Thursday, July 31, 2014

where online services go when they die...,

theatlantic |  Michael Doino approached the late hours of October 1, 1999, with a lingering sense of dread.  It was finally time, after 11 years, to pull the plug on Prodigy Classic, a commercial online service he had helped shepherd from a plucky upstart into a nationwide giant.

"It was very bittersweet, very sad," recalls Doino, a veteran project manager at the company. "I had been there before the Prodigy service went live."

Some time before midnight, Doino logged into the main Prodigy Classic server and, as instructed, uploaded a file to redirect Prodigy Classic users to the company's newer Prodigy Internet service.  At that moment, the written record of a massive, unique online culture, including millions of messages and tens of thousands of hand-drawn pieces of digital art, seemingly vanished into thin air.

It had no where to go but away. That data was never on the Internet; it existed in a proprietary format on a proprietary network, far out of reach from the technological layman.  It was then shuffled around, forgotten, and perhaps overwritten by a series of indifferent corporate overlords.

Fifteen years later, a Prodigy enthusiast named Jim Carpenter has found an ingenious way to bring some of that data back from the dead. With a little bit of Python code and some old Prodigy software at hand, Carpenter, working alone, recently managed to partially reverse-engineer the Prodigy client and eke out some Prodigy content that was formerly thought to have been lost forever.

"Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan of Prodigy," says Carpenter, a 38 year-old freelance programmer based in Massachusetts, recalling his time on the service around the turn of the 1990s. "I had already been using the Internet for a couple of years and Prodigy seemed so closed in. But I still used Prodigy every single day. It was the graphics."

It was Carpenter's drive to see those graphics once again that got him fiddling with Prodigy clients in late 2012. "Finding decent color screen shots of Prodigy is nearly impossible," says Carpenter.

He knew the sign-on screen was stored on the hard drive, so he began to wonder what else he might find in the client software. Using a hex editor, Carpenter fiddled with the client software until he found even more graphical data. "As far as I knew, the only thing I might be able to get is a screenshot of the set-up options dialog."

And he did.  But what he found next blew his mind.