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CompuServe readies "C" service

CompuServe is expected to launch its new Web-based online service by mid-December and charge less than $10 per month for access to all its features.

LAS VEGAS--CompuServe is expected to launch its new Web-based online service, dubbed "C," by mid-December and charge less than $10 per month for access to all its features, including email, more than 500 forums, and e-commerce.

The details emerged during Comdex, where CompuServe is holding its first public demonstration of the product. "C" is being closely watched because it is among the first attempts to break the mold of "all you can eat" Internet access pricing. It will generate revenue by e-commerce and subscription-based content, not just online ads. "C" this weekend began a soft rollout on the Web, providing some information under the Web address "c.compuserve.com."

"C" will be offered in three levels, according to Samuel Uretsky, vice president of business management at CompuServe. One, dubbed "guests," will be offering subscribers free access to some of CompuServe's content. Another, dubbed "limited members," will provide free access to one of CompuServe's forums, as well as access to some e-commerce. (CompuServe will ask for a user's credit card to sign up under "limited members.") A third, dubbed "members," will provide access to all the features.

At Comdex, CompuServe said it created a communications package for Cadillac-level subscribers to "C" that will unify email, fax, and voice messaging into a single mailbox. "In addition to the lifetime email address, CompuServe communications offers a single lifetime fax and voice mail phone number through a JFAX subscription," the company said. The fax, for example, will be on a pay-as-you-go basis. Lifetime email addresses are becoming more popular as users migrate from one ISP to the other but like to keep a consistent email address as they do with a telephone number.

One potential drawback to "C," at least to some subscribers, will be the more liberal use of advertising throughout the forum sites, perhaps dog-food ads on a pet site, for example. But company executives promised that the ads would be as unobtrusive as possible, and that it would listen closely to user feedback as the plan proceeds--and be willing to change its game plan if necessary.

Although it is eager to sign up full-service "members" to "C," company executives conceded they are expecting a gradual, not sudden, expansion in the full-paid membership numbers. Most Web content remains free.

CompuServe's efforts are being closely watched because online services are looking for new ways to boost revenue beyond the typical business model. Most seem unwilling to break away from the flat-rate "all you can eat" model because of competition. The downside risks seem slim, because CompuServe, by its own admission, spent little money coming up with the business strategy for "C."

CompuServe is in the midst of being bought by America Online, but AOL has promised that it will run CompuServe separately, at least initially. "C" is aiming itself at business, professional, and technical users, while AOL, which now says it has 10 million paid subscribers, is chasing a mass-market audiencce.

Company executives would only say that "C" would be launched by year's end. But people who were briefing Comdex attendees on the plan said a mid-December timeframe was being planned. Pricing has not been finalized, but a rate of less than $10 per month is expected. AOL charges $9.95 per month for access to its content if users subscribe to the content but bring their own ISP.

Competition will be intense, however. Internet directories such as Yahoo and Excite are beefing up their online offerings, along with online services such as AOL and Microsoft Network.