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PlayNet was founded  in 1983 by two former GE Global Research employees, Dave Panzl and Howard Goldberg, as the first person-to-person, online communication and game network to feature home computer based graphics. The PlayNet software became the foundation for the first version of what is today America Online.
The founders launched the business initially with their own money. They then raised over $2.5 million from a variety of investors, including the venture capital funds of the Town of North Greenbush NY, Key Bank, Alan Patricof & Associates, and the New York State Science and Technology Foundation, and a group of individual investors through a limited R&D partnership led by McGinn Smith.
In 1985 PlayNet licensed  their system to Control Video Corporation (CVC, later renamed Quantum Computer Services), which in October 1991 changed its name to America Online. The modified version of the PlayNet software (Quantum Link or Q-Link) was ported by Quantum to the PC to create the first version of the AOL software. As recently as 2005, some aspects of the original PlayNet communication protocols still appeared to be used by AOL.
The PlayNet offices were initially located in the J Building on Peoples Avenue in Troy, NY part of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute incubator program. It subsequently moved to RPI's Technology Park in North Greenbush NY. At its peak, PlayNet employed 30 people including software developers, customer service staff, etc.
The maximum number of subscribers was approximately 3000, with up to around 200 logged in at a time. PlayNet declared bankruptcy in February, 1986 and ceased operations in 1988 after Quantum stopped paying royalties.
The service had two membership options, an $8/month service charge plus $2.75/hour connect time charge, or no service charge and $3.75 per hour connection charge. File downloads were charged a flat rate of $0.50 each
PlayNet was originally designed around online interactive games which allowed chatting while playing. PlayNet also featured electronic mail, online chat, bulletin boards, file sharing libraries, online shopping, and instant messaging (using On Line Messages, or OLMs). Games were mostly 'traditional' games and some well-known boardgames. Games were programmed in a mixture of BASIC and assembly language.
Unlike other online systems of the era, PlayNet was highly graphical and required client software, and included error correction in the communication protocols. The server software for PlayNet ran on Stratus fault-tolerant computers and was written in PL/1. AOL continued to use Stratus computers and parts of the PlayNet server software until the late 1990s or later.
- The client software on the Commodore 64 ran a multitasking pseudo-operating system based on a Finite State Machine language.
Games/features never finished/released:
- Multiplayer Dungeons and Dragons
- Various other card games and wargames
- Auditorums and panel discussions
The never-released D&D game was very similar to Neverwinter Nights (AOL game).
Connections to PlayNet were made by modems at 300 baud via X.25 providers such as Tymnet and Telenet. In 1985, pricing was $6 per month, with additional fees of $2 per hour, after a one-time membership fee of $30.
The system competed with many other online services like CompuServe and The Source (service), as well as Bulletin board systems (single or multiuser). PlayNet's graphical display was better than many of these competing systems because it used specialized client software with a nonstandard protocol. However, this specialized software and nonstandard protocol limited its market to the Commodore 64.
In 2005, hobbyists managed to reverse engineer the communications protocol and allow people running the QuantumLink software on an emulator or original hardware (via a serial cable) to run a reduced version of the service called Quantum Link Reloaded.
- "On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders", by Michael A. Banks, 2008, pages 91, 189.
- Early news story about PlayNET: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W_yfq1CLwY
- AOL history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AOL
- Lockwood, Russ. "Tracking the Affordable Home Service." A+: The Independent Guide for Apple Computing, April 1985: 54-56.