Computer Chronicles Revisited, Part 78 — BIX, NEXIS, EasyNet, and Macworld Expo 1987

The second part of Computer Chronicles’ two-part look at online services to open 1987 has a strong sense of deja vu. That’s because there’s a repeat guest, Roger Summit, who previously appeared in a 1984 program to discuss Dialog, which is also why he appeared in this episode. Dialog was one of the earliest online database services. And while the previous show focused more on the nascent market for commercial online services like CompuServe and QuantumLink, here the emphasis was more on what Stewart Cheifet described as “high-end databases.”

On that note, Cheifet opened by showing this week’s co-host, George Morrow, two print editions of the Directory of Online Databases. The first was a thin book published about seven years earlier (c. 1979-1980). The second was published in early 1986 and was much thicker. And, Cheifet added, by the time the 1986 edition was out the publishers had to print a supplement because new services had already come online. (Morrow quipped they should have put the Directory online.)

Cheifet observed that the growing size of the Directory seemed to suggest the market for these databases was growing very quickly, yet fewer than 40 percent of PC owners owned a modem and only about 5 percent actually used online services. Why? Morrow said the modem part was easy–everything was now basically Hayes-compatible–but it was still difficult to master the communications software and the interfaces for the online services. Using himself as an example, Morrow said he tried to obtain an Apple stock quote one evening using an unspecified online service (I’m guessing CompuServe) but never accomplished the task.

Lotus Offered “One Source” for Offline and Online Stock Information

Wendy Woods presented a report that focused on Lotus Development Corporation’s One Source, a new service that combined online information with CD-ROM storage. Woods said that when the CD-ROM was first introduced, it appeared to be a technology searching for an application. But today, the 500 MB compact disc was starting to get serious attention.

Woods said Lotus was now testing One Source to function within its existing Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. One Source included a CD-ROM containing over 20 years of financial information on over 6,000 companies. The disc was combined with PC-based analytical software and an FM radio receiver for real-time stock quotes.

Steven Singleton, a sales executive with Lotus, explained that you could use One Source to monitor your portfolio on a daily basis. The user loaded their stock portfolio into a 1-2-3 spreadsheet. The software would then pull down information on the shares outstanding and the price from the purchase date specified by the user and calculated how many shares they would have bought on a market-valuation basis. One Source could then calculate the value of the entire portfolio for the specified date.

Woods said that for a yearly subscription fee of $11,000 to $27,000, an updated CD-ROM was delivered weekly. Compared to using a modem the speed of the CD-ROM was dazzling–the equivalent of 110,000 bits per second. It took about 6 seconds to retrieve 8,000 items on a single company.

While computers had not succeeded in penetrating every office, Woods said, some businesses seemed to be more receptive than others. And Lotus hoped that their new offline/online service would win new converts in the financial world.

A Living, Growing Database on Micros

Connie Tomal and Doug Webster joined Cheifet and Morrow for the first studio segment. Tomal was the west coast branch manager for Mead Data Central. Doug Webster was director of business and marketing with the Byte Information Exchange (BIX). (Byte magazine was also a presenting sponsor of Computer Chronicles this season.)

Morrow opened by describing Byte magazine, BIX’s parent, as the Scientific American of the computer industry. How did they get into BIX? Webster said that Philip Lemmons, the editor in chief of Byte, had seen online conferencing grow as a technology, so he “put two and two together” and realized that his magazine’s readership–effectively a living database of knowledge about microcomputers–could use that same technology to exchange information with one another. The magazine could also use online conferencing to get information to its readers and vice versa. Morrow observed that BIX was essentially a “living, growing database on micros.” Webster agreed with that description, noting that BIX started operation in November 1985 and was now approaching 12,000 users.

Cheifet asked Webster for a demonstration of BIX. Webster said that “conferences” were the heart of the system. There were about 140 conferences currently on BIX. They were broken down into a broad series of about a dozen groups, such as computers, programming languages, and operating systems. A user could therefore select the specific conferences that were of interest to them. For example, if you typed show group computers, a list of conferences within that group appeared on the screen, covering every major platform from Amiga to Zenith. A user could then join a specific conference, say the one on IBM PCs, by typing j ibm.pc.

