Telecomputing TodayArian R. Levitan
A Well-Deserved Feast
What restaurant in your home town has the best Szechuan fare? How about barbecue, or Mexican, Thai, or Continental cuisine? Make a mental list of those places, then figuratively fold it up and put it aside for a few moments.
About a year ago, while cruising through the message section of a Chicago-based bulletin board, I ran across a message that caught my attention. It announced the opening of a new bulletin board in the Detroit area for IBM PC and PC-compatible computer owners. Dubbed "The Business Board," it was located in a nearby suburb. I was intrigued. While there were dozens of Atari-, Commodore-, and Apple-oriented BBSs in and around the Motor City, there had been a distinct paucity of PC-related boards. Prior to this time, I had been calling boards in other cities—not an economical practice when you count the long distance charges. A local PC BBS might open up new fields of interest as well as relieve my pocketbook.
As the modem dialed the new board's number, I purposely held down my expectations. Bulletin boards come and go. Most are started by well-intentioned folks who don't realize how much work is involved in maintaining and operating a BBS. The life expectancy of an average new board is about 30 to 60 days.
Two Deadly Errors
Why such a high mortality rate? There are two common, often fatal mistakes. Many a would-be SYSOP decides to run a board during hours when his or her computer is not otherwise in use. These moonlight boards are usually down more often than they're up. As the novelty wears thin, the neophyte SYSOP soon decides that taking the board up and down constantly is more bother than it's worth. An even more deadly mistake is attempting to use the same phone line for both voice and BBS communications.
As I logged onto "The Business Board," I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice introductory bulletin with slick graphics. Based on a dedicated Compaq portable with a 30-megabyte hard drive, the BizBoard (as it's called by users) has a download area containing over 1000 files. That's one of the most complete and up-to-date collections of "freeware" and public domain software that I've run across in years.
A quick electronic chat with SYSOP Rick Brenner revealed that the BizBoard's collection of files is the result of untold hours of downloading from a dozen or so of the nation's best bulletin boards. Apart from the phone charges, which are not insignificant, that sort of activity represents a very substantial investment in time.
Brenner started his board to facilitate the exchange of information among professionals who use computers in business. In keeping with this special focus, access to the board is limited. Membership is by registration only and costs $25 per year. You must also participate actively in the board's message traffic. Those whose sole interest is in downloading files are politely dropped from the rolls (and given a refund of their registration fees).
While the BizBoard's house rules may seem straight-laced to some, they have succeeded in fostering an unusually high degree of computer literacy and esprit de corps among BizBoard members. There's much humor to be found in the message bases and recently-added special interest forums, in addition to useful technical information, discussions of some of the more obtuse business applications of microcomputers, and accounts of member experiences with new products.
When Onliners Meet Offline
In February of this year, at my suggestion, the local BizBoard membership met for some offline conferencing at a local French bistro. Prior to the event, some new members had voiced concerns about holding their own in face-to-face communications with established technical heavies. To add to the interest, the suit-to-sandals ratio among the twenty-odd group members ran just about fifty/fifty. How did it go? The dinner meeting had been scheduled to run from 6:30 to 9:00 in the evening. We were finally ushered out the door at 2:00 the next morning. Since that auspicious beginning, bimonthly dinner meetings have become a BizBoard tradition.
It's been a year now since the BizBoard began. Since then, my favorite BBS has garnered about a hundred members, and survived several hard disk cashes, power failures, and even a fried motherboard. Most of the credit is due to its hard-working SYSOP.
There are hundreds of Rick Brenners across the land running bulletin board systems for telecomputing enthusiasts. Their labor of love goes largely unheralded. Have you got a local BBS in your area that deserves recognition? Unfold that piece of paper you stashed away mentally a few minutes ago. In my book, September is National SYSOP Month. Put off buying that new piece of software until next month. Instead, treat your local SYSOP to a gastronomic feast as rich as the one proffered to you via the telephone lines day after day. You'll both be better off for the experience.