When International Business Machines Corp. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. teamed up to launch Prodigy Services Co. in 1988, the pioneering on- line service offered unlimited connect time for a flat monthly fee. The owners hoped to augment revenue by charging transaction fees for on-line purchases and advertising.

Events - notably the aggressive growth surge by America Online Inc. - overtook that strategy, pushing Prodigy down in the rankings. Prodigy in 1993 fell in line with the then-dominant model, charging by the hour. The early cyberspace surfers were on the prowl for cool sites, however, and virtual shopping malls didn't generate much traffic.

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