago, and although it's text-based, Delphi's chat system is easy to use.

Prodigy has a chat area available to users of its Windows software, but since we were flying a Mac on this evaluation, we couldn't try it out.

Chat isn't the only feature of Prodigy that Macintosh and pure MS-DOS users can't access. A Mac interface for Prodigy to solve this problem is under development.

News and information

Hands-down the winner here is CompuServe, which early on targeted business users who need raw information and sheer research power.

In addition to the Associated Press, CompuServe has Reuters, United Press International, the Washington Post and electronic press releases, although you pay extra for access to all but AP.

CompuServe also has Executive News Service, a premium feature that "clips" stories off those news wires based on your pre-defined parameters, such as keywords that appear in text.

GEnie has a similar service, called QuikNews, and also has a link to Dow Jones News/Retrieval.

Both CompuServe and GEnie have services in which you can search the electronic archives of major magazines and dozens of newspapers, including this one.

The other three services are more casual in their approach to news and are geared more toward browsers. They each have one or two wire services. More so than the other services, America Online has become popular with magazines and newspapers that want an on-line presence. To name a few, you will find areas for Time, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired, the San Jose Mercury News and the Chicago Tribune, plus numerous niche publications.

But unlike the databases on CompuServe and GEnie, there is no one-stop shop on America Online where you can search and clip multiple news sources.

All five services have encyclopedias and other library-like services. CompuServe and GEnie have the greatest variety for generic research, but they aren't the easiest to use. For young people, America Online or Prodigy might be adequate choices.

Financial content

If your primary reason for subscribing to an on-line service is personal or professional finance and business, CompuServe and GEnie stand out.

But the other three services offer a range of information and services, too, including specific company news and research. And if you're looking for a particular brokerage service, you will find firms on all five on-line services.

Their easier interfaces make America Online and Prodigy especially attractive for those who wish to enter in the particulars of a stock portfolio. The computer will track its profits and losses from day to day so you can see at a glance where you stand.

For serious - and well-heeled - investors, GEnie's link to Dow Jones News/Retrieval can prove helpful.