Rebuilding Prodigy, one screen at a time
July 13, 2014 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I remember Prodigy fondly. We had it for awhile in the early 1990s and it was a neat curiosity, although I directed more of my energy to BBSing for warez and my Netcom shell account.
posted by killdevil at 8:56 AM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Played so much MadMaze and Carmen Sandiego on Prodigy, and remember chatting on the various BBSes quite a bit. Also remember reading The Secret Garden and some other books on the service as well. Wish I could find screencaps of those.

I used to play the linked web-based MadMaze, but it requires an old version of IE; won't seem to work in newer browsers, and I've never been able to get it to work on an old WINE-IE version either. Alas.
posted by curious nu at 9:11 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The thing I find most fascinating about that is that Prodigy was apparently partly produced by Sears. It astonishes me that a company with a huge mail order infrastructure and enough forward thinking to have gotten in on online services as early as the 80s is now basically going bankrupt despite obviously having had the tools in place to be Amazon.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:23 AM on July 13, 2014 [21 favorites]

I still miss CEEFAX (BBC) and Oracle (ITV). Browsing and hyperlinks in the late 1970s. The BBC used to even broadcast software for the 8-bit BBC Micro via teletext up until 1989.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 9:28 AM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Jesus god, seeing that 1991 login screen was like coming home.
posted by palomar at 9:30 AM on July 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Burying the lede here, which is that some nutter is trying to extract old Prodigy screens from mostly-undocumented cache files recovered from donated backups of ancient Prodigy installations. God's work (I think).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:35 AM on July 13, 2014 [10 favorites]

I worked for Prodigy briefly. Too bad I threw out all my obsolete hardware which would have just what this guy is looking for.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:42 AM on July 13, 2014

I wish I still had the box that Prodigy was installed on, but it was some Sears-specific brand of computer that had a proprietary operating system* (not Windows) and eventually it ended up jammed in the storage shed at my grandma's house when she upgraded to a better machine and then several years later junked at a hardware recycling shop. Huge bummer.

*i don't remember what brand it was, but it came with the biggest assortment of games i'd seen since my cousins got bored with their Atari and gave me all their stuff. 221B Baker Street, The Great Escape, a... bunch of other games whose names I don't remember but I'm sure they were cool... also there was a sampler CD of music with tracks ranging from "Also sprach Zarathustra" to Toto's "Africa", which was just sort of weird.
posted by palomar at 9:50 AM on July 13, 2014

A Sears/Amazon reference means I get to link to one of my favorite comments of all time - from Pastabagel back in June 2007: Sears could still be a huge American company today, instead of a historical footnote.
posted by ao4047 at 10:21 AM on July 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

Ah yes, the internet of my youth.

You can, uh, leave most of that buried, actually.

Prodigy came back just in time for Sailor Moon Crystal! Where's Mizu at?
posted by maryr at 11:05 AM on July 13, 2014

I'm a fire-(re)starter! A twisted fire-(re)starter!
posted by jpolchlopek at 11:19 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not to interrupt the nostalgia-fest, but he preservation work described here is really interesting and worth reading. We're kind of at the point where early BBS text content is preserved, as are early video games. But anything more complex requiring strange graphics or interactivity is very, very difficult to keep working. Doubly so anything networked.

The work described is done by Jim Carpenter. I haven't found a home page for his work, but here's his Flickr account with lots of screenshots. Also Google+ profile. Also a 2012 blog comment about Prodigy.
posted by Nelson at 11:54 AM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I met my present wife on Prodigy.
posted by Splunge at 12:07 PM on July 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

As a hardcore Bbs teen phreaker, Prodigys rise represented the end of a Wild West era of random strangers connecting in a public space that we could all control. The same story has played out ever since, every few years as corporations try to stuff everyone into one place so they can sell shit to us. Good riddance to Prodigy and I hope they never build a permanent corral.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:14 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Pastabagel's comment is one of my favorite all time MeFi comments. I steal it all the time.
posted by humanfont at 12:15 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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. ...

How far Sears has fallen. I don't recall where I read it (perhaps here, perhaps an article), but the speculation was that Sears could have become what Amazon is if they had played their cards better. They already had a built-in consumer base from their catalogues, and it would have been a matter of transferring some of this to an effective online service. It looks like at least the seed bed of this idea was present in 1984.

Fast forward to today, and the number of disappointing interactions I and others have had with Sears over the last few years has been stunning, and much of it has to do with their inability to keep up with their own technological efforts (orders lost in their antiquated tracking system, online promises of services or deliveries not kept, etc.). A lot of the technical hiccups lead to other kinds of sub par services, because their decision making process gets much more difficult and less decisive if you rely on systems that aren't reliable. I get the impression that they are barely hanging on these days.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hah, it was Pastabagel's comment I was remembering.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2014

MadMaze! I have been trying to remember the name of that thing for approximately 16 years - THANK YOU, curious nu!

