Where Online Services Go When They Die

Rebuilding Prodigy, one screen at a time
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The author, then 11 years old, using Prodigy for the first time on Christmas Day, 1992 (Benj Edwards)

Michael Doino approached the late hours of October 1, 1999, with a lingering sense of dread.  It was finally time, after 11 years, to pull the plug on Prodigy Classic, a commercial online service he had helped shepherd from a plucky upstart into a nationwide giant.

"It was very bittersweet, very sad," recalls Doino, a veteran project manager at the company. "I had been there before the Prodigy service went live."

Some time before midnight, Doino logged into the main Prodigy Classic server and, as instructed, uploaded a file to redirect Prodigy Classic users to the company's newer Prodigy Internet service.  At that moment, the written record of a massive, unique online culture, including millions of messages and tens of thousands of hand-drawn pieces of digital art, seemingly vanished into thin air.

Doino, front and center, 1999 (Prodigy)

It had no where to go but away. That data was never on the Internet; it existed in a proprietary format on a proprietary network, far out of reach from the technological layman.  It was then shuffled around, forgotten, and perhaps overwritten by a series of indifferent corporate overlords.

Fifteen years later, a Prodigy enthusiast named Jim Carpenter has found an ingenious way to bring some of that data back from the dead. With a little bit of Python code and some old Prodigy software at hand, Carpenter, working alone, recently managed to partially reverse-engineer the Prodigy client and eke out some Prodigy content that was formerly thought to have been lost forever.

"Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan of Prodigy," says Carpenter, a 38 year-old freelance programmer based in Massachusetts, recalling his time on the service around the turn of the 1990s. "I had already been using the Internet for a couple of years and Prodigy seemed so closed in. But I still used Prodigy every single day. It was the graphics."

It was Carpenter's drive to see those graphics once again that got him fiddling with Prodigy clients in late 2012. "Finding decent color screen shots of Prodigy is nearly impossible," says Carpenter.

He knew the sign-on screen was stored on the hard drive, so he began to wonder what else he might find in the client software. Using a hex editor, Carpenter fiddled with the client software until he found even more graphical data. "As far as I knew, the only thing I might be able to get is a screenshot of the set-up options dialog."

And he did.  But what he found next blew his mind.

* * *

When any sizable online service disappears, a piece of our civilization's cultural fabric goes with it. In this case, the missing cultural repository is Prodigy, a consumer-oriented online service that launched in 1988 as a partnership between Sears and IBM. Users accessed it by dialing into regional servers with a personal computer and a modem over traditional telephone lines. Once connected, they could trade emails, participate in online message board discussions, read the daily news, shop for mail-order items, check the weather, stocks, sports scores, play games, and more.  

Prodigy even devoted a portion of the user's screen to graphical banner ads. It was very much like a microcosm of the modern Internet—if the entire World Wide Web was published by a single company. Over its 11-year lifespan, a generation of Americans grew up with Prodigy as part of their shared cultural heritage. In an earlier era, we may have spoken about another common cultural experience—say, Buster Keaton films—as a cultural frame of reference for an entire generation. Everybody saw them, everybody referenced them. And while Prodigy was nowhere near as popular as Buster Keaton among the general public, hundreds of thousands of people with a computer and a modem in the early 1990s tried Prodigy at least once. What those early online explorers saw when they logged in was, to them, glorious: colors, fonts, illustrations, and a point-and-click interface—features which, at Prodigy's launch in 1988, were entirely new. Prior to Prodigy, competitors like CompuServe and GEnie forced users to type obtuse commands to get any meaningful result (and that result also happened to be a screen full of lifeless text).

Prodigy gained its distinctive flair from a now-forgotten graphical protocol called North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax, or NAPLPS for short. NAPLPS was a product of the brief Teletext era of the late 1970s, when TV networks sought to piggyback extra digital information such as weather forecasts or sports scores using something called the "vertical blanking interval" of a TV broadcast signal. The vertical blanking interval could only hold a small amount of data, so engineers devised a way to present digital color graphics and text in the most economical way possible. NAPLPS did this by reducing an image into a set of mathematical instructions (i.e. "draw an oval at this location and fill it with blue") instead of storing data on every pixel in a bitmap image like JPEG or GIF files do today.

Screenshot of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? on Prodigy circa 1988 (Prodigy)

The NAPLPS method required a custom piece of hardware or software, commonly called a "terminal" or "client," on the receiving end to receive the drawing instructions and to translate them into an image or page layout on the user's screen. Teletext never caught on in the US (although it did flourish in Europe), nor did Videotex, the two-way interactive version of the concept that required remote computers accessed by modem and corresponding terminals hooked to TV sets.

* * *

Coming on the heels of Videotex mania, which swept the Western world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sears, CBS, and IBM joined together in 1984 to craft a Videotex service of its own.  They called their partnership Trintex: "Tri" for the three companies, and "tex" for Videotex. The plan, as conceived from a corporate standpoint, was almost naively simple: the world's largest retailer (Sears) would provide online shopping. The world's largest media conglomerate (CBS) would provide content and information, and the world's largest computer company (IBM) would provide the underlying technology.

Kim Moser

How the trio got there, however, would turn out to be far more complicated. A very expensive technological effort (which, among other minor hiccups, required creating a nationwide proprietary telecommunications network with hundreds of nodes), would end up inadvertently crafting a consumer online world for the everyman that eerily presaged the Internet we know today—if in a Bizarro Superman type way.

Looking back, Prodigy's technology felt like a centralized, parallel universe Internet where technologies looked very, very similar to what we know now but are in fact fundamentally different—like lifting the hoods of two identical-looking cars and finding a diesel engine under one and a gasoline engine under the other. They both get you there, but in different ways. Even so, the similarities were close enough that patents, legal precedents, and online techniques forged from the Trintex and Prodigy partnerships still loom over the Internet in ways that few in the public understand.

To put the Trintex partnership in modern terms, it was as if Wal-Mart, Comcast, and Apple were to team up today and rewrite the rules of media distribution and general retail commerce. It's a terrifying prospect. But the online landscape back then was raw and rough, undefined and relatively new, so few feared a partnership from such a trinity of giants in 1984.

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Benj Edwards is a journalist who specializes in computer and video-game history. He is the editor-in-chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming.

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