By Virginia Woodwell
Gil Markle rarely has time to sit at his desk, for he not only oversees his newest venture, modemcity, but also the Long View Farm recording studio, Myles Travel, Inc., ChartAir, Inc., and The American Leadership Study Groups, Inc.
Not on your life!
"Worcester is modemcity!"
At least that's what Gil Markle is happily proclaiming, loud and clear, from offices high above the city at the Worcester Municipal Airport.
Rock fans (and more than a few others) will remember Markle as the innovative impresario who lured The Rolling Stones to Long View Farm, his posh North Brookfield country recording studio, for six weeks in the summer of '81.
Now Markle is tapping yet another vein of modern technological wizardry to bring something else to the area — an electronic-information and communications system that will permit Worcester to communicate, via computers, with the world.
"modemcity" is its name. It's seen limited use by Markle and his staff and associates for something over a year now, and this month, Markle begins actively marketing it to the public. In his view, its potential for altering the way people do business means nothing less than a transformation of Worcester itself into "modemcity."
That name comes from the term for those devices used to permit computers to "talk" to each other through telephone lines. All one needs to bring Markle's mainframe system into one's office or living room, therefore, is a computer-cum-modem, a telephone, a modemcitysubscription — and a reason to use them all.
Central Computers Are Interactive
From Markle's perspective, reasons abound. modemcity's central computers, he explains, are "interactive" — that is, they permit users to both enter and retrieve information; modemcity itself also stores information there for user access.
Thus, from almost any spot in the world (mainland China excluded), business management, for example, can use the system to move memos among employees; salesmen can dial in to check on available inventories; companies can keep mailing lists constantly current, businesses can advertise (or seek others' services) through an up-to-date "Yellow Pages," writers can route copy through editor to printer, sans paper; air travelers can get flight schedules; amateurs (or pros) can program; hackers can "talk" (on-line); children can play video games; adults (or children) can play chess or five-card draw Poker with partners in Phoenix or L.A. or Tokyo or -- wherever!
Markle's enthusiasm about the advantages of such a system, particularly as they apply to routine business communications, also abounds. "It's a dream come true for writers and managers," he states. "Electronic mail, for a start. No more telephone 'tag,' trying to get the other person on the phone. No more small talk before saying what you've called to say. How many phone calls have we all put off making simply because we didn't want to deal with that other person? Lots. And lots of 'dropped batons' as a result. Electronic mail changes all that."
And he goes on: "You can say what you want, whenever you want — whether or not the other person is awake or asleep, in your time zone or another. And the other guy gets the message at his leisure, too — not when you happened (finally) to get him on the phone. And it's in writing, besides, saved forever on disk, in case you have to refer back to it. Not like a phone call, which can be remembered one way or another, or not at all."
Markle sums up: "modemcity is like Compuserve or The Source, only the computer is ours, and it's right here in New England, and is already doing things for system users that they can't get elsewhere. It's a second-generation computer bulletin board."
Enthusiastically Greets New Ventures
For Markle, now 45, such enthusiasm for new ventures comes naturally, the product of a philosophy and of an extraordinary range of experience to match. "It's always been my feeling," he explains, "that new horizons and change are a healthy thing."
Markle's "new horizons" have had him making some pretty broad leaps. And, in recent years, those have been more related to business, and to communication by computer, than one might, from his much-publicized association with The Rolling Stones, initially guess.
Right now, for example, in addition to launching modemcity, he's running four locally-based enterprises that grossed, in all, an estimated $20 million-plus in 1983. (Markle himself is chary about publicized numbers generally, and is reluctant to update this number specifically). Those businesses are: Long View Farm (the recording studio); Myles Travel, Inc., a retail travel agency ("the largest in Central Massachusetts," says Markle); ChartAir, Inc., a supplemental air carrier; and The American Leadership Study Groups, Inc. (ALSG), a long-established and very substantial national student travel firm.
