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CompuServe launches "C" trial

The online service rolls out its new Web-based service, just one day before its self-imposed deadline.

After months of anticipation, CompuServe (CSRV) today rolled out its new service, "C from CompuServe," just one day before the company's self-imposed deadline of the year's end.

CompuServe is now accepting sign-ups for a free trial of its Web-based service. There will be three levels of service, ranging from free content with limited access to message boards to complete access to the boards and other content for a monthly fee of "under $10," according to CompuServe.

The company will set the price at some point during the free trial period of two to three months, said CompuServe spokesman Steve Conway.

"What we really want to do is build up an audience," Conway said. "The price will come later. We want to have a time where people can feel free to explore without obligation."

By the time CompuServe sets the price, it is likely to be officially owned by its former rival, America Online (AOL).

AOL announced in September that it would be purchasing CompuServe in a three-way deal that also involved WorldCom, but the deal has been held up pending government approval in the United States and abroad and also pending shareholder approval. The deal is expected to clear some time in the first quarter of 1998.

How the transfer will affect "C" is unclear. AOL officials have repeatedly stated that they plan to maintain CompuServe as a separate entity that specializes in serving business-oriented customers. And CompuServe has not changed its own plans to implement the service since the sale was announced.

The new "C" service is part of a larger trend of online services to put free content on the Web in order to generate advertising revenue. When content lies exclusively within the confines of an online service, only members who download special software and log onto the system--and pay a subscription fee--can see it. But on the Web, it is available to anyone who has Internet access and a Web browser.

CompuServe's own proprietary system has been flagging for several months, losing membership. The move to the nonproprietary space could give it a boost, if the company succeeds in getting people to try out the service and if it can generate a loyal following.

CompuServe also is embarking on a Web-based advertising campaign.

Members of "C" will be able to not only see CompuServe's forums, but also contribute to them. While AOL's primary strength lies in its chat rooms, CompuServe's has always rested in its strong forums, some of which have been around for years.

Those who sign up for the free service will be automatically converted to a monthly fee after the trial period, unless they cancel or convert to a guest or limited membership.

Users will be notified of the monthly fee at least 30 days before the free trial period ends, according to the company.

The other two levels of service are free. In the guest membership, users simply can log on as they do with any other Web page and can read forums. Under the limited membership, users can conduct certain searches for charges on a pay-per-use basis.

The full membership also includes an email address that CompuServe says users can keep even if they switch services.