Remembering Prodigy

Memory lane

Armed with baud-speed modems, online enthusiasts became captivated around 1990 by an innocent-looking PC game called MadMaze. With a stark graphical style and a quadrant of simple commands – “Ahead,” “Right,” “Left” and “Back” – MadMaze challenged players to navigate a sternly constructed series of mud-brown, stone-rimmed corridors.

On occasion a certain corridor would lead to a “Place of Power,” where users encountered a logic puzzle that, if solved, would propel players forward. The macabre allure of MadMaze was produced not just by the labyrinth of wrong turns and doomed choices with which it beckoned, but the fact that if you failed a “Power” test, you’d die and would be whisked back, in despair, all the way to the starting point. Co-authored in 1989 by a prolific game developer, Greg Costikyan, MadMaze was crude and slow by today’s video game standards. What’s more, unlike popular online multiplayer games like Runescape and World of Warcraft, MadMaze was played in utter social deprivation. Yet it cast a peculiarly wide spell. By the time MadMaze had run its course in the late 1990s more than a million online users were registered to play it.

MadMaze remains one of the few bright spots to endure from the short history of Prodigy, the pioneering online information service launched commercially in 1988 by an unlikely trio: Sears, Roebuck & Co., IBM and CBS. There is a frame-by-frame recreation of the original game available on the Internet today, meticulously constructed by a MadMaze devotee.

But no such love exists for some of the other things Prodigy did. In several instances, Prodigy stumbled badly by making terrifically flawed judgments about the way to treat customers in a world where new and empowering communication technologies were at hand.

The most glaring examples surrounded the way Prodigy handled two cornerstones of online life: e-mail and virtual communities. Modern-day netizens may choke in disbelief, but in 1989, after a year of operation, Prodigy decided to allow just 30 messages to be transmitted monthly under Prodigy’s normal $12.95 usage fee. After that, each message cost 25 cents.

The timing was awful. Just as Prodigy seemed to be working hard to choke off usage of an increasingly popular form of communication, rival online services like GEnie and Compuserve began to offer unlimited e-mail usage for flat monthly fees. And another new rival called America Online lurked just around the corner.

The second huge mistake committed by Prodigy was to attempt to control the uncontrollable: in this case, the unfettered exchange of ideas, opinions and information over its electronic network. The classic example of Prodigy’s misstep here is the Roosevelt Dime story. As lore has it, Prodigy monitors refused to allow a member to post in a coin-collectors forum a request involving a particular Roosevelt dime. The message violated a Prodigy directive to avoid using the names of other individuals in postings. The term a collector had used to describe a particular coin happened, coincidentally, to be the name of another Prodigy user, Roosevelt Dime.

The dime brouhaha instigated the first in a series of organized nationwide protests against Prodigy’s attempt to police the way subscribers made use of its new communication tools. There were downright silly malfeasances, too. Software and human editors employed by Prodigy erased certain words in postings without regard to context. Dog lovers, for instance, could not publish the word “bitch” in their posts.

In both cases Prodigy seemed to be thwarting, with higher fees and the appearance of censorship, the very things its users seemed to want to do. By the end of the decade, despite attempts to revive the service through an alliance with SBC Communications, what was once the world’s most popular online service was reeling. SBC bought a controlling interest in Prodigy in 2000, but has since abandoned the brand.

Prodigy, of course, isn’t the only online category participant to make foolish decisions that fly in the face of customer desire. In the cable industry’s closet, for example, is the skeleton known as the 10-minute streaming restriction once employed by the industry-owned high-speed Internet access provider @Home Corp., which sought to prevent users from enjoying long-form video content.

If there is a history lesson to be derived from Prodigy, it’s that failing to align business practices with demonstrated customer desires can be fatal. Network operators and content providers that are busy conceiving a new generation of broadband Internet applications should keep that in mind. Otherwise, they’re apt to end up at the same place as a MadMaze player who failed a puzzle: Right back where they started.

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