Compuserve Paper

A Comparison of Compuserve to Other Information Sources

By Dave Burkett

"Should I get on the Information Superhighway?" is a common question many people are asking today. There is a lot of hype in the media, but people are not sure if being on-line is more beneficial than using their current sources of information.

Many of the people facing this dilemma already have established sources for acquiring information. For instance, they probably take a daily newspaper, subscribe to a few magazines, watch TV and get basic cable. They generally don't feel a burning need to be more "connected" to the world. They learn about the news by watching TV and reading the paper, although they don't always have time to do either. They get the support from companies by calling 800 numbers, although they often complain about being put on hold forever. They may hear about things like what brand of dog food is best from a trusted neighbor, although they may worry that his suggestions are not best for their puppy since his dog is older.

So now these people are asking if the information superhighway can really live up to the hype. In this paper, I will investigate Compuserve as a means of gathering information and compare it to the more common means described above. Compuserve's services include the following: news, electronic mail, computer support forums, reference library, and entertainment.

Compuserve's news, sports, and weather sections offer users current information from wire services around the world. Users can search archives of past articles from 55 major newspapers or they can set up folders that will accumulate current news based on a user-defined selection criteria. The diversity of sources is useful for research purposes, but if used frequently, the service can be more costly than purchasing or subscribing to the traditional alternatives. Especially when additional charges are added for the "folder" services. Weather and sports reports provide users with instant access to international information. This type of information is broadcast on Cable TV channels, but somewhat infrequently.

Electronic mail provides 24-hour world-wide communications. As more and more individuals and businesses come on-line, electronic mail is increasingly becoming an efficient medium for communication with clients, colleagues, family and friends. Messages and data files can be sent to large mailing lists simultaneously and responses can be received anytime. E-Mail allows for more complete and efficient communication than "phone-tag" with answering machines. However, the biggest limitation is that still many individuals are not "wired" which means maintaining dual channels of communication (E-Mail and phone or paper mail).

The computer support forums provide access to a worldwide network of computer users and vendors. Over 300 forums are maintained to answer questions, maintain reference libraries, and provide conference rooms. It is possible to learn from postings what problems exist, how the company is addressing these complaints, and how to make the best use of existing technology. These forums are useful because many people do not have access to a network of knowledgeable people to answer their questions.

I used a Compuserve forum maintained by Insignia to pose questions about Softwindows for the PowerPC. The sysop responded in one day with a detailed posting on the benefits of Softwindows emulation verses the processor direct boards. Of course the response was pro-Insignia, but I was also able to benefit from related messages from other users who were not biased toward the company.

The currently alternative for forums is calling a vender 800 number, but the forums provide additional benefits. When an individual calls an 800 number, his question can only be answered if it can be clearly articulated. In the forums, it is possible to learn from the questions asked by others and stored in the message section. Being interested in ISDN, I found it particularly helpful reading back messages in the ISDN forum.

The Intel Pentium bug fiasco last Fall has increased awareness among companies to the importance of responding quickly to complaints logged over the networks. A simple message posted by a mathematician on the Compuserve's Intel Forum snowballed into a world-wide crisis of confidence in the Pentium processor and forced Pentium to post a $500 million loss to cover potential expenses in replacement of the flawed chips.

The reference library includes electronic editions of encyclopedias, professional journals, magazines, medical information, as well as up-to-the-minute business and investment information. While the materials can be purchases separately by individuals, it can be costly to purchase or subscribe to many publications. Alternatives such as the library are often considered inconvenient for simple research. The cost of maintaining a personal reference library and the inconvenience of having to look through many different sources is often a justification for subscribing to Compuserve. However, many of these services have pay-per-use costs, forcing it a tradeoff between convenience and expense.

The entertainment and leisure forums link users with diverse interests around the world. For instance, in the Dogs and Cats forum it is possible to get a dog food recommendation from dog owners with the same breed and age. As forums become more and more specialized, they become increasingly unique to on-line services, where geographic distances necessary to attract interested people become large and face-to-face contact impossible.

This paper cannot be complete without a few words about the peculiarities of Compuserve and its interface. First, installing Compuserve is not entirely simple. It took me a couple hours and two phone calls to a support line to get valid account ID number and clear up an incompatibility with my modem configuration file.

Once on-line, the wide variety of pricing schemes is extremely intimidating. I was constantly moving between basic services, extended services and pay-per-use, but it was difficult to know exactly what I was paying for. In several visits, I managed to use up most of my $35 introductory usage credit!

Finally, as I moved between services, my main windows were constantly appearing and disappearing. If I only stayed in a forum a minute, then I would have to rebuild the main menus again once I left the forum. This was distracting and time consuming.

To decide to join Compuserve, an individual must decide whether the services provided are worth the monthly service charges and pay-per-use fees. The benefits fall into four categories: uniqueness of benefits, convenience, novelty, and training on the information superhighway. When assessing the usefulness of a benefit, a primary consideration is cost: how useful are the services relative to other information sources available at little or no additional charge?

The of a one-stop reference service is a benefit to individuals who frequently need information, but have a very diverse set of specific needs that change on a week-by-week basis. For instance, a user would benefit from Compuserve if they needed timely news on a diverse set of topics such as worker strike in Liverpool, bios on the Australian Open players, weather reports from the Ukraine, stock quotes from NYSE, and installation advice on wireless networks. Substitutes are available for all of these, but it would be costly to subscribe to the Liverpool Times, Sports Illustrated, extended Cable TV Service, Dow Jones News Retrieval, and belong to computer networking trade associations independently just to get access to a week's information requirements.

On the other hand, many users can justify the cost simply because of the novelty of being "on the information superhighway." Indeed, many of the new users do not have specific needs they are looking to address, but are simply subscribing to Compuserve as a way to get on-line with the least amount of difficulty.

Those who are just trying it out are likely to drop in a short time if they are not able to find beneficial services. Some will move up to more complete Internet access for a broader and more diverse set of information. Others will simply give up on on-line services altogether.

Compuserve is valuable to many but not all types of individuals. Many will find a few services that make it all worthwhile, but others will find absolutely nothing useful to them. A careful inventory of needs and an initial willingness to experiment with a variety of services is necessary to make an educated decision on joining an on-line service.