Prior to starting each of those, however, Markle was an academic. From 1966 to 1974, he taught philosophy at Clark University — by all accounts (including his own), most successfully, using a then-new multi-media approach, and gaining an exceptional student following. (Of his decision to leave academia for business, Markle says: "I had achieved some success as a young professor, and I counted that job done.")
And prior to that period, he had also earned no fewer than two Ph.D.'s, one in physics (as a Fulbright Scholar) from the Sorbonne, and one in philosophy, from Yale University.
Markle's Roots Lead to modemcity
modemcity's origins are footed in some particulars of that experience. Markle's own early European travels led him to see both the advantages of student travel and the need for a service to provide it. Accordingly, in 1966, with two colleagues from Yale, and newly-arrived at Clark, he founded ALSG. That business has flourished. To date, it's sent over 165,000 participants, high-school students with their teacher-counselors, on educational tours abroad. The number of annual participants now averages over 10,000, making ALSG one of the largest such tour providers in the nation.
Two years ago Markle set up a modest computer system to facilitate communication with those participants. A year ago, he expanded it dramatically.
Markle himself explains the reasoning behind those moves: "The idea began as an attempt to bring students and teachers on-line. ALSG has been sending high school students and their teachers to Europe for over 20 years, and we're in constant touch with them year-round by mail and telephone. They live in all 50 states. We thought that a computer 'bulletin board' would keep us in closer touch still with these people, and would give them 20-hour-a-day access to other users in almost every country of the world, and at no charge or expense to them.
"What we didn't realize was that we were doing the job better than had been done before, using state-of-the-art hardware, and software that was new and exciting beyond the expectations of most computer buffs. So, a lot of people got interested, and wanted to get into the system."
As a result, ALSG assistant director Janet Enman-Truscott reports that modemcity now has about 1,000 users. Markle reports that roughly half of his system's traffic involves communication with foreign countries, a pattern he calls "understandable, because we're in the travel business" (i.e., Myles Travel and ChartAir, as well as ALSG). But Markle also notes that modemcity use has grown, over the last nine months, by word-of-mouth alone.
The ALSG's 40-person staff uses modemcity for getting out all of its printed material — catalogues, public-relations correspondence, standardized letters — and for keeping in fast, easy touch with its offices in London and California. modemcity also gives ALSG student and teacher participants instant access to European cultural guides, with a broad range of information including instruction in such practical matters as how to dial a phone in Rome. (In modemcity's files are also two complete books: co-founder and current academic chairman Theodore Voelkel's The Young Look at Europe, and Tattoo Me, Markle's account of Jagger-and-company's visit to Long View Farm.)
What the public will get from modemcity is access to three sophisticated inter-connected computers — a big Digital Vax, permitting simultaneous use of the system by up to 32 telephoners; and an IBM System-36 mini-computer, communicating with the Vax through software developed by Markle's staff, and boosting modemcity's storage capacity (for technical buffs, in Markle's words, "well into the Gigabyte (1,000-Megabyte) range); and a Rolm Corp. computer, processing voice and data signals alike, and connecting each with the outside world through telephone lines. All of this, says Markle, "makes modemcity easily one of the largest and most powerful telecommunications centers in the Northeast.
As sophisticated as this system is, access to it does not require a particularly sophisticated computer. "All you need," Markle explains, "is a standard computer terminal, or any of the low-priced, lap-sized portable computers… The Tandy (Radio Shack) Model 100 is ideal, and it costs less than $300 now for an 8k model. And it works equally well from Worcester, from Los Angeles, or from almost any telephone in the world."
For an average individual or family, the cost is $35, Markle says.
modemcity phone lines, he adds, accommodate modems of either 300 or 1200 Bauds, standard transcription speeds.
One telephone number links users to the modemcity system: (617) 757-2211. Markle points out that, for Worcester subscribers, that's a local call — one great advantage of having such a system in place locally. At the same time, he notes, modemcity's hookup with national Telenet lines permits dialing at local-area (Worcester) rates from any U.S. city of over 50,000 population.