Morrow asked if you had to actually be online to be part of a conference, or could you come and go. Webster said you needed to join the conference once and then you remained a member until you chose to resign. The system kept track of the conferences each member belonged to. Each conference also had a listing of topics under discussion, such as software and hardware.

Cheifet asked what it meant to be a member of a conference. What did that get you? Webster reiterated there were about 12,000 users on the system. Some of them were interested in the IBM PC. Those people were now linked together in that conference and could exchange information with each other.

As an illustration, Webster joined the “hardware” topic within the IBM PC conference. BIX kept track of what the user read and hadn’t read. In this case, the system showed Webster that he had 47 unread messages within the hardware topic. The system presented the first unread message (#1886), which contained a header providing information such as the sender and the date. You could also read messages by thread, so you could just look at the replies to a particular message without going through all 47 unread messages.

Morrow asked if a user who belonged to a conference could access messages that were posted before they joined. Webster said yes, users could access any messages that were posted since the BIX service began operating in November 1985. Cheifet asked if BIX offered live or real-time conferences. Webster said not yet, but they were looking into it.

Cheifet asked if there were any plans to expand BIX beyond a conference-based system. Webster said there were presently other online services provided. For instance, a number of companies, including Borland and Microsoft, were using BIX to provide online technical support for their products. Users could also download software and access electronic mail. BIX was also looking into research and online advertising.

Cheifet then turned to Tomal and asked about the NEXIS database. Tomal said NEXIS was Mead Data Central’s general news and business information service. It contained 145 files that could be searched all at one time by the type of information. For her demonstration (on a Macintosh), she asked NEXIS to look into its “Business” file, which contained publications such as Forbes, Fortune, BusinessWeek, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. (She added the newspapers were updated every 24 hours.)

Tomal then queried NEXIS to search for stories related to the recent merger of Delta Air Lines and Western Airlines and the implications for possible employee layoffs. Specifically, she asked for any articles where the terms “Delta” and “Western” appeared within 15 or fewer words of each other and within a few words of the terms “merge” or “takeover.”

Morrow asked what sort of people would be doing these sorts of searches. Tomal said primarily people in a research capacity, such as someone doing background for the news media or persons interested in the story from the labor perspective, such as union officials or lawyers.

NEXIS completed Tomal’s requested search and returned three stories. Tomal explained you could then select an option using the Macintosh’s menus to decide how you wanted to view those results. For instance, selecting “Quick” displayed an excerpt of the full text of the first story with the keywords highlighted. You could then click a button to move to the next result.

Cheifet asked what other information sources were available using NEXIS. Tomal said the database also contained government documents and technical information such as material data safety sheets for handling toxic materials. Morrow clarified that these were full-text materials. Tomal said they were.

Morrow asked how difficult it was to learn the query language to conduct NEXIS searches. Tomal said it was quite easy. Users had to take a basic training class that lasted between 90 minutes and 2 hours.

Making It Easy to Search Online Databases

Roger Summit and Dick Kollin joined Cheifet and Morrow for the final segment. As previously mentioned, Summit was the president of Dialog Information Services. Kollin was president of Telebase Systems, which produced the online service EasyNet.

Morrow opened by asking Summit to explain how a publication–say, Ladies Home Journal–would become part of Dialog’s database. Assuming there was an audience for that, Summit said they would license the database from the publisher and pay royalties based on usage. Morrow followed up, asking about the actual process of converting the physical magazines into digital form. Summit said that Dialog would receive it on magnetic tape from the producer. Dialog then re-indexed the material to make it work under Dialog’s system.

Morrow asked how long that process took. Summit said once a contract was signed, Dialog could get a database up as early as 2 to 3 weeks. But it could take up to six months depending on the state of the database.

Cheifet asked for a demonstration of Dialog’s databases. Summit explained that Dialog was the world’s largest online database–covering virtually every subject imaginable–so it was a little difficult to describe in a categorical sense. There were databases in science, technology, medicine, education, and business, among other things. Morrow quipped that Dialog was the “AT&T of Information.”