I live in desperate fear that someday someone is going to resurrect the Prodigy forums I was posting on at age 11 or so. not want that stuff to see the light of day. Ever.
posted by Stacey at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wish I still had the box that Prodigy was installed on, but it was some Sears-specific brand of computer that had a proprietary operating system* (not Windows)

Ugh, i REMEMBER this. I played around with one somewhere. The problem is that it's completely googlebombed by this, and reviews/info therein.

There has to be a page, on some corner of the internet dedicated to that thing. There was probably an entire series of them. And it's just completely forgotten, like this thing or any number of weird computing footnotes.
posted by emptythought at 1:03 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of us only wish that today's Biggest Corporations will have the same Lack of Vision that Sears had in the 1990s, or else in another 10 years people will be asking "Disruption? Didn't that used to be a thing?"
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:12 PM on July 13, 2014

Whatever happened to Prodigy, and how can we get it to happen to Bing?
posted by sourcequench at 3:28 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worked at Prodigy for a year in 1996, helping make the transition to HTML and the open Internet. That NAPLPS shit was weird! But it was also unique, and very charming in its own way. I'm not surprised that after they had to give that up, people found nothing particularly appealing in their "generic" Internet offerings that would keep them coming back.
posted by monospace at 5:20 PM on July 13, 2014

I met my present wife on Prodigy.

I did, too.

I experienced roleplaying, truly, for the first time on the BBS of Prodigy. I even had the download software which would sign on, download all new posts, upload posts you'd written, and then sign off. I'd spend hours interacting with folks on the Tolkien and Star Wars boards (JEDI), and it was just awesome when all of a sudden they made the chatrooms available and you could hang out in real time with your friends from the boards.

Seeing some of those graphics sent chills up my spine. Nostalgic chills, I had never expected really to come across those screens again in my life.

My last machine that had Prodigy installed was replaced...something like four machines ago. There's a SLIGHT chance it's in my parents' basement, but I sincerely doubt it. I kind of want to know, now, though. Heh. The first machine was replaced probably before Clinton's first term, easy.
posted by Atreides at 5:50 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

MadMaze! I had totally forgotten about that. Krazy Kaptions (I may have that wrong) was the part of the service I loved the most as a kid. It was, essentially, The New Yorker Caption Contest. I'll definitely go through Father's old machines to see if I can find a STAGE.DAT for Jim Carpenter the next time I'm in Buck City.

Didn't PBS put content on Prodigy? I remember some simulation from Nova about going faster than light with the charming progressively drawn shapes loading on an XT in the early 90's.
In other words, to resurrect some of Prodigy, you'd have to make all of it work again.
This is my dream job.
posted by chinesefood at 6:22 PM on July 13, 2014

I was one of the Prodigy haters like Potomac Avenue; it was almost like Mac vs. PC back then, with the bulletin board / shell internet access users feeling the encroaching crunch of AOL and Prodigy and others breaking through the fabric of the interwebs. I bet it was very awesome though if your parents or you had the money to spend on it; it was just fun to hate because like with the Linux vs. Windows war, Prodigy cost money (Windows:Prodigy) but you could pretty much do all of the same stuff without it (Linux:Bulletin Boards/UNIX Shell Accounts) for quite a bit of extra effort and a more "rustic" experience with a more grumbly rough-and-tumble small group of people sharing the world with you, so there you go.

Once computers were beefy enough to do full graphical web browsing with NCSA Mosaic all bets were off, but there were a few years where it was impractical and somewhat pointless for most, even the die-hards.

RIPScript was close enough to play around with as an average Joe and get the point that the technology wasn't there yet, ANSI text-mode "graphics" were good enough for 2400 baud and 286 computers and it pushed a certain aesthetic into being developed that was much appreciated by the "underground." Netcom had a good reputation for being a no-nonsense shell and PPP provider for nerds.

I have no less than two 40MB hard drives that I wish I could get back. One from a hand-me-down 286/12, and then a hand-me down 386/16 from a couple years later, still sold with the stinkin' 40MB hard drive -- "massive!"

