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Getting on-line.

The ascension of on-line services has answered the prayers of many time-strapped individuals. Imagine accessing Wall Street, researching Ancient Egypt, teaching your child to read, paying the mortgage, finding out the weather in Chicago for tomorrow's business trip and learning how to remove paint from your dining room carpet. All of this can be done in less than an hour. So, if time is paramount, check out these on-line options.

All the commercial on-line services generally operate the same way. For a slight fee, each service requires the subscriber to use a personal computer, modem, phone line and communications software tailored specifically for use on that system. The leading players are Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online.

The kind of information you can access seems unlimited: news, weather, sports, articles from back issues of popular trade and financial publications, encyclopedias, recipes, games, stock quotes and airline guides.

Even though on-line services have been around for more than a decade, the recent surge in usage has boosted industry sales to $344 million, up 44% in 1991 from 1990, according to SIMBA Information Inc. in Wilton, Conn. And it was expected to grow yet another 25% by 1992's end.

The Gang Leader

From inginue to expert, Prodigy, the IBM/Sears, Roebuck and Co. brainchild, is the nation's most popular on-line service. Marketed primarily to the novice and the family, Prodigy has cornered 41% of the online market. Ideal for first-time buyers, the White Plains, N.Y.-based service offers its 1.8 million users the least expensive medium.

Prodigy also is the easiest to use with its "jump" word feature. By simply typing in a single key word about the topic, you are automatically transported to the arena you seek. Thus, you bypass all of the tricky passwords and complicated menus.

Prodigy software costs $49.95, and there's a flat monthly fee of $14.95 for unlimited usage time. Some Prodigy services require extra charges, however, so make sure you investigate each service carefully.

Features include Consumer Reports, resume services and travel reservations with free overnight delivery. But Prodigy's strongest points are news, political and financial reports. Users can access Dow Jones News/Retrieval and The Quote Check, which retrieves up-to-date prices of stocks, bonds and mutual funds. After receiving the latest stock quotes, you could easily move to Company News and read news clips and articles on the companies you are interested in.

Prodigy offers only 30 free electronic mail messages per month. But the e-mail feature allows you to edit and compose "off-line," while not tying up the phone line.

For the kids, the ever-popular Sesame Street gang helps children learn the three R's. A choice component of the package is Muppet Mail, which lets children receive e-mail, just for them. The Sesame Street Custom Choice service is an additional $9.95 monthly charge for five-hours usage per month. Additional five-hour blocks also cost$9.95.

Public bulletin boards are also among the most popular features. Daily members post more than 80,000 public notes on more than 400 topics that all other members can read and reply to. Essentially, it's like having a pen pal.

BillPay USA is a must for busy bill payers. You can pay all household, credit and small business bills on-line. No more checks, stamps or memory lapses. The monthly cost is $9.95 for paying up to 20 bills. But make sure your financial institution is a member before signing up.

Prodigy is available in more than 17,000 retail stores nationwide and many personal computer and modem manufacturers often include it with the package.

The Granddaddy Of Services

The oldest on-line service, CompuServe Information Service, has more than 1 million members. First introduced in 1979 by Columbus, Ohio-based CompuServe Inc., this service lets users access more than 1,700 databases.

CompuServe's most coveted features are its broad range of investment data on stocks, mutual funds, bonds, options and commodities. The on-line brokerage services--SCREEN and COSCREEN--allow investors to select specific investments. Detailed info on publicly owned companies is available via the Disclosure 11 database, Standard & Poor's Corp., TRW Credit Reports and Value Line.

A real plus is current and historical price quotes along with market news and analysis from industry experts. On-line brokerage firms, Spear Securities and Quick & Reilly Group have a 24-hour daily buy and sell order. Electronic portfolio management automatically updates the investor's portfolio to reflect every transaction. It's like having a portfolio manager at your beck and call, 24 hours a day without the fees and commissions.

CompuServe's Executive News Service (ENS) is an electronic clipping service whose scope encompasses the Associated Press, United Press International, The Washington Post, Reuters Financial, World, European Community and Sports reports and the OTC NewsAlert (for information on over-the-counter stocks). Other news products are NewsGrid and The Business Wire.

For burning the midnight oil, CompuServe Mail's 24-hour e-mail service lets you send messages regardless of time zone or distance. CompuServe Mail offers 60 e-mail messages per month.

CompuServe also offers more than 300 forums or on-line conferences on topics that range from rock music and science fiction to their most popular forums on law and medicine.

Other features are TRAVELSHOPPER and EAASY SABRE, which provide continuously updated information on schedules and fares for virtually every airline flight in the world. Now you can shop for the lowest fare and book the flights on-line while also acquiring hotel and rental car information.

Electronic Mall offers more than 100 merchants selling everything from clothes to cars. For the frugal, Shoppers Advantage is a discount shopping club, which allows comparison shopping for more than 250,000 brand name products at 10% to 50% less than suggested retail prices.

CompuServe Membership Kit, including the software for CompuServe Information Manager, costs $49.95, but you receive a $25 usage credit and a user's guide. (All charges are for 24-hour use.) The $7.95 monthly fee is for unlimited access for basic services. Extended services costs $12.80 per hour or 21 cents per minute for 1200 and 2400 baud access and 9600 baud access costs $22.80 per hour.

Small Business Owner's Dream

America Online Inc. in Vienna, Va., formerly Quantum Computer Services Inc., handles around 181,600 accounts. The company is strongly building its niche market client base by focusing on specific groups such as entrepreneurs and senior citizens.

Like the other services, America Online offers news, weather, sports and financial information but not to their vast extents. This service operates on a pay-as-you-go plan. The software is free and available only by contacting America Online. Charges are $7.95 a month plus $6 an hour after the first two hours. Other payment plans are available; check out the one that's best for you.

America Online is a great outlet for users who are too advanced for Prodigy but not savvy enough for CompuServe. You don't have to be a computer maverick to navigate through it. This easy-to-use service is well-organized, with various cross references. The service is also available for Macintosh and DOS-based computers.

Depending on how precious your time is, on-line services may be worth their weight in gold. If you are still weary, almost every company offers free trial offers.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:computerized information services
Author:Reynolds, Rhonda
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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