CompuServe is the first computer network targeted towards ordinary people though it did not start out that way.
Jeff Wilkins sold burglar alarms. His father-in-law ran a small insurance company and needed to buy a computer. However, the DEC model he wanted had far more computing power than his father required.
Wilkins realized he could use the computer modem to sell extra capacity to other businesses that did not want to purchase or maintain an entire computer. Companies had been sharing mainframe computers for some time. However, Wilkins is the first to miniaturize the idea, to sell time on a relatively low-power computer.
In 1969, he launched the business and it quickly became popular. Wilkins quit his job selling alarms and set out full-time selling computing power.
He expanded the idea in 1978 with the introduction of personal computers, though early-on there wasn’t much reason to purchase time from him.
In July 1980, the Columbus Dispatch newspaper became the first paper to publish electronically, on Wilkins’ CompuServe. Thanks to relatively low-cost personal computers the service began to rapidly grow. In Q3 1980, CompuServe had 3,600 subscribers. By the end of Q1, 1981, they’d grown to over 10,000 customers.
Interestingly, the most popular CompuServe app was text chatting. About 20 percent of total usage consisted of people chatting to one another. Reading the newspaper accounted for just 5 percent of total usage.
By 1984, CompuServe charged $5/hr. after 6 PM but the service was mind-numbingly slow at 300bps.
Despite the slow speed, the service continued to grow. By 1984, CompuServe had 60,000 subscribers. In 1986, tax preparation company H&R Block purchased the company, paying $68 million. By 1993, CompuServe had over 1.5 million subscribers throughout the world.
Eventually, CompuServe was overtaken by upstart competitor America Online (AOL) which offered lower rates and more content. However, AOL was soon enough shuttered by cable companies and internet service providers. These market incumbents often provided faster speeds at lower prices often bundled with television and phone service. Additionally, they enjoyed US government monopolies on the cable lines used to transmit high-speed data.