For his demonstration, Summit mentioned he’d recently been having an argument with an attorney on the utility of strict product liability laws. (The attorney was for them and Summit against.) Summit said he pulled some articles out of Dialog to help him make his case. To do that, Summit went into an “Insurance Abstracts” database on Dialog and put in “product liability” and “strict” as parameters. This returned 38 items. The first item was a journal article summarizing recent court decisions involving product liability. A second item looked at punitive damage awards in product liability cases.

Cheifet asked where these articles came from. Summit said that second item came from The Forum, a trade journal for the insurance industry. He explained that Dialog covered over 10,000 journals and magazines. Morrow asked if the journal or magazine received a royalty payment each time an article was accessed. Summit said yes, the royalty was based on usage.

Summit then changed databases within Dialog to one focused on engineering texts. He then ran the same search for “product liability” and “strict.” He pulled up a list of titles for the first five search results.

Cheifet asked about CD-ROMs. Would they play a role in a database service like Dialog? Summit said you could take small, specialized databases and put them on CD-ROM. Dialog just did that with the ERIC database. But what they did there was to integrate the CD-ROM with the online service, so a user could search offline on CD-ROM, press a button, and then receive updated and search-related information online.

Cheifet then turned to Kollin and asked him to describe EasyNet. Kollin said EasyNet was a “gateway” also known as IQuest on CompuServe and InfoMaster on Western Union’s online service. Basically, EasyNet was a “smart gateway.” that helped you find the database you were looking for to search. EasyNet connected to 820 databases altogether.

In response to a question from Morrow, Kollin went on to explain that EasyNet attempted to standardize the database input. It allowed the user to go into the service without training. Kollin then provided a demonstration using IQuest. The main menu allowed the user to select a database or have the system choose one for them. If the user opted to have IQuest choose the database, a series of menus “interviewed” the user to help them narrow down the options. For example, you could look at databases by subject matter, such as “law, trademarks, and patents.” Kollin said the results might not be as thorough as other online databases, but the home user could still get respectable results, and the system worked without any formal training. He added that people who used more complex databases often told him they forgot their training because they only needed to do a search about 4 to 6 times per year.

Morrow asked if there was a way for a “power user” to use EasyNet without all the menu-driven hand holding. Kollin said yes, reiterating there was an option on the main menu for the user to select their own database. This option made many more tools available for field searching. Cheifet clarified that EasyNet offered full-text articles. Kollin said yes, adding that if the full text was not available for a particular article, a user could press one button and automatically order it through a third-party information broker.

Stewart Cheifet presented this week’s “Random Access,” which was dedicated to coverage of the Macworld Expo 1987, which took place from January 8 to 10, 1987, in San Francisco.

  • Cheifet said this was the biggest Macworld show ever, with more than 250 exhibitors, although Apple itself did not announce any new products. Apple’s vice president for product development, Jean Louis Gassee, said the company’s focus in 1987 would not be on new products but rather “better products.”
  • Cheifet said most of the attention at Macworld was on desktop publishing applications, with several new applications introduced, including Adobe PageMaker 2.0, which offered some 20 new features, including compatibility with PageMaker 1.0 and MS-DOS word processor documents.
  • Adobe introduced Illustrator, which allowed users to create sophisticated graphics made up of curves and lines rather than dots. Cheifet said users could also scan in an image and build a final drawing from that scanned picture.
  • Target Software released Scoop, a page composition program that lets users simultaneously build graphics and text on the same page at the same time. You could also wrap text around irregularly shaped graphics. Cheifet said Scoop was due out on May 1, 1987.
  • A Canadian company introduced Set and Send, software that automatically inserts typesetting codes and commands in a document and then sent the completed file directly to a typesetting machine.
  • E-Machines of Oregon introduced “The Big Picture” monitor, which let you look at a complete page from PageMaker or even reduce the size and look at two adjacent pages and still be able to read the text. Cheifet noted the 17-inch Big Picture’s display was more than 4 times the size of the Macintosh screen.
  • Systems Research showed off an amber display for the Macintosh.
  • Two companies introduced “flat” or “laptop portable” Macs. The first was the DynaMac, which had an electroluminescent, full-size display, and featured an optional hard drive and modem. The second was Colby Systems, which showed off the “Lap Mac,” which had a gas plasma display, a removable keyboard, and a removable hard disk. Both machines weighed about 15 pounds and would retail for around $5,000.
  • A new $125 word processor, MindWrite, featured an integrated outliner and the ability to move text using the mouse without having to cut-and-paste. Cheifet said MindWrite could also “window” text so you could compare different parts of a document on the same screen at the same time.
  • One vendor at Macworld introduced MacPlaymate, which Cheifet said allowed you to “integrate some rather interesting graphics into your otherwise dull documents.”

