CAMBRIDGE, MASS — I START by typing ``Prodigy'' on the keyboard. After a moment my computer asks me to type my personal ID and my password; then it calls the local Boston Prodigy site, and I'm off and running. The screen clears and I'm looking at Prodigy's ``front page.'' In the upper left-hand corner, the flashing words ``new mail'' tell me that somebody has sent me a message. In the middle of the screen are three selections from Prodigy's ``News and Features'' choices, a notice that says that 40,000 titles of the ``Reader's Catalog'' are now available on the system, and a reminder to look at the ``1989 in Review'' edition of the Prodigy Star.
As I read my message, I see a teaser for an advertisement at the bottom of the screen: ``Give me Liberty! Financial liberty with Private Reserve. LOOK.'' By pressing the letter ``L'' and the ``enter'' key, I can look at the advertisement in greater detail. Prodigy ads are worlds in themselves, sometimes complete with their own games, information screens, and order blanks. (Prodigy bills advertisers every time a user looks into an ad. They also get billed if a user requests additional information.)
By typing ``p'' (for ``path''), I jump to the weather map of the United States. (Path is a set of favorite Prodigy services that is customized for each user.) At the bottom of the map is another advertisement.
The Prodigy software has been written for the complete computer illiterate: Virtually everything is handled automatically by the company's software, from installing itself on my computer's hard disk to dialing the telephone.
For a change of pace, I jump to ``Siskel,'' Gene Siskel's movie column, where I'm given a 110-word version of his review of ``Always.'' There's a note after the review that Mr. Siskel is available as an expert on the ``Arts Club'' bulletin board; users can send him mail and he answers.
Prodigy feels a lot like television, both in its presentation and its content: a little bit of everything, but nothing in any great depth. The same is true of the service's home shopping features.
``You can get technical information [using Prodigy] that isn't even available in the store. One of the things that this will evolve into is a direct communication medium between the vendor and the consumer, which until now has been a very expensive thing to do,'' says a Prodigy program manager, Steve Hein. But right now, the only ``technical information'' that I could get on Kodak's TMAX P3200 professional film was that it is ``available in a 35 mm, 36-exposure roll.''
There are golden nuggets, like the 20-screen history of the US space program that I stumbled across. If you don't know a bit from a byte, if you think a Macintosh is a fruit, yet you want discount airline tickets and the convenience of shopping at home, then Prodigy may be for you.