A slap across the interface. (modems)
by Denny Atkin
You hand the usher your E Ticket and sit down as a deep, monotonous voice fills the room. "Welcome to Modem World, the land of the user-hostile. We'd appreciate it if you'd check your mouse and GUI at the door. No, madam, you can't enter that way. We deal in doors here, not Windows. Now, if everyone will please fasten the safety straps, we'll begin our journey back into that archaic world where ASCII characters are king, icons are forbidden, and you'd better know your stop bits from your parity bits if you hope to survive." An evil laugh fills the room, and you lurch forward as your car plunges down into the bitstream.
Riding through the vast network of online services and BBSs is like taking a trip back through time to the days when IBM PCs shipped with text-only display cards, UNIX was considered to be a relatively user-friendly operating system, and graphics were something only game players cared about. While you may have a nice GUI-baded terminal program, those menus are only good for controlling what's happening on your computer, not communicating with the remote service.
Once you're logged on, the only interaction you'll have with the service is through the keyboard. Than in itself is not horrible; many of us use older MS-DOS programs all the time with clunky, text-based interfaces. However, not only do most BBSs and online services have interfaces that date back to the 1970s, but they also all have different interfaces! As user might type G (Good-bye) to log off one system, O (Off) to log off another, and BYE to exit yet another. No wonder getting online for the first time can be overwhelming.
Some services have begun the move to graphical user interfaces, but as yet they're still awkward and clunky, and will bring back memories of using Windows 1.0 or a 128K Mac--they have potential, but their limitations overshadow their ease of use. Generally, you're faced with a service like Prodigy, whichis very easy to use but just as easy to outgrow, or America Online, which addresses many of Prodigy's limitations but is still so young that you won't find the variety of offerings available on more mature networks. And I've still never encountered a full GUI on a BBS, although the Amiga's SkyPix protocol comes close.
You could avoid BBSs and just use front-end programs like Aladdin, GEE! Whap!, or TapCIS. But local bulletin boards are too much fun to miss out on. And while front-ends are very handy for quickly gathering messages and files from online areas you've visited before, they're useless for exploring the systems--you have to already know what you want to read. Plus, if you encounter problems online that confuse the front-end program, you've got to know the basics of navigating that service to get the program unstuck.
Don't let the variety of intimidating interfaces keep you from going on-line, though. While the learning curve can be steep, the eventual results are worth the effort. The best thing you can do, for your wallet as well as your sanity, is to pick up a good book with instructions, tips, and tricks for your favorite terminal program or online service.
The best all-around book I've seen so far for both the beginning and experienced telecommunicator is McGraw-Hill's Dvorak's Guide to Desktop Telecommunications, ostensibly written by John Dvorak and Nick Anis. (Many chapters of this formidable 776-page tome were actually written by experts in the fields covered by those sections; for instance, noted Amiga sysop Harv Laser penned most of the text in the chapter "Communicating by Amiga.")
To risk a cliche, if you only buy one book on telecommunications, get this one. It starts with a general description and history of telecommunications, then moves on to tips on selecting and installing telecommunications hardware and software.
The book covers not only most of the major (and minor) online services but also many commonly used BBS systems. It explains concepts like BBS doors (programs that can be run from within BBS software) and file transfer protocols in easy-to-understand terms. Techies will appreciate the chapters on how a modem works and on new communications technologies such as ISDN. There's even a four-page listing of emoticons. The book doesn't take the narrow view that all telecommunicators use MS-DOS computers. There are chapters with online tips for Amiga, Macintosh, OS/2, and UNIX users as well.
If you're a heavy user of GEnie or CompuServe, you might want to check out McGraw-Hill's other offerings. Glossbrenner's Master Guide to GEnie, by Alfred Glossbrenner, covers every service GEnie offers. The author's friendly writing style makes this thorough and informative guide a pleasure to read, even for the experienced GEnie user. CompuServe users will find similarly helpful information in The Complete Guide to CompuServe, by Brad and Deborah Schepp.
Send comments and suggestions to DENNYA on BIX and GEnie, DENNY on Plink, or 75500, 3602 on CIS.