The name Theodore Papes is not known to many. He died last week at the age of 81. He was a pioneer of his times, as the founder of Prodigy Services Inc., a digital enterprise that provided online news, email, shopping and other services years before the World Wide Web. This effort was jointly created by IBM and Sears Roebuck & Co. back in 1984. The first service for consumers was rolled out in 1988. By 1991, over 1 million subscribers had signed up to Prodigy. But not long after, it began to flag in the face of competition from rivals such as America Online.
Mr. Papes, a career IBM executive who had led the company’s European operations and systems products divisions in the 1970s, was appointed in 1984 to head the new venture, which initially included CBS as a third partner. From Prodigy’s White Plains, N.Y., headquarters, he oversaw focus groups and software developers as they decided what might appeal to consumers on a dial-up computer network.
They settled on a mix of services that foreshadowed today’s Internet, though with key differences. Prodigy featured a graphical user interface, one of the first at a time before Microsoft’s Windows had been widely introduced. Early competing services such as Compuserve Inc. were run with typed commands. Prodigy was supported in part with something similar to today’s browser banner ads, custom-delivered according to the user demographics.
One of Mr. Papes’s key moves was to convince Hayes Microcomputer Products Inc. to produce a low-price modem, one of the first aimed at the consumer rather than business market. Most home-computer owners at the time had no means of connecting their computer to a network.
When Mr. Papes stepped down, Prodigy claimed 1.4 million subscribers. But the company soon began losing ground to rivals like AOL, which brought new marketing muscle, vibrant graphics and a Microsoft Windows platform to the nascent online world. Prodigy was sold by IBM and Sears to a private-equity firm in 1996 for a fraction of the companies’ investment.
While Prodigy was eventually eclipsed by its rivals, the company played a pivotal role in introducing the early home-computer users to online networking, says Barry Berkov, former executive vice president of Compuserve. “AOL would probably never have been successful without the mass promotion that Prodigy did.”
Theodore Papes was always ahead of his times in introducing new technologies and solutions.