Death of a Child Prodigy

Old-school Online Service Pulls the Plug

And, in part, they have a point. In the weeks following, the shift has been rocky. Dial-up connections are inconsistent. E-mail forwarding has been "a disaster," says Barry Smades, who co-runs Prodigy's Christian Music newsletter. In the changeover, all the members had to shift their e-mail from prodigy.com addresses to prodigy.net. Normally, ISPs will automatically forward your mail. Here, Prodigy asked users to do it themselves. In Smades's case, Prodigy, oddly, finessed his e-mail for him, and in the process he lost over 800 messages. "It's frustrating when you spent years building up an e-mail address and overnight it's gone," he says. (To be fair, he waited until the absolutely final days to take care of it.) Classic member Web pages, which the service promoted long before they were in vogue, will also sink into oblivion in coming weeks, unless users successfully "attach" them to their new IDs. "My mom can't forward her mail now and her Web page will die," says Diana Morris, another Classic member, who worked for the company as a chat host. "It's a disappointment that they didn't find a way" to make the transition easier, she says.

"There are easier ways we could have done this," acknowledges Prodigy's Kirkner, who says the Classic system was being kept alive "with Band-Aids and string." "But we tried to do this as aboveboard as possible at every step of the way. We gave them the opportunity, [asking], 'Do you want to come over or not?'"

But what technological transition is ever easy? Prodigy Classic members were warned in January that the service would be shutting down on October 1—how much more advance warning could they expect? The problem was more that Classic was a closed system, an outpost of early adapters who stopped wanting to adapt any longer. And, honestly, who can blame them? "Prodigy had great content and people, but what caused the demise is that the tech changed so greatly. We didn't expect everybody to be upgrading their computers every two years—that was a surprise," says Morris. "You don't upgrade your TV every two years."

You do, however, change the shows you watch. And the blockbuster right now is the Internet. Many Prodigy executives saw it coming. About.com, one of Silicon Alley's success stories and one of the top 20 sites on the Net, was created almost entirely by ex-Prodigy executives, like CEO Scott Kurnit and COO William C. Day, who oversaw Prodigy's community and browser development. For them, the Net just blindsided Prodigy. "Prodigy execs were focused strictly on the technical aspects of connecting computers together and the Net came along and said, 'That's not a big deal—you've got to do something more interesting than that,"' says Day.

At 11:52 p.m. EST on September 30, you could hear them leaving for that "more interesting" coast. The final countdown had begun. At 11:58, STFtraP said, "Catch you all on the dark side of the moon" and signed off. With 30 seconds to go, Solimano, in a chorus of adieus, shouted "GOODBYE PRODIGY!"

Midnight came. Went. Nothing happened. By 12:15, even the diehards realized they would be denied the drama of a giant system crash. Rumors abounded that 4 a.m. was the real cutoff. "The morons that run [Classic] can't even shut it down right!!!" wrote one chatter. In fact, the system would be staggered to a close—once you signed off, you would not be able to sign back on. (If you went to sleep, the system would drop you.) And so some lingered, chatting on, talking into the middle of the night. At every sign-off, members got to choose their own ending. "It's just the age...it's just a stage...we disengage...," wrote dionysus, before ducking out. "We turn the page."

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