DIALING FOR DATA
Bulletin Board Systems And On-Line Services
BY CHRISTOPHER ROBERTS
If you're like most computer users you may not understand the excitement that revolves around "telecomputing" (computer-modem communications). Few computer owners realize the wealth of fast and easy information that can he found through a modem. Imagine making your own plane reservations without having to go through an agent. People do this and other great things all the time on-line.
But making plane reservations is a very small part of telecomputing, and that's why this column was conceived, If you own a modem hut still aren't sure what it's good for, or are thinking of buying one, follow along and you may learn a few things.
For ST owners, a modem and a telecommunications program such as
Flash are all that's needed to begin telecomputing.
Bulletin Board Services
A BBS is a non-profit service run by local computer users. These BBSs are free to the public and normally cost you only the telephone connection charges. A standard BBS offers one or more of the following services.
- Electronic Mail Also known as E-mail, electronic mail is way to privately send a text message (and in some cases attached software) to a different user of the BBS.
- Sub-Board Message Service The "heart" of a BBS system, sub-hoards are usually arranged in categories or subjects. The messages you find there are public conversations which any user can join. The subjects range from computers to movies to the latest industry news and rumors.
- Public-Text Databases Many BBSs offer news stories and data compiled by the systems operator (sysop, pronounced sis-ahp). These text files are stored in a database format that you can read while on-line or download for reading later.
Upload/Download This is the most controversial of all services offered
by local BBSs because it lets anyone send to the "host" (BBS) copies of
shareware and public-domain programs that they think others might find
of interest. However, if a BBS is run correctly (and legally), these are
the only types of programs that can be exchanged within the host BBS. You
can access the files other users have uploaded to obtain your own copy.
An important side note: when you call a BBS be careful that you are logging onto a legal BBS, not a "pirate hoard." I have had people say to me, "I want to start a BBS so I can get all that expensive software for free." If this is why you want to telecommunicate, be aware that you would he breaking the law. The fines and other penalties can he massive. Besides, program designers put too much work into their software not to receive fair compensation.
- Games Downloadable games can be as simple as Hangman or as complex as a Dungeon Master-type role-playing adventure.
Compared to a local BBS, there's little difference in the type of services offered by national on-line services such as CompuServe, GEnie and Delphi. It's the quality and quantity of extra services that local BBSs are unable to offer that gives their national (and often international) counterparts a special appeal.
On-line services offer paper mail service, electronic stores (where you can buy anything from furniture to stereos), graphic-based games, stock reports, dictionaries, encyclopedias, travel agencies and far more than can be listed here. But these on-line services can only do these wonderful things because they charge a fee based on your baud rate (how fast your modem recieves and transmits information), the time of day you use the system and how long you're connected.
One other major difference from your local BBS is the sheer diversity of the on-line service's user base. For instance, people call GEnie from all over the United States and Canada and some from Europe. And the sysops of GEnie and CompuServe regularly schedule on-line conferences with Atari Corp., CodeHead, Gadgets by Small and ICD, to name a very few.
Downloadable games can
be as simple
as Hangman or as complex as
a Dungeon Master-type
Now that you know what telecomputing offers, let's look at its limitations.
The telephone rings and the boy connects his (very old) modem to the phone handset. "Shall we play a game?" says the computer voice that answers. Well, War Games was a fun movie, but more than slightly off the beam. Getting into a system to start a war or fix your grades is basically impossible for the common user to do by accident. Besides, it's illegal, so don't even try it.
There still are very few places that let you pay your bills or do your banking by modem. My local supermarket doesn't deliver so they don't have a way for people to order groceries by modem. The local video store has a BBS that I can call to see what's in stock, but I can't place an order. This doesn't mean that it won't happen eventually; it's probably just a matter of time.
The Cost Of Telecomputing
Telecomputing can be very expensive if you're not careful. If you call an on-line service, be sure to call in the non-primetime hours or you may he in for a shock the bill comes. It's important to keep track of your current hours on-line to avoid $200 to $300 phone bills (it's happened to me!).
You also can run up a phone bill quite easily because the BBS may be in a different call-zone. The difference could be up to 50 cents a minute. Also, baud rate can affect expenses. If you have a 1200-baud modem and call a 50-cent-a-minute service, a DEGAS picture could cost you $1.50 to download. A 2400- baud modem could cut this time and money by half.
Modems And Viruses
Because of its many and varied users, a BBS is an excellent way for a computer virus to spread and there's usually no way to know that you're downloading one. It's the responsibility of the sysop to test for viruses before an item is uploaded to the BBS. But the fact is that most BBS sysops can't test everything -there simply isn't enough time. On-line services do check every file for copyright infringement and virus infestations but they don't always catch them all.
The ST is pretty much immune to boot-sector viruses on hard disks. But the ST floppy is a prime target for infestation. Macintosh and MS-DOS users have trouble with hard-disk viruses quite often because of their disk-based operating systems. Therefore it's always a good idea if you download anything from a BBS to run it through George Woodsides VKILLER to protect your disks. (Editor's Note: This program and an accompanying article on computer viruses can he found in the May 1990 issue of START.) There are several Macintosh and IBM virus-protection programs as well. You should use them if you own a PC or Macintosh emulator.