Honestly in today's economy I think there's room for people doing this sort of stuff to literally get paid a living wage to do it. Not just as a hobby, there is value in this data and it should be preserved and we're running out of reasonable shit for people to do who just want to experiment and explore without being quant analyst buttholes in Wall Street or Social Network Disruptors in Silicon Valley.
posted by aydeejones at 7:52 PM on July 13, 2014

Like I was watching "Stand By Me" last night which is a deep part of my childhood, apparently, because I felt all moved and connected to it, and I realized there was a ton of wisdom wrapped up into that movie. It was always intended to be a good, wise movie, but I kind of shook me just to be this "older" jaded 34-something dude watching River Phoenix say shit that really resonated with me, and to have that experience of realizing people have always been going through one form or another of the same struggle just to get through life and find people that make it tolerable to do so, along the way. I bet there's some wisdom trapped in all of that data, and some literature, and a lot of terrible crap to sift through that makes the gems even more valuable. Because what's a diamond worth if you can just Google for it? Oh and Full Moon Mania apparently is in gear now, kthxbi
posted by aydeejones at 7:58 PM on July 13, 2014

But even an insurmountable tide of customer goodwill cannot stop one of the most sacred laws of the free market: that unprofitable products, even if they happen to be one-of-a-kind repositories of digital human culture, eventually meet their end at the hands of a corporation that needs to make money to survive.
This is well said.
posted by medusa at 9:17 PM on July 13, 2014

Honestly in today's economy I think there's room for people doing this sort of stuff to literally get paid a living wage to do it. Not just as a hobby, there is value in this data and it should be preserved and we're running out of reasonable shit for people to do who just want to experiment and explore without being quant analyst buttholes in Wall Street or Social Network Disruptors in Silicon Valley.

I've been thinking about this all thread. And the fact that they'd need a bunch of vintage hardware to run the server side of it all(or at least, that hardware to figure out how it ran and create VMs, etc) and it made me think of the living computer museum.

Someone really should be getting paid to do this, and it should be the concern of anyone and especially any organization looking to preserve the early days of GUI based computing, and just the early days of consumer computing in general.

In 100 years, if this all just dies a quiet death, it'll be something like the equivalent of if everyone knew wax cylinders existed and people used them, but only a half broken one remained and a few of the players.
posted by emptythought at 11:34 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, man, this is a pretty cool project. Even though now I know how limited Prodigy was, back then--age 11 or 12?--I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Of course I probably spent most of that period on the comic book forums talking about how amazing Rob Liefeld was (shudder).

Although when we switched to AOL a couple years later I was astonished to find out that you didn't have to pay extra to download files! (Shareware, etc.) I remember paying Prodigy $5, which was a lot of money at the time(!), to download a copy of DEU so I could make Doom levels. Cheap bastards.
posted by equalpants at 12:10 AM on July 14, 2014

Jane's Brain BB (supported by sassy) was really my first (Internet?) computer forum and a great support as a geeky 6th or 7th grader, so even if I was amazed once I found the rest of the Internet, Prodigy still holds a special place for me. It also had this game where you could only make money if you should really expensive luxury cars or lots of really cheap cars. I'd love to play that again, or the maze/labyrinth game.
posted by typecloud at 8:27 AM on July 14, 2014

I have really hazy memories of using Prodigy Classic for about three years. I remember playing Carmen Sandiego every week. I remember playing MadMaze until I got bored with it because it seemed like procedurally-generated never-ending story (though I could play it online now if I wanted to find out).

I remember spending way, way, way too much time on the Prodigy bulletin boards, talking about the thing that an eleven-year-old boy talks about: video games. The Mortal Kombat bulletin board was the equivalent of the conversations I had in the school cafeteria: zealots sharing third-hand information that was equal parts logical conjecture and wishful thinking. Every week someone swore that there was a code you could input that would make Sonya take her clothes off, or one that would let you play indefinitely for free.

There was email, but originally you could only email other Prodigy users. I didn't know any other Prodigy users, except for a kid I was classmates with in fifth grade. I'd email him in the evening and then talk to him at school the next day about the email I sent him.

My uncle Dennis found out that I was on Prodigy and wanted to email me. "Are you on Prodigy too?" I asked. He said, "No, I'm on the Internet." I didn't know what that was. We did research and figured out that, by that point, Prodigy users were able to receive email from internet users (using their Prodigy ID as their username — e.g., quite easily, but to send email to internet users they had to use a weird DOS client outside of Prodigy to compose the email and then it would get sent the next time they connected.

In other words: yes, this was a relic that was doomed to be overtaken by the burgeoning internet and WWW; yes, this relic contained a whole bunch of wonderful cultural content, and it would be tragic if that content could never be recovered, even if it meant that my idiot eleven-year-old musings about Mortal Kombat were assured never to see the light of day again.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:52 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm late to this thread, but this is such amazing work. Prodigy was my gateway to dialup BBSes back in the early 1990s, and seeing the screenshots has delivered a really sweet hit of nostalgia. It's also great to see how the developers managed to work around the limitations of the technology at the time to deliver some engaging (for the time) content.

Also reminds me of the time Prodigy called me and threatened to cancel my account because I was using a fake identity to run a Nintendo gaming board. Good times!
posted by tonycpsu at 9:49 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

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