Philip I. Nelson, Assistant Editor
Requirements: Amiga computer with
Online! is a full-featured
telecommunications program that allows any Amiga to communicate with
remote computers, bulletin boards, and commercial information services
such as CompuServe. Since Online!
takes full advantage of the Amiga's graphics-oriented operating system,
the program is intuitive and convenient to use. In most cases,
selecting an option is as simple as moving the mouse pointer to the
desired menu item. But don't confuse ease of operation with a lack of
features; this program offers a wide range of options, making it
suitable for serious applications as well as recreational use.
For most home use (calling an information service,
for instance), you'll want to use the default TTY, or dumb terminal
configuration. But you can also choose from three popular DEC terminal
modes (VT-102, VT-100, and VT-52) or ANSI emulation. The default
window-with a status display line at the top, screen borders, and a
sizing gadget at the lower-right corner-has room for a 79-column X
22-line text area. Other display options include a borderless 80 X 23
window, which removes the sizing gadget but leaves the status line in
place, and a full 80 X 24 window which has neither a status line nor a
The most novel display feature is the split or chat
window, which is designed for realtime electronic conferencing (like
the CB service on CompuServe). On many terminal programs, realtime
conferencing is a very confusing business. Since your own keystrokes
are intermixed with incoming characters, it's very difficult to keep
track of what you're typing. By echoing only your keystrokes in a
separate window, OnLine!'s
chat feature eliminates the confusion.
Unlike some early Amiga software that completely
takes over the machine, OnLine!
is clearly designed to exist in a multitasking environment. In all
configurations except the 80 X 24 window, you can use sizing and/or
depth gadgets to gain access to the Workbench or other windows. This
welcome feature makes it possible to perform other tasks while the
terminal remains active. For instance, you might want to open a new CLI
window to check whether a disk has enough space to hold a file that
Few things are more frustrating than establishing a communications link
only to find that the computer at the other end of the line requires a
protocol that your software can't handle. OnLine! goes to considerable
lengths to provide control over all the parameters you need, without
forcing you to specify settings more often than necessary. When you
first run the program, it defaults to the configuration used by most
commercial information services: 1200 bps (bits per second), 7-bit word
length, even parity, and a stop bit of 1. But these parameters (and
many more) are easily changed via onscreen menus.
Once you've chosen new settings, you can save them
in a terminal file, which
also includes display choices, phone numbers (for an autodialing
modem), and macrokey definitions (see below). Terminal files are a real
boon to anyone who calls more than one service regularly. Instead of
reconfiguring the program manually each time, you need only set the
parameters once for each service and save them in a terminal file.
After that, you simply select the desired terminal file from a menu.
When OnLine! loads the file,
it configures the display window, sets all the necessary parameters,
and even dials the number for you automatically.
It's easy to see how this sort, of automation speeds
up and simplifies the process of getting online. Going one step
further, you can also customize the way in which the program boots up.
Whenever you run OnLine!, it
looks for a special file named OnLine!.trm.
If the disk contains a terminal file of that name, the program comes up
with the settings specified in the file, and dials the phone number if
one is included.
You can also save time by creating a custom macrokey
definition for one or more of the Amiga's ten function keys.
macrokey has been defined, it sends as many as 64 characters to the
serial port with only one keypress. In the simplest case, you might
program a key to transmit a commonly used command such as BYE or GO
AMIGAFORUM. By including control codes and linking together more than
one macrokey, it's possible to create much more elaborate one-key
OnLine! is a convenient, professional-
quality telecommunications program
Amiga computers. This screen shows the
chat window feature designed
Unlike some terminal programs, OnLine! has no separate phone book
as such. Instead, two phone numbers (a primary number and one
alternate) can be stored as part of each terminal file. If you need
more than two numbers for a certain service, you could store additional
numbers in macrokey definitions, which also become part of the terminal
file. The autodial feature lets you set the number of times to redial
the primary and alternate numbers before giving up. The default number
of retries is zero, meaning that if the primary number isn't answered
within 30 seconds, OnLine!
dials the alternate number (if one is supplied) or simply hangs up.
If you've ever had to write a program to transfer
data files from one computer to another, you know that character
translation, while extremely simple in theory, can soak up a lot of
programming time in practice. OnLine!
lets you edit any of its seven 256-byte character-translation tables
(which relate to screen, keyboard, printer, and serial input/output)
simply by calling the table from a menu and editing the character
values onscreen. This makes it easy to do character translations or
filter out undesired characters for various purposes. When streaming
input to a printer, for instance, you can check for certain characters
which might be interpreted as control codes, producing unwanted results.
Perhaps the most advanced feature of OnLine! is its ability to execute scripts. A script file is simply a
collection of commands stored in a text file on disk (similar to a
batch or script file in AmigaDOS). When you load a script file, OnLine!
automatically performs all the commands found in the file. In other
words, the script feature is actually a mini-language interpreter; you
can write simple programs, store them in disk files, and execute them
whenever you like. This powerful capability makes it possible for the
system to carry out an elaborate series of actions without any
supervision on your part.