For total costs to users, Markle estimates that an "average" individual or family "could count on $35 per month." modemcity will charge a one-time-only initial subscription fee of $25, requiring only a valid Visa, MasterCard, or American Express credit care; subsequent charges will be figured on an hourly per-use basis, with night rates (from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) markedly less than those for days. Day rates, Markle reports, are currently set at $10.50 per hour, those for nights, at $6.50
Subscription entitles users to a personal password, one of several systems features built in to ensure security. Janet Enman-Truscott reports that passwords can be changed at any time; in fact, she adds, modemcity recommends that users change them routinely, on a monthly basis. Such changes, she says, are effected easily, but handled by only a few key modemcity staff.
Those concerned about system breakdowns can take comfort from Enman-Truscott's report that such occurrences are "pretty rare."modemcity, she notes has experienced only one hard-disk error, or "crash," over the last year. To ensure against information loss, modemcity staff members tape full back-ups twice each day, once in the morning, to record the night's activities, and once at night, to record the day's.
More User-Friendly, Chief Programmer Says
In charge of such technological matters is Paul Colella, chief programmer. Colella calls modemcity's system "one of the best in the marketplace," different from other such systems for its emphasis on information exchange rather than information supply, and different in being thus more "personal," as well as more flexible and user-friendly.
The system's 100-plus menus, he continues, are easy to select from, with little to memorize, and with "helps" available for almost any subject selected, tutorials provided for word-processing and file-handling (some of which are inter-active), and commands uniform, with the result that those issued from one menu will work from any other menu. Colella suggests that financial data might be more appropriately kept on a dedicated computer, but urges his system's use for a broad range of other business applications. (modemcity will, for example, be used to inventory all of Gil Markle's varied business enterprises.)
Markle himself reports that his personal correspondence on the system now involves 1,000 electronic documents sent and received each month — correspondence with employees, with agents and clients of his travel agency, with show business cronies. "That's an average of 30 incoming and outgoing transactions per day," he details. "Can you imagine spending that sort of time on the telephone? I save the phone for situations where one-on-one contact is called for, not something to plow through."
Markle conducts these transactions from the place he's been renting at the airport terminal for 17 years. That is headquarters for the ALSG, for Myles Travel and ChartAir, as well as the spot from which sales and marketing are conducted for Long View Farm.
There, Markle's outer offices in some respects resemble a shipping room or dispatch center: They're bustling and cluttered, busy with some personnel getting out full-color glossy ALSG literature (still printed and mailed), other staff glued to computers in cramped cubicles, communicating a la modemcity.
Office Reflects The Man
Markle's own inner office, though, reflects the splendiferous high-style for which Long View Farm, with its saunas and haute cuisine, is noted: it's long and dark and cavernous, high-ceilinged, lit by track lights, dominated by living plants, huge and plentiful, by furniture large and soft enough to accommodate elephants, by books, by framed character-study photographs (black-and-white, a wall of them), by a runway-sized desk — and, of course, by computer terminals.
That he hasn't entirely left behind the free-wheeling days of the '60s, and early 70s, when he was student and professor, is reflected in his dress. Below the conventional businessman's white shirt, tie and corduroy jacket, he wears neat but faded jeans, and spotless cowboy boots.
That he hasn't lost any of the charisma he showed in those earlier times is reflected in the words of his staff. Say Enman-Truscott and Colella: "He's fantastic. Interesting. Creative. And he keeps the best interest of his employees and his companies foremost." And Colella stresses: 'Teach me how, so I can do it."
modemcity promotional literature cries: "Post a note in space, for the world to see!… Tune in to the global village!"
If the persuasive Gil Markle can teach Worcester how, so it can do it, the rejuvenated old smokestack town and its environs may indeed become known as modemcity.
Editor's note: In 1991, modemcity was shut down by the creditor in possession of Markle's business enterprises, Access America, Inc., an affiliate of the Blue Cross & Blue Shield insurance conglomerate. This was done to "effect economies and thus accelerate the repayment of loans," and "to prevent employees from sharing information electronically." Absent these measures, and a year or two later, modemcity would have almost certainly emerged a principal "portal" of the World Wide Web.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.