On-line services tap PC Power

Phil Viger demonstrates PowerVision

Phil Viger of Meriden is East Coast representative of
PowerVision, a new on-line computer service joining a
growing group of firms providing services to computer owners.

/photo taken by Chris French of the Record-Journal/

PowerVision promotes local angle

By Jim Zebora
Record-Journal business editor
January 17, 1993

Meriden - If you're not on-line, you're nowhere.

That's the impression computer marketing people are striving to create these days.

The PC or Mac on your desk shouldn't be an island unto itself, they say, it ought to be connected to other desktop computer - plus airline reservation systems, databases, electronic mail boxes and chatty bulletin boards containing everything from personal ads to recipes for home-brewed beer.

Several million people are already sitting at home navigating computerized menus to buy stock, play games and talk to other hobbyists, but techies say the on-line revolution is still in its infancy.

"It's more or less just begun," said Phil Viger, a Meriden businessman who recently signed on as the East Coast rep for a new on-line service, PowerVision.

Viger cites the vast improvements on personal computer speed, memory and graphics as kees to increased connections between home and just about everywhere else.

PowerVision, like Prodigy, Compusere and America Online before it, offers a wide range of products and services to its small subscriber base of about 1,000.

In the three months since the service has been up and running, those who turn on their computers and punch into the system have found grocery coupons, personal ads, properties for sale, offers from local vendors, discount accommodations and more.

Prodigy, the troubled brainchild of Sears, Roebuck Co. and IBM Corp., aims itself at the customer who might hold an American Express card. Prodigy customers might be the folks who'd access their discount brokerage and book a flight to Paris on the same day.

"Compuserve is much more technically oriented," according to Eileen Bramlet, membership manager for the Software Publishers Association in Washington.

It is used extensively by folks who like to communicate on countless "bulletin boards" offering hints for hobbyists who love their gardens or mountain bikes, or to copy programs people can use on their computers.

America Online is home to many databses for those who like to dive into schoolwork, research or hobbies. Its simplicity makes it a favorite for schools, libraries and other intellectual institutions.

"I think their system is the most user-friendly," said Bramlet. "It's the easiest to navigate."

PowerVision's offers such services as USA Today stories on the system, along with sports and weather, travel services and financial advice. But its big hook is its accent on local information and advertising, a niche avoided by other services.

"Prodigy has admitted that they don't want to localize it," said Viger. But PowerVision has both made local items a focus, and given them financial incentives as well.

"The main feature of this service is that members are able to save on the products and services they always get," said Viger.

For example, PowerVision is pushing its own "electronic yellow pages," through which members can chooses a category like appliance repair, automotive services or dry cleaners, and find local businesses who've paid to advertise their wares.

Vendors can sign up cheaply, just as restaurants can for the "dining-out clubs" that offer books of two-for-one coupons. Likewise, they have to offer discounts of at least 15 percent to PowerVision members.

Other local offerings on the service include "Picture Perfect Personals," ads that include not only all the usual "DWM seeks caring D/SWF for fun times and possible relationship," but also a color picture that flashes on the computer screen.

Local information and classified advertising sectoins will allow people to advertise homes, automobiles or whatever for a flat fee.

Shoppers will like PowerVision's offer of up to $20 of grocery coupons per month that can [be] selected by category and brand, and ordered by system members for a $1 handling charge.

Unfortunately, the coupons will come by mail rather than through a personal laser printer, which would certainly be more convenient. Manufacturers understandably don't want people to store and reprint the images at will.

Viger believes that computer classifieds will be more successful than their cable TV counterparts, which never lived up to expectations. Subscribers will be able to browse quickly th[r]ough the PowerVision offerings, rather than waiting for 22 minutes past the hour to see what houses might be for sale.

"People weren't patient enough to sit and wait for an ad to pop up," Viger said. "Here, you can call it up."

Though they seem to offer something for everyone, interactive on-line services have yet to really catch on. There are perhaps 25 million households with home computers, but only a couple of million with an on-line service.

Prodigy has been a money-loser since it was introduced about five years ago, and last week announced a shakeup that saw marketing executives given power over those in charge of the system's programming.

Compuserve and [America]n Online are both profitable, according to Bramlet, because they've been better at serving a more limited subscriber base.

"Compuserve seems definitely to be achieving good market share, but the others don't seem to be doing as well," said John Venator, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Microcomputer Industry Association in Chicago.

Venator expects, however, that other services will gain subscribers as they offer more services people want. Also on their side is the steep drop in personal computer prices, and the probablity that most machines will have built-in comunications modems before too long.

But Bramlet, who worked for America Online, said the services won't gain mass subscriptions until their prices come down.

"Not only do they need to generate more subscribers," Bramlet said, "They need to lower the price to where people won't think twice about using them."

All the services have different pricing schemes, wiith flat rates for the basic offerings, plus charges for things like electronic mail and classified ads, and per-hour charges for additional access.

Neither Venator nor Bramlet was familiar with PowerVision.

Viger is currently marketing PowerVision to computer users and clubs throughout the Northeast with advertisements on bulletin boards and in publications like Byte.

Though some people think on-line services have reached a plateau, he sees rapidly improving graphics capabilities and falling hardware prices snaring millions more members over the next few years.

The demand will grow, Viger feels, as computer users seek to be on the cutting edge of the technological trend.

"There's a crescendo that's building into the next wave," Viger said.

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reprinted February 20, 2002