To illustrate what a script can do, say that you
want the program to wait until 3 a.m. (when rates are low), dial up a
fictional information service called ChompuSerf, log on to the service,
enter Data Library 3 in the area called Amigashop, download a file
named EXAMPLE.BAS, log off the service, hang up the phone, and save the
captured file to disk. Your script file might look something like this:
WAIT UNTIL 03:00
REPLY "ATDT 1 919 555 1212"
WAIT DELAY 50
WAIT DELAY 5
WAIT STRING "Host:"
WAIT STRING "User ID:"
WAIT STRING "Password:"
WAIT STRING "your choice!"
REPLY "go amigashop"
WAIT STRING ":"
WAIT STRING ":"
WAIT STRING ":"
CAPTURE OPEN 100
WAIT STRING ":"
WAIT DELAY 5
CAPTURE SAVE "EXAMPLEBAS"
The first command in this script causes OnLine! to wait until the system
clock equals 03:00, or 3 a.m. (of course, it's your responsibility to
set the time correctly at the beginning of the session). The next
command calls ChompuSerf by sending a Hayes-format autodial command to
the modem. The next two REPLY commands simulate the process of pressing
RETURN twice. The following WAIT STRING commands cause the program to
pause until a particular character string is received. Each REPLY
command sends a character string, so by REPLYing to prompts as needed,
we move to the Amigashop section of ChompuSerf, enter Data Library 3,
and download the file EXAMPLE.BAS. The CAPTURE OPEN command opens the
ASCII capture buffer, specifying a buffer length of 100K. When the
capture is complete, we log off ChompuSerf (REPLY "BYE"), hang up the
phone (OFFLINE), and save the captured file to disk with CAPTURE SAVE.
The example script is actually quite primitive
compared to what OnLine!'s
command set allows. More advanced commands such as IF, WHEN, ASK, JUMP,
SKIP, and ABORT permit the script to test for certain conditions,
branch to other parts of the script program, and interact with the user
to a certain extent. The DO command even lets you load and execute a
second script file from within the first.
Writing an automated script like the example shown
here requires that you know in advance exactly what the remote system
will send in the way of prompts and what you must supply as responses.
The simplest way to glean such information is to note each prompt/reply
sequence on paper as you go through a typical session. Once that's
done, you can write the script file using the ED system editor or a
But that process takes time and multiplies the
chance for errors. OnLine's learn
mode automates the process of creating script files by letting
you capture the relevant information on the fly, In learn mode, the
program automatically records the most recent prompt as well as your
last reply, giving you a chance to edit each string on the spot and
insert additional commands before adding it to the script file. At the
end of a session, you should have a script that requires little or no
Online! offers several options
for capturing or sending data files,
including ASCII capture, standard XMODEM protocol, XMODEM with CRC (cyclic redundancy checksum)
error-checking, and HVP (Hayes verification protocol). The timing
requirements for standard XMODEM are relaxed somewhat to facilitate
communications via packetswitching networks. Though it's not supported
by every information service, CRC error-checking improves the
reliability of XMODEM transfers.
One headache that confronts Amiga owners concerns
XMODEM transfers of executable machine language files. Since the
XMODEM protocol always sends a file in even 128-byte chunks, any file
that doesn't divide evenly by 128 is padded with extra characters when
you download it with XMODEM. If you try to load and run a padded file,
AmigaDOS notices the padding, concludes that the file is not
executable, and refuses to run it. Chopping off the padding is a simple
matter from BASIC, but the file is useless until that's done. So this
problem adds just one more layer of aggravation and delay to the
process of getting someone else's program to work on your computer.
It's worth noting that the padding problem applies
only to XMODEM transfers-more specifically, to XMODEM transfers of
executable machine language files or other binary files for which exact
file length is critical. It shouldn't affect text that you save from
the capture buffer, or ASCII text files (including BASIC programs in
ASCII form) downloaded with XMODEM. Of course, the padding problem
isn't unique to Online! or
any other terminal program. It's a
consequence of the way that XMODEM and AmigaDOS treat certain files,
and occurs with any Amiga terminal program that supports XMODEM.
does not contain any feature to help you chop executable files
downloaded with XMODEM. However, it does support HVP protocol
(compatible with Smartcom) which can transfer executable files without
padding. The only problem with HVP, or any protocol other than standard
XMODEM, is that not everyone uses it. (Perhaps the best solution is for
programmers to pad their executable files before uploading them to
public bulletin boards.)
While the Online! instruction
manual is fairly complete, it is
disorganized. All the information is there - someplace - but it's not
easy to find. Despite the manual's length of 100 pages, there is no
index. Fortunately, documentation is less important for a menu-oriented
program of this type, which displays nearly every option onscreen. Many
people will be able to use Online!
without glancing at the manual. But
some important program features-learn mode, for instance-don't appear
in the menus at all.
On the whole, however, Online! is a very impressive
package with the look and feel of a finished, professional product.
It's convenient, reliable, and well-integrated with the Amiga's
personality. Another plus is the quality of customer service. The
authors (MicroSystems Software, Inc.) offer technical support in two
different forms: on voice lines during regular business hours, and on
their own 24-hour, 7-day BBS. I found that questions to the customer
BBS were answered very promptly.
Micro-Systems Software, Inc.
4301-18 Oak Circle
Boca Raton, FL 33431