Is it a service or an Internet provider? Increasingly, it's both, and it's getting harder for folks to decide which is best. Or which is which.
The on-line services are going like gangbusters to provide full Internet access -- not just a smattering of e-mail, Web browsing and USENET newsgroups, but the whole Internet enchilada: a SLIP or PPP connection from which you can access everything on the īnet using whatever clients you like. CompuServe has started providing its users with a full PPP Internet connection as well as access to the copious information on CompuServe itself. The WELL is offering a new service called The Whole Works, which is essentially the same thing: Internet software, a PPP account and access to the WELL. With either of these services, you're able to dial one number to, say, get today's Dilbert comic strip from the Internet and chat in the service's own forums.
Don't forget about America Online, which is buying up big names by Global Network Navigator, WAIS Inc. and WebCrawler in its own effort to launch a nationwide Internet service of its very own.
This is the beginning of a new trend: more on-line services will begin offering full, unrestricted Internet service as well as their own custom content. This trend will have several effects, positive and negative. Most notably, it will give more people access to the Internet. It will also blur the line of where the on-line service ends and where the Internet begins. (For example, today users of America Online's "Reference Desk" area can access a combination of AOL content -- like an encyclopedia -- and information from the Internet -- like a library catalog -- without really noticing any difference.)
Plus, this trend makes it harder for people like me to explain the difference between the Internet and the on-line services. Sigh.
GEnie, General Electric's quark of an on-line service (being small and insignificant, but having an electrical charge :-) is working diligently to make a name for itself in the burgeoning world of on-line services. Software developer Interplay Productions is developing two on-line games exclusively for GEnie. The first, slated for an August release, will be a deluxe version of the popular game Descent, featuring new game variations, tournament play and new levels added weekly. The second title has yet to be announced.
More from the sounds-cool-if-it-isn't-vaporware department: CompuServe says it is developing a technology to bring video images and real-time text transmission to its service by the end of the year. The product, called CompuServe Viewer, will provide still video images, refreshed once every 30 seconds and real-time closed captioned text. The first company to demonstrate the service will be Cable News Network. So, CIS users will be able to watch CNN (well, see occasional still pictures from CNN) while reading the captioning. Too bad they can't send real-time audio. Oh well, maybe in another year or three.
What can this mean? Not only are the on-line services and Internet meshing to become one, but the on-line services are considering meshing some of their services together. Could this be the beginning of a true universal information network, a massive cooperative cyberspace where information from every service is available at our fingertips for only pennies? Don't hold your breath, kids.