Home Computer: A network that serves you well: Andrew Brown discovers Columbus, Ohio

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The Independent Online
COMPUSERVE is the largest and glossiest on-line system, with about 700,000 members worldwide. This is far lower than the number of people connected to Internet in one way or another, but Compuserve is a single set of computers in Columbus, Ohio, not a great anarchic mess like Internet.

Compuserve sells its own access software for PCs and Apple Macintoshes and, while this does little to reduce the price of the service, it does make everything appear comprehensible and easy to navigate.

The great strength of Compuserve is that it is outward-looking. It helps you to do things that are not computer-related. The most useful of these, for a journalist, is the access it gives to the wire services: it is easy and not expensive to read the Reuter, Associated Press and UPI news reports as well as the Washington Post service, just as they come into newspaper offices - and this can be done from anywhere in the world where a modem will work. Better still, it is possible to tell the system in advance to save for you any news stories in which particular words appear.

More expensive, but sometimes more useful, are the large databases of newspapers and magazines. About 50 US newspapers can be searched on-line through Compuserve, including Consumer Reports, the American Which?.

The most spookily impressive demonstration of the powers of on-line databases, though, is Compuserve's equivalent of directory enquiries, which enables you to look up people anywhere in the US, from limited infomation. In this way I was able to trace in five minutes a friend who had moved house in Syracuse, New York, and whose address I had lost.

But when I look at the ways I use the system, most of them come back to computers. Because Compuserve is more or less global, with access points anywhere wherever the telephone system works reliably, it is a wonderful way for large software companies to provide support for their products.

Lotus, Microsoft, Word Perfect: all of the really big software companies own discussion areas, or 'forums', on Compuserve, where you can ask questions when things go wrong and have them answered by the company's experts or by other users who have stumbled over the same difficulties.

There is also a large, well-indexed library of 'shareware' programs - programs which you can try out before buying a licence to use - many of which you can buy on-line. If you need a small, unusual program in a hurry, Compuserve is place to look.

Though the service makes heroic attempts to promote itself as a fun place to be, it is really a professional system for people who know what they want. As such, it is the simplest and often the most useful, as well as the most expensive, way to use a computer and modem for human purposes.

VITAL STATISTICS

Compuserve: 0800 289458

Monthly charge: from pounds 5.50

Cix: (Modem no) 081 390-1244 or 081 390-1255

Joining fee: pounds 29.37

Monthly charge: pounds 7.34 (min)

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