CompuServe were an Online Service Provider (OSP) and early Internet Service Provider (ISP) that was responsible for developing the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) image format. While CompuServe is a name that will now result in a shrug of the shoulders, in the mid 1990s it was generally thought of as the largest Internet Service Provider in the United States of America; alongside the likes of America Online (AOL). Just as with many early Internet Service Providers -- in Europe and America -- once it became clear to the business world of the importance the Internet would play in commerce, CompuServe were eventually merged and subsumed into larger companies.
(Pictured: CompuServe early logo)
(Pictured: CompuServe modern logo)
CompuServe did not begin life as an Internet Service Provider, it was founded in 1969 as Compu-Serv Network, providing computer services -- such as data processing -- to a large insurance company that operated in the western United States. The company was renamed to CompuServe in 1977. By the late 1970s, CompuServe became a Online Service Provider (OSP), when it developed a computer network that could send and retrieve information from personal computers to a mainframe computer using telephone lines. Compuserve is credited as being the first, or amongst the first, to offer Internet access by 1989/1990. Steve Wilhite, while working at CompuServe in 1987, developed the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) image format; according to a BBC news report, it took "Mr Wilhite about a month to develop the Gif format". CompuServe also developed CIS B in the early 1980s: a file transfer protocol that worked on the CompuServe Information Service (CIS).
When the Internet was opened up to commercial network providers in the late 1980s, CompuServe were ideally placed to take advantage. Their primary competitor in the United States was America Online (AOL) and Prodigy, and throughout the early 1990s to mid 1990s, the companies would vie for supremacy in the United States, each lowering their hourly dialup service charge, until CompuServe would eventually provide unlimited use of their services for a set monthly fee (1994). CompuServe were also an Internet Service Provider in the United Kingdom, and are credited as being the first tech company to provide online shopping for major high street retailers in the UK (such as WHSmith and Dixons) in the mid-1990s. However, neither CompuServe or AOL replicated their early dominance of the US Internet Service Provider market in Europe.
In 1997, Wired.com reported that Tax preparer H&R Block owned a 80% of CompuServe, but were willing to divest themselves of their holding, and that AOL was the most likely suitor. By the end of 1997, a deal was devised by Mississippi telephone company WorldCom that would result in the purchase of both CompuServe's and AOL's network services. These network services were then merged into UUNET, and are now part of Verizon.