Evaluation of America On-Line and Prodigy

John Powell

School of Information and Library Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109


Just what is it that we are bringing into our homes?
A look at the Prodigy and America On Line Computer Systems.

The purpose of this paper is to compare two commercial on line systems. For this paper, I have reviewed Prodigy and America On Line (AOL). The presentation of this paper will differ from the classical comparison. I am more interested in social and societal issues that these services offer. I am curious, why millions of people buying and utilizing these on line systems? For the ten dollars it costs a month to access these companies, what are they buying? Just what is it that we are bringing into our homes?

Table of Contents

Why are millions of people buying these services?

Since the early 1980s there has been an explosion of microcomputer sales. Today in most homes we can find the use of at least one home computer. Many families bought computers for personal finance programs, word processing, and to help their children with homework. While these reasons are all very legitimate, many computer owners are wanting to venture out of their living rooms and into the express lane of the information super highway. I think it is ironic that while many of my classmates will say, computers are used to deliver information into the living room so we do not have to leave our homes. However, we use the terminology of "venturing out" into the information super highway.

When one goes out looking on the information superhighway, there are many on-ramps to the rapidly growing network. At colleges and universities, much like the University of Michigan, students are encouraged and often required to explore, utilize, and develop resources available in cyberspace. In the "real world" individuals must purchase accounts from companies like America On- Line or Prodigy. These companies offer a fee for their service. Competition is fierce and rates are comparable. For people affiliated with an academic institution, they are generally given an account which entitles them to unlimited Internet access. Whereas individuals who hold accounts with AOL or Prodigy, generally are given a flat rate for so many hours per month and a limited view of the Internet.

However, the question in my mind is, why are so many people buying these accounts and what are they getting in return for their money? I believe the answer to the first question is rather simple. Not a day goes by where we do not hear something about computers, computer giants like Macintosh or IBM, or the information super highway. Watch any news program and you will be sure to see some feature focus on this aspect of technology. People are buying these services because it is something new that they feel they must have. Even though I have not studied sociology, I believe there are few philosophical principles in effect here. First philosophy, the role of advertisements and the press. The press has really sold these services to people by constantly reporting on "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of these services. What do I mean, let us look at the University of Michigan student, Jake Baker, who posted threatening messages to a sexual explicate discussion group. The manner in which this was reported, in my opinion, only entices people to get involved with the information super highway. To see what this is all about. Second philosophy, in America since the forties and fifties, society has focused on "keeping up with the Jones's". American's feel that must know what's going on and must stay on top of all the last terminology and jargon in order to retain their social status. For these two reason, I believe we have seen Americans turning to on-line systems like AOL and Prodigy in record numbers.

The second part of my question, "what are we getting in return from these services" is a bit more complex. After viewing, playing with, and analyzing Prodigy and AOL, I feel that while these services do have much to offer, it is not worth the money, especially in the case of Prodigy.

Let me begin by explaining what these two services have to offer. Both Prodigy and AOL have departments that you can select. Basically, they are the same in both services. They are news, weather, business, finance, sports, communication, entertainment, reference, shopping, computers, and travel. Generally, the information found in these departments is comparable in both providers. However, there are some differences between the providers. In comparing these two services, I preferred America On-Line over Prodigy for several reasons. The old saying, first impression are very important. Well, this is true. The initial contact one has with these service providers is extremely important. America On Line's initial window was professional looking, in that it was clear and concise utilizing icons with captions rather than words. The screen design was clean and easy to view and did not seem busy or cluttered. The fonts were clear and colors brilliant. However, on the other hand, Prodigy's screen design and layout was poor. I think what I did not like the font Prodigy used. It was in all capital letters with an illegible font. Additionally, the choice of colors and screen layout was busy and cluttered. I found the screen design and all the commands confusing and did not really know what several of the icons meant. It was not as straight forward as I found America On Line.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Both of these services have many useful services which they provide. I think it is important to state that these services are available in other formats. The same services can be obtained via the telephone, television, and personal interaction. Both of these services providers provide up to the minute details on news, sports, and weather events. This can be very useful for people who want to stay in touch with the world around them. Perhaps for someone planning a trip or vacation, the latest up to the minute forecast is very important. Both of these online services can be useful for people to "talk" asking advice of others. There is something about computer online services that allow people to communicate in a way that does not happen in personal conversations. Stripped from the conversation are the persons sex, age, religion, appearance, and all physical attributes which can in many situations get in the way of a conversation. (Again, it has something to do with first impressions.) In online conversations, one cannot pre-judge someone because of some physical attribute they possess. In theory, online systems puts everyone on the same playing field. However, with just about anything in life, there is another side, the darker side, that we must also be aware of.