BIX Died a Quiet Death Under Delphi

Byte magazine first discussed what would become BIX in its October 1984 issue. The previous September, Byte began what amounted to a test run, creating an online conference of 200 participants, which included 100 magazine subscribers chosen by lottery. About eight months later, in the June 1985 issue, Byte editor in chief Phil Lemmons formally announced the launch of BIX.

Byte subscribers who signed up for BIX before January 1, 1986, paid a sign-up fee of $25. (Everyone else paid $35.) Connection charges ranged between $6 and $14 per hour depending on the speed of the user’s modem and the time of day. BIX initially provided direct telephone access to users in four cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. People in other cities could access BIX through McDonnell Douglas’ Tymnet for additional connection fees.

In April 1987, Doug Webster told Wendy Woods’ NewsBytes that BIX had about 14,000 total subscribers, which was actually more than the system could handle. Webster said that BIX stopped accepting new members for a time while it solicited bids for additional hardware to build out the network’s capacity.

By late 1988, BIX had worked out its network issues and announced a new “user-friendly front-end system” to rival its much larger competitors, CompuServe and The Source. BIX also launched its own bulletin board service (BBS) and weekly print newsletter. These were both premium products, with the BBS charging $199 a year and an annual newsletter subscription costing an additional $495.

But as The Source collapsed and QuantumLink/America Online started to overtake and eventually acquire CompuServe, Byte’s owner, McGraw-Hill, decided in the early 1990s that it wanted out of the online services market. The publisher sold BIX to General Videotex Corporation, the parent company of Delphi, in February 1992 for an undisclosed amount. And as I discussed in the last post, just a year later News Corporation bought General Videotex, only to sell it to Delphi’s former CEO in 1996.

Delphi kept BIX running even after reclaiming its independence from Rupert Murdoch, but the service appears to have died a slow death during the latter half of the 1990s. Delphi stopped accepting new BIX subscribers sometime around 1998. And according to a September 2000 Usenet post, Delphi ceased supporting BIX altogether as of November 1, 2000. Other news reports said BIX shut down for good in June 2001.

Small Dayton Paper Mill Eventually Led to Creation of LexisNexis

In 1955, William F. Gorog and Lysle D. Cahill founded Data Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, to develop reconnaissance and intelligence systems. By 1968, Data Corporation’s business expanded into a number of other areas, including the creation of a “computer law research system” for the Ohio Bar Association and a magnetic tape reader designed to work with IBM’s System/360 mainframe computers, according to a June 1968 article in The Oshkosh Northwestern.

That same year another Dayton-based company, The Mead Corporation, purchased Data Corporation in a $6 million stock transaction. Mead Corporation traced its roots back to 1846, when a group of partners led by Daniel Mead started Ellis, Chafflin & Company, which initially owned one of the earliest machine-based paper mills located in Dayton. Mead eventually bought out his partners, reorganized the business as the Mead Paper Company in 1882, and purchased a second paper mill in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1890.

Mead died in 1891. His sons initially took over the business but nearly ran it into the ground. By 1905, the original Dayton mill had closed and the banks that held Mead Paper Company’s loans named Mead’s grandson, George H. Mead, as the new general manager. He reorganized the Chillicothe mill under the name of Mead Pulp and Paper Company and managed to take the business public in 1906.

After a series of mergers and acquisitions, George Mead became president of what was now called the Mead Corporation in 1930. He continued to run the company until his retirement in 1948. Mead’s successors, Howard E. Whitaker and James W. McSwiney, decided to pursue conglomeration during the 1960s, acquiring a bunch of businesses unrelated to paper-making, including Data Corporation.

