Death of a Child Prodigy

Old-school Online Service Pulls the Plug

They gathered, on the eve of the last day of September, just hours before the big sleep. Someone surfed the system and took screen shots. Another set up a camera to record every last flicker of pixel. Prodigy Classic, one of the first and most forward-thinking colonies in cyberspace—a kind of Roanoke of the Net—would be going dark at 12:00 a.m. EST October 1.

Sometime after 10 p.m., Sistina wrote that she couldn't "stop freekin cryin." GodofAcid said he felt "minutes away from being granted freedom." A bot sent out instant messages to people, nudging them off the service to let it go dark in peace. Great Scott was moved to poetry. "Horror grips us as we watch you die, all we can do is echo your anguished cries, stare as all human feelings die," he wrote. "We are leaving—you don't need us."

You don't need us. It's hard not to hear the desperation in that. Those assembled that night were Prodigy lifers, the old guard, and they stood at the coast of their world, watching the ground beneath them disappear. You might not think it now, but you too will be one of them—we all will—clinging to our favorite technology while it upgrades, evolves, and leaves us struggling to stay on top. Maybe it was your Mac Classic, or your Commodore 64. Machines are good at lots of thing, but the one thing they're really good at is becoming obsolete. So are we—we just don't mind it as much. In the brutal velocity of all things .com, though, being older is a liability, and it usually means you're the first in line to get left behind. It's easy to forget that it's not just monitors and CPUs that get shucked on the paths to progress. There are real victims. And, in this case, they were the pioneers.

Classic was one of the first generation of commercial online ventures—pre-IPO bubble, pre-Internet, pre-graphics even (save for the ASCii art). It was launched through a partnership between IBM and Sears in 1988. People paid $30 for 30 hours of time on the network, to play games, chat, post, whatever. Classic members had been online so long that they remember "thinking that 'the Web' was a feature on Prodigy," said one. They could check their e-mail—capped at 30 a month—in Sears stores. Many of them were hardcore geeks, in the best sense of the word. They were the kind of people who might actually count the number of times they played the Prodigy game Square Off (2167 may be the record), or write a poem in honor of chess. In a way, they were the elders of the Internet economy. Prodigy was the first service with banner ads (an initial customer: AOL). It was the first to offer online stock trading, the first to let people make travel reservations or go shopping electronically, all back in the late '80s.

But the slim ranks of Prodigy Classic—under 200,000 as of this year, down from the high of 1.13 million subscribers in 1995—weren't enough to warrant life support from the parent company. Prodigy couldn't give CPR even if it wanted to. There were bigger problems. The entire Classic system was a Y2K time bomb. The machines running the system were fossils, built on code that was all Precambrian, back when Big Blue owned the electrosphere, and Atari meant more than a faded decal on a T-shirt. The manufacturers have even stopped making the tubing for the antique storage machines running the shop. Meanwhile, during the early '90s, other service providers like AOL lured members away with a better interface, graphics, faster browsers. (Prodigy was, after all, running on top of DOS, Bill Gates's college pet project.) But people stayed on, because they had become attached to the limitations. They were holdouts. Putting the system to sleep, says Prodigy CTO Bill Kirkner, "was heartbreaking."

Of course, Kirkner isn't really grieving—he's just building the drama for his new, new thing—namely Prodigy Internet (PI). Prodigy Classic was a proprietary network, like AOL. Prodigy Internet is a fairly standard-issue Internet service provider that takes its users right onto the Net, like EarthLink or NetZero. The company has signed on 1.2 million members for this new service, many by offering a $400 rebate on new computers for joining. The gamble on the Net is a smart strategy on Prodigy's part—it's one of the operating principles of the Internet economy that all that matters are numbers, and those numbers better be going up.

These million new members might be enough to resurrect Prodigy's financial prospects, but only at the expense of its personality. Gone is Classic's proprietary network of hilariously out-of-date fonts and games. Gone are over half of the 100 bulletin boards, and lots of the original members, who have drifted to other services. If Classic was a pioneering experiment in electronic community, then Prodigy Internet, say the lifers, is just another Levittown.

In those final hours of Classic, the members didn't hide their distaste for the changeover. "I despise Prodigy Internet," wrote Dave Solimano, who has had Classic since he was in fifth grade (he's now in 10th). David 7606 asked bluntly, "How long does it take you to download AOL's new ver?" A woman who serves as a host on multiple Prodigy bulletin boards wrote to me later, "At this point I wouldn't even recommend PI to my worst enemy."

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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