Ford Escort of the virtual universe

Is the market leader the most reliable option? By David Bowen
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Indy Lifestyle Online
CompuServe is the big one, the online service in Europe the competition has to watch. With 200,000 subscribers here, it is the biggest provider of individual dial-up connections, not only to its own services but also to the Internet. The leading Net-only provider, Demon, has only 50,000 subscribers.

Although not the biggest online company in the world - America Online has a much bigger market share in the US - CompuServe has a massive lead in Europe. It has been operating here since 1990 while AOL has only just started up and Prodigy, the third US giant, has yet to move across the Atlantic.

For many Britons, CompuServe has provided an introduction to the whole concept of the computer as an extension of the telephone. It has done the job well. Even people nervous of technology have found the software easy to load, easy to use and, best of all, it works. My experience of starting up CompuServe (15 minutes/domestic harmony) was a contrast with my struggles with Demon (three weeks/marriage threatened).

All you do is plug in a modem, load a starter disk, fill in a few details (including your credit-card number) and you're off. You will later be sent a password. The CompuServe Information Manager, for Windows or Mac, loads a screenful of icons that acts as a contents page.

Until last spring, there were three main sections. You could send or receive e-mail, look up information provided by other companies, and take part in the forums, or discussion groups. There was also access to newsgroups, although they weren't easy to find, and "unsuitable" ones were not listed.

CompuServe had always felt immune from the Net. Its technology was better (the forums were more attractive than newsgroups), its contents were neatly classified (click on the Travel icon and up came a list of what was available) and it was thought to be secure from hackers. Information providers could charge for their information, and the amount would simply be added to subscribers' credit-card bills.

But the growing popularity of the World Wide Web has made the giant think again. Last spring it introduced its Netlauncher software to provide access to the Web, though you still had to dial up separately to gain access to it. That has changed with latest Information Manager: click on a Net icon and a menu appears that allows you into every part of the Web, including Telnet and the "voice e-mail".

You should watch how much time you spend on the Web - the five free hours soon go. But in its efforts to fend off Net providers, it has already pushed its rates down - and they are likely to go on falling as the price war intensifies.

CompuServe believes its future is inextricably tangled with the Web and that its best bet is to become an Internet provider that also offers a raft of proprietary services. Eventually, its current services are likely to be simply a "fenced off" segment of the Web, to which only members will have access.

So should you sign with CompuServe rather than a pure Internet provider? If you want Net access at the lowest cost, no. But if you might use services such as the Good Pub Guide, Hutchison Encyclopedia, newspaper or magazine archives or (my favourite) a complete European rail timetable, CompuServe is your best bet. And if you are an absolute beginner, you are likely to find it easier to use, and to be given better back-up.

CompuServe vs MSN, AOL or the other new online services? It is too early to say, although AOL is getting rave reviews. But CompuServe is established and safe; choosing it is like plumping for a Ford rather than an untested, but possibly brilliant new make.

CompuServe 0800 289378. Subscription: pounds 6.50 per month, including five hours online. After that, it costs pounds 1.80 per hour. New subscribers receive a month's free trial with 10 hours online.