Mead was initially interested in Data Corporation–renamed Mead Data Central in 1970–for its work in developing color ink-jet printing technology. In 1972, Industrial Research magazine named what Mead called its “Digital Graphics Generator” one of the 100 most significant new technical products of the year. But it turned out that Data Corporation’s work developing that computer law research system proved to be far more valuable. In 1973, Mead Data Central launched LEXIS, a national online legal database with full-text search. The service initially lost money but became profitable by the late 1970s.

In 1980, Mead launched the NEXIS news database service demonstrated in this episode. Mead Data Central continued to grow throughout the 1980s and early 1990s on the back of its combined LEXIS/NEXIS service. By 1993, the Dayton Daily News reported that LEXIS/NEXIS included more than 322 billion documents and the databases’ annual sales exceeded $550 million.

This culminated in Reed Elsevier acquiring Mead Data Corporation–by this point more commonly known as Lexis/Nexis–for $1.5 billion in December 1994. Now known as RELX, the former Reed Elsevier continues to own and operate LexisNexis today as a subsidiary. The NEXIS part of the service currently has over 36,000 licensed resources in its database.

The Mead Corporation itself used the proceeds from the LexisNexis sale to pay down debt and repurchase stock. The company returned to focusing on paper products in the 1990s and merged with Westvaco to form MeadWestvaco in 2002. In 2015, MeadWestvaco merged with RockTenn to form WestRock.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of January 15, 1987.
  • Dick Kollin died in November 2010. Born in 1935 to Hungarian immigrants, Kollin developed Pandex, the first nongovernmental commercial database, in 1971. That same year Kollin licensed Pandex, which contained about 1,200 serials focused on general science, to Roger Summit’s Dialog. Kollin co-founded Telebase in 1984 and remained with the company until the early 1990s.
  • Telebase continued publishing EasyNet and other online reference services well into the early Internet era. WinStar Communications acquired Telebase in November 1997. Four years later, WinStar filed for bankruptcy and its assets were subsequently liquidated.
  • Steven Singleton remained with Lotus until 1991. He spent most of the 1990s working as a youth sports coach in Oakland before rejoining the financial services industry in the early 2000s. Since 2020 he has been a senior vice president at Raymond James Investment Management.
  • Lotus continued to expand its One Source product line to include a variety of CD-ROM database products. In September 1993, Lotus spun the division off into a separate company known as OneSource Information Services, Inc. OneSource’s managers and employees at the time took majority ownership in conjunction with two venture capital firms, with Lotus retaining a minority interest. Infogroup later acquired OneSource and continued to operate it as a subsidiary. Infogroup sold OneSource two private equity firms in 2012, which changed the company’s name to Avention, Inc. Avention was then sold to Dun & Bradstreet in January 2017 for $150 million.
  • Doug Webster began his career as a radio and television announcer in the late 1960s for WTIC in Hartford, Connecticut. He later served as director of news and public affairs for Connecticut Public Television and a special assistant to U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff. After stints with the University of Connecticut and a public relations firm, Webster joined Byte Magazine in 1984 as its director of public relations, where he remained until 1988. In 1995, Webster moved to California and started his own public relations firm. Webster joined the California Maritime Academy in 2006 as its director of public relations, a post he held until at least the early 2010s.
  • Surprisingly, the Dynamac was authorized by Apple. The portable machines were not clones, but rather factory Macintosh Plus computers that were “unboxed and disassembled, with Apple’s permission and under quality-control guidelines prescribed by Apple,” according to Peter H. Lewis of the New York Times. Dynamac then rebuilt the machine “from the logic board up,” and stripped it of any Apple branding. The machines didn’t sell well and Dynamac went out of business in late 1988.
  • The E-Machines “Big Picture” monitor was not made by the South Korean venture eMachines that became famous in the late 1990s for its bargain PCs. This E-Machines was an Oregon-based company that later changed its name to E-M Technology, Inc., before dissolving in 1997.
  • Stewart Cheifet tried to be discreet, but MacPlaymate was what Pat Morrison of the Los Angeles Times later described as a “sexually explicit computer game” where the player could strip a character named Maxie “garment by garment” and “force her to engage in a variety of sex acts, some with another woman or with any of six devices from a ’toy box.’” Unlike the Dynamac, Apple did not condone MacPlaymate. Neither did Playboy, which later sued the program’s publisher for trademark infringement and obtained an out-of-court settlement.