Instant messenger (IM) and real-time chat apps open up our world. They let us connect and communicate with one person or many. They’re available all day, every day, as well as late into the night. And they offer either immediacy or asynchronicity as context warrants.
IM and chat are elemental parts of the modern web. But that wasn’t always the case.
Here’s the story of CompuServe CB Simulator, the very first commercial online chat app — including how it influenced the instant messaging and chat we have today.
CompuServe: one of the first players in the consumer internet
CompuServe is best known as a competitor to America Online and Prodigy in the Nineties. What you may not know is that a few decades prior, the company was also responsible for the first online chat service.
CompuServe’s origins date back to Columbus, Ohio in the 1960s. At that time, computing hardware was scarce and expensive. Many businesses couldn’t afford their own computers — or even if they could, they didn’t have enough use for them to justify the cost.
Enter Jeff Wilkins, who launched CompuServe in 1969 to provide a computer time-sharing service over telephone lines (a.k.a. dial-up).
Initially, the company was focused on simply leasing access to its systems to corporate clients. Later, it began providing application programs over the web: setting the stage for CompuServe to begin offering online services to personal computer users, as well as providing computer facilities to businesses. And it formed the foundation for the very first online chat app.
All the world’s information, for one low per-minute rate
CompuServe is sometimes referred to as a leading internet service provider (ISP), but that’s not quite accurate. The proper term is online service provider, or OSP.
The key difference: an ISP gets you connected to the internet. An OSP uses a data connection to provide information and other services over the web.
Nowadays, we pay ISPs for internet connectivity: which we then use to visit websites, send data, chat, call, or undertake many other activities. In the early days of the web, though, there wasn’t really a public internet. Your OSP would both get you online and provide the internet “experience” once you were connected.
This was what the CompuServe Information Service did better than just about anyone else. By 1994, the New York Times wrote, “it is safe to say that there are more than 1,000 different services available to Compuserve users, certainly more than are available on its rivals.”
These services included news, weather, stock prices, databases, multiplayer games, sports scores, email — and, from the tail end of the Seventies onward, online chat.
Online chat inspired by CB radio (really)
The 1970s were a unique decade in many respects. Conversation pits, bell bottom jeans, and citizens band (CB) radio, among other fads, all had their moment.
The Seventies were also a time of turmoil: the messy end of the Vietnam War, gas price shocks, Watergate. In this environment, participating in the establishment started to look a little passe.
CB radio didn’t just hint at the freedom of the open road. It also carried a kind of outsider status.
“Users of the technology were able to undermine society’s mores, rather like the hackers of today,” Ars Technica wrote in 2016.
A modern-day equivalent might be cryptocurrency; both CB radio and crypto express a desire to push back against “accepted” norms. Both also use slang to communicate that you’re in the know.
And, much like the crypto exchanges of today, there were companies looking to cash in on the peak popularity of CB radio in the Seventies.
The rise of CB Simulator
One of these was CompuServe, which, upon rolling out its real time online chat program in 1979, called it “CB Simulator”. That’s not because it allowed for VoIP communication (and the data speeds at the time, roughly 300 bits per second, wouldn’t have supported VoIP anyway). Instead, CompuServe’s CB Simulator actually worked like CB radio.
Not only were there 40 “channels” covering a range of topics, but terms like squelch and monitor were part of CB Simulator’s lexicon. More channels were added over time to expand into different discussion topics.
The CB-radio branding was a brilliant move for the first commercial multi-user chat program. As the first dedicated online chat service, CB Simulator exploded in popularity in the early 1980s. Marking the initial emergence of the online service industry, the app was responsible for 20% of the traffic on the entire CompuServe network.
That traffic helped support CompuServe’s wider business. By the mid-Nineties, the company was a huge player in consumer internet services, and its consumer division made up more than half of its total sales.
Integrating online chat into the wider web
CB Simulator was about more than just great branding. It was also a genuinely useful product (not least because Ohio-based CompuServe charged $0.15 per email received at the time).
But like OSPs more broadly, CB Simulator was a kind of walled garden. It provided a contained experience, only accessible to paid subscribers, who could only talk to one another.
As early as the Eighties, others outside CompuServe recognized the promise of online chat. A codebase called CBSIM CB Simulator was released in 1983 to allow bulletin board systems (BBSs) to operate their own chat networks with their own channels.
While online bulletin boards were on their way out at the time, they helped evangelize online chat to those not in the CompuServe virtual community. From that point, there was no going back: chat apps were irrevocably joined to the consumer internet experience.
In 2023, much of the world’s internet population relies on at least one chat app. WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users, while WeChat has 1.3 billion. Facebook Messenger has just under 1 billion.
For both the business model of online chat and the experience of connecting to people in real-time using our personal computers, we have CompuServe CB Simulator to thank. As the first online service dedicated to chat, there’s little doubt the computer program broke new ground in the internet marketplace.