sig25ths.jpg (8758 bytes)

AVSIG from CIS to AOL to WWW ...

Where We've Been, and Where We're Going (Please Tell Your Friends)

AVSIG at 25

AVSIG History

Notes on JBG

The State of the Sig

Our Contentious Little Secret

What We've Learned so Far

Our little place was born in 1981 thanks to a friendship between John Galipault (1930-1993), founder of the Worthington, OH-based Aviation Safety Institute, and Sandy Trevor, a CompuServe Information Services (CIS) executive and pilot. 

CompuServe back then was transitioning
into a global information service after a decade as a business-to-business computer timesharing company.  Live newswire feeds, weather maps, software utilities, and "Special Interest" industry and recreational discussion forums were the core of CompuServe's new online service, and AVSIG (Aviation Special Interest Group, per the imaginative CIS product naming conventions of the time) was CompuServe's first forum.  AVSIG is not just the world's oldest aviation forum, but the world's oldest continuously-operating online forum of any kind.

It was just as well that CompuServe's first online discussion group was aimed at aviators.  Acoustic modems, data bits, stop bits, parity, and com ports were about as user friendly to the average new personal computer user as an aircraft cockpit full of switches and dials.  Though plenty of techie-types frequented the early vendor hardware and software forums on CompuServe, the often nightmarish task of connecting and command-line navigating assured there would be years yet until large discussion groups devoted to, say, cats, dogs, and horoscopes would appear.  Compared to the all-work-no-play discussions about computer hardware and software, an aviation forum was neat diversion on the first world-wide online social network.  

John Galipault contributed twice-a-day aviation weather map updates to CompuServe's new aviation area and hosted aviation discussion via AVSIG's message and (Sandy Trevor-designed) live chat module, forerunner to today's chat rooms and Instant Messaging.  Offline readers that permitted CompuServe users to economically get online, download forum messages and reply/compose messages offline (skirting heavy peak connect time charges) were yet another unique boon for AVSIG.  To an airline pilot who was away from home two weeks out of every four, a laptop, offline reader, and AVSIG made the world at 40,000 feet and all points in-between a smaller, less lonely place. 

AVSIG showed the way for online discussion groups devoted to the world outside the computer, aided in no small part by the symbiosis of CompuServe's extensive worldwide dial-up nodes and the all-over-the-globe nature of aviation.  Getting connected to CompuServe, command-line-navigating to and inside AVSIG via the keyboard (anyone who had a mouse at this time would set a trap for it before turning in for the evening) and developing short-hand language to efficiently express emotions or common disclaimers (the <g>s, ;)s, IMOs, and ROFLs)  was very much like planning a flight and navigating from airport to airport in a world of radio beacon frequencies and short, cryptic air traffic control jargon.

By 1995, CompuServe had become "the" place to be if you owned a personal computer and a modem and wanted high-end, often surcharged content like Dunn and Bradstreet research, stock trades, and 24/7 worldwide newsclipping.   CompuServe's forum list grew.  CompuServe forums -- which unlike burgeoning Usenet groups and America Online (AOL) chat rooms had non-absentee moderators who required real names for posting and suffered trash-talking flamers not at all -- were the most literate, lowest signal-to-noise discussion groups online, bar none.

Yet, as we've all learned, market dominance doesn't always go to the company with the best product.  Sometimes it goes to the company that puts software disks in mailboxes, newspapers, magazines, train stations, post offices, and in your morning breakfast cereal. 

America Online, the anti-CompuServe with its rapidly-hoarded population of Up to 744 hours FREE! screen-named peashooter147s and buggyboy901s, quickly scooped-up the online bandwidth.  Free accounts and a user-friendly interface attracted a flood of new users at an important juncture in online history: just as the World Wide Web and browser software were escorting the long-hidden pocket-protector-wearing internet all over town for a new wardrobe, cocktails, and chicks.  Brilliantly, AOL quickly dumped most of its proprietary online content in favor of providing World Wide Web access ... leading the majority of its still-offline target audience to believe it was the World Wide Web ... or "The Internet."  CompuServe was a dead duck.

In 1997, just as CompuServe was grudgingly coming to grips with the demand for web integration (and developing the to-this-day best web forum software), AOL bought CompuServe.  Kind of.  Bernie Ebbers, then-chairman of the fantastically and fraudulently successful WorldCom telecommunication company, bought CompuServe, kept the network services division, and sold-off the online content end of the business to AOL to help AOL avoid antitrust action that was anticipated in the event AOL attempted to purchase all of its rival. 

To make a long story short, we here at AVSIG tried to get along with the new landlord, but we both had bad attitudes from the start.  We thought AOL was an upstart online punk concerned only about churning phantom new member sign-ups to bolster its stock price.  AOL thought we were a bunch of elitist online puritans who would prove a nagging drag on their designs for a maximum-eyeballs no-hassle 24/7 worldwide sanctuary for 8-24-year-old Online Tourette's cases.

It turns out we were both right. 

AOL made no overt attempts to AOLize us (save for duking it out with us a few times over our real name requirement) however when AOL elected to dump CIS's unique and excellent web forum software in favor of inferior third-party-hosted software it was time, after a proud 23-year run, for the world's oldest aviation forum to pull the ejection handle.  In May, 2004 AVSIG officially opened up shop independently on the web, literally turning the CIS lights out just minutes after our new web phosphor glowed.

So here we are, out on the web, sadly missing the technical and large-scale community excellence that was once CompuServe.  Long-time member Bob Dubner was nice enough to hack the otherwise defunct TapCIS offline reader to provide custom automated access to our new forum for our offline reader diehards (We love the 80s).  But in the end, we are the oldest continuously operating forum in the world not because of the delivery vehicle, rather because of the never-ending passion of our members, who have in many cases invested decades of their lives making and keeping AVSIG informative, entertaining ... and excellent.

We don't pretend to be nearly as good at marketing ourselves as the folks at AOL are at marketing any and everything, so if after visiting AVSIG you think it's as swell as we do, please, by all means, tell your friends. 

-- Mike Overly                                 1/1/2006                                              Next

AVSIG History  Notes on JBG  The State of the Sig  Our Contentious Little Secret What We've Learned so Far

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