The Bad. I became more aware of the "bad" or "dangerous" side of these online systems today while watching the Today Show on February 23, 1995. They ran a piece on asking for medical advice on online services. They pointed out that you really need to be careful with the advice you receive because you do not know the credentials of the person providing the information. It was noted in the interview that people frequently misrepresent themselves in online services. When seeking advice via the computer or online services, we need to be careful and accept that information as just one source. In the "real world" when seeking advice, we generally get several opinions, for example with health care or automotive repairs. There are other areas that we must exercise caution in accessing these online services. The cost of these services are not cheap. Generally, you have five "free" hours for the monthly charge of approximately ten dollars. This is not terrible cheap, actually that's fairly expensive for the information that you receive. Surely, most of the information available online can be obtained from other resources for free or at relatively low cost. From an information specialist perspective, I am curious to know where and how the various categories and keywords were developed. In reviewing the categories, I find them narrow and not all encompassing. As an information specialist, I realize the importance of choosing an adequate subject access system that can handle all the information now and in the future one wishes to index. I think that the categories that Prodigy and AOL present are limited and in some cases overlap. This is not good. The "top" level categories should be broad and cover a large area. Then with various subdivisions, the categories can be separated into narrower and more easily handled compartments. For example, having a category for "News and Sports" and another category for "Newsstand" is not good. These categories are not separate -- they overlap. There is common ground between the two. As information providers we need to avoid confusing people and create broad categories with narrower subdivisions in each category. The same is true for the keywords. I am not sure where any of the keywords came from in either system. I tried some "keywords" I thought of but got no results. Finally, the modem speeds at which you can dial into these services is poor. 2400 bauds is not sufficient in this day and age of "supercomputing." These services need to get with the program and upgrade their services for faster modems.

The Ugly. There has been much talk of sex and the Internet in recent weeks. Many people are concerned and Congress will try to legislate the proper use of the Internet in coming months and years. However it is up to the individual user to decide what she or he wishes to view. In comparing the Internet world with the "real" world, there are places that one does not go to; there are people we avoid; and things we do not do. The same is true about the Internet. The difference is the fact that the "Internet world" is at our finger tips. We do not have to drive to it or way from it. Just a simple click or searching of a keyword takes us there. For this reason, to block some of the "ugly" things from children the makers of AOL and Prodigy have developed parental controls which block certain members from viewing what the parent blocks out. It works much like blocking 900 numbers through the telephone company.

Is this really a library?

I would like to dispel the myth that the Internet and these providers are "electronic libraries." That just is not true and far from the truth. I do agree that there are many information sources on these online services but that does not make them libraries. There are many issues that we need to examine to dispel this myth.

First of all, what is a library? It is a place with many books and other information sources are organized by subject and most importantly, has information professionals available to answer and assist people in their quest for knowledge. In online services there is a place that has many information sources which is similar to a library. The difference is that the library owns the book or journal whereas the information provider just provides the information. That information could be taken away at any time. The information may not always be there. Second the information in a book or journal has been read by many people who believe it is correct. On the information super highway, anyone can put out information and who knows if the information has been proven or not. Third, libraries have information specialists known as librarians. Librarians are available to assist people in locating the information they need. In Prodigy or AOL, there is no information professional that can do that. For example, I called the folks at Prodigy when I canceled my account and began questioning them about the World Wide Web and their new browser. I consider this type of contact with a representative at Prodigy comparable to speaking to a librarian at a library. However, the Prodigy representative knew very little about the WWW and what he did know was incorrect. I had to correct him. I was not very confident with the product that they were providing.

Know your provider

In this section I would like to raise issues of the provider. I think we need to know more about these providers. Who are they and what are their goals? What sources of information do they seek out? Do they verify the information they provide or not? Are all the magazines that are available through Prodigy and AOL exactly the same as the print version? Why would someone want to read an entire magazine online? (That would be really expensive!) What happens when you want to produce information? On Prodigy, only IBM and compatibles can access the WWW browser. Macintosh users do not have access to the Prodigy browser. I think by raising these questions, we need to have more information on these companies.

by John Powell
March 22, 1995