Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 30 / NOVEMBER 1982 / PAGE 228

What Is It?

Michael E. Day
Chief Engineer, Edge Technology
West Linn, OR

Telephone, message systems, teletext, newspapers, banks – many areas of modern life are being transformed by telecommunicating computers. communication by radio, telephone, telegraph, television, etc.

Telecommunication within the computer industry generally refers to communicating with a computer via a modem. Such communication has been around for awhile, but until the advent of the personal computer there was little need for the average person to use it. With the personal computer becoming ever more popular, this is changing; and knowing about telecommunications is becoming more necessary.

Necessary Uses

Currently, personal computerists use telecommunications mainly for communicating with public access message systems around the country. This has been the "CB radio craze" of the computer industry. The novelty of it is wearing off and other uses for the modem are being considered.

At first consideration, a very simple use of the modem, conversing with a friend, would seem pointless, since talking to your friend over the telephone would be simpler. This is true if the friend is located locally. But if the friend lives far away, there might be large phone bills or else little contact with the friend. You could communicate with the friend by mail, but mail delays the message.

The computer can help by providing a means of communication that keeps down both the communication time and the costs. Not only does the computer send information more quickly than you can talk, but it also gets rid of the casual talk that extends the time.

Businesses have for some time used computers as a means of reducing communications costs. Also, the computer is a vital link which allows the deaf to communicate when they would otherwise not have that ability. In fact, most telephone companies provide the equipment to the deaf free of charge.

Public Uses

Of course, telecommunication is not limited to personal communications; information of many sorts, including almost any form of printed matter, can be transferred via the modem. Such things as letters, contracts, news, and special interest subjects can all be transmitted through the modem. The API and UPI news services have been doing this for many years. The weather services provide information this way as well.

Most of the information provided by the various information dispensers is in fact provided to them through a telecommunications network. Since the information is already in a form that computers can work with, it requires little work or reorganization to provide the information in a form that the average person can use.

…what about the computer? It needs its own type of information flow.

Some information services have sought to reorganize information to make it more readily recoverable. For example, the newspaper industry, spurred by increasing costs and decreasing income, is searching for ways to increase profits by reducing costs while extending and diversifying the types of services they perform.

The news industry is not alone. Telephone companies are exploring this area also, most noticeably by the electronic directory service. They hope to eliminate expensive telephone directories by providing a means to obtain information over the telephone itself. (The biggest problem to date: the terminal needed to access the information costs far more than the directory, even taking into account the cost of directory assistance currently provided by the operator.)

New Systems.

The need for a well-defined and up-to-date method of communicating information, both nationally and internationally, has caused European countries to develop a replacement for the TELEX system. This new system, called "teletex," goes beyond TELEX by allowing almost any form of data to be transmitted. (The TELEX system allowed only uppercase letters, numbers, and a few special characters.)

Other telecommunications systems being implemented are the "videotex" and "teletext" (note the additional "t"). Rather than limiting themselves to text type data, these systems transmit graphic information in the form of pictures and use existing video transmission systems (TVs). Previously, the major method of graphics transfer was by a special modem and a facsimile machine (FAX for short) which provides a picture copy of the transmitted data. While a FAX machine is much slower in transmitting a page of text, its advantage is that it can send pictures.

All of this information flow is nice for people. But what about the computer? It needs its own type of information flow. The computer runs on programs, which can also be transferred with a modem. However, there are no standards in the business world for such transfers, primarily because there has been no need for them.

In the personal computer world, however, there is such a need. This is due to the large number of individuals owning machines, the variety of these machines, the numerous programs written to run on the machines, and the greater interest in being able to transfer programs. Public computer systems have been set up specifically to provide a centralized base for these programs. The most popular of these are the CPM based systems, referred to as RCPM (Remote CPM).

These systems maintain various programs for computers which run with the CPM operating system. The programs provided are "Public Domain" programs; this means that they are provided to the general public free of charge, for anyone's use. Some retain copyrights on the programs, but this is generally to prevent resale of the "free" program. Others simply do it for the advertisement. (You can use my program, but my name has to stay in it.) Others don't care; they just want to see their program out there.

Some programs by their very nature are "public domain" programs. For example, any program created on government time or equipment is in the public domain, unless it has security restrictions. This is also true of many programs from educational institutions. Finally, some programs have been around for so long that no one knows who the original author was.

Business Uses

Financial institutions are also heavily into telecommunication. They use telecommunication to keep in constant touch with their various branches. This way, there is an instant update in the main computer whenever a transaction occurs. They also use telecommunication to transfer money back and forth, since this reduces transit time, in turn reducing the "float" time in which the money is unusable.

Telecommunication is also what makes automatic teller machines possible. The automatic teller is in constant communication with the bank's central computer, so that your account is immediately updated when you perform a transaction at the machine.

Although the credit card industry also depends upon telecommunication to transfer funds, it has been somewhat lacking at the customer end. Despite efforts to improve the situation, it is still the general rule that if a card needs to be checked, the checking is done manually. Electronic checking of cards would mean less hassle to the customer: checking could be done more quickly, and stolen cards could be identified more readily.

An offshoot of the credit card is the debit card. With a credit card, you are not only paying for the credit card system's operation, but you are also paying for the use of someone else's money. With a debit card, however, you are using your own money, not borrowing it.

Telecommunication could allow you to call a store, browse through its catalog, place your order, and pay for it – all without leaving your living room. Even if you are only comparison shopping, the video catalog could help you narrow your selection by showing who is selling what and for how much. You would save time by not having to wander from store to store.

Other types of purchase not readily possible now could also become available. Deferred payment could become a snap; you could purchase an item with a delayed payment, and if you like it, you could then release the payment. The seller would have greater protection as well, since if you didn't release the funds within a certain time, they could be automatically released.

Telecommunication has many possibilities – not only for increasing the amount of data and knowledge, but also for reducing (or eliminating) the number of tiresome chores now undertaken by people.