Telecommunications talk. (Delphi - information utility system) (evaluation) (column) Brian Murphy.
This profile of Delphi is the first segment in what will be a continuing feature of the column, a review of the various information utilities currently available on a public or semi-public basis.
An information utility is a system which uses a large mainframe computer and can be accessed for a fee, by home or business computer owners for information and services in categories such as entertainment, shopping, business assistance, electronic mail, and education.
One of the newest entrants into the field is Delphi, a product of the General Videotex Corporation of Cambridge, MA. It came on line on February 15, 1983, so it is just about a year old. It boasts a total of 917 subscribers who seem to agree on one major point: the atmosphere of Delphi is much nicer than other information utilities.
"Atmosphere" translates, as far as I can tell, to the feeling of friendliness and concern that you detect reading the help messages and prompts of an information utility. With some utilities you somtimes feel that you are talking to your bank or the Department of Defense, because the tone is so cold and authoritarian. This is most definitely not the case with Delphi.
Delphi bills itself as the user-friendly utility, a claim which is upheld on the very first access to the system and ever after. The prompts and messages are usually very friendly, even when it is an error messages that you are reading. You get the feeling that what you are connected to is not an information utility but a friendly local bulletin board service that simply offers far more than any BBS you have ever encountered. The achievement of this warm, friendly atmosphere is something other services would do well to note and emulate.
Signing onto Delphi begins with sending them $49.95, a one time subscription fee. Some manufacturers of communications software and hardware include a free Delphi membership and a free first hour in the cost of their product. It was by purchasing the ASCII Express for review later in this column that I stumbled onto such an offer myself.
Once they have your money, Delphi respond with shipment of a system handbook in a ring binder and a sheet with instructions for signing on through the Telenet system. To sign on, your modern should be capable of full duplex operation (simultaneous two-way communication) and be set for 7-bit ASCII with one stop bit and no parity. Your communications software should help you to configure your modem this way, if those are not already the default parameters.
As you sign on for the first time your "Membername" is your password. On your first access of the system, you are treated to a very amusing guided tour of Delphi during which you learn the simple commands which allow you to control the display on your screen and to navigate between points in the world of Delphi.
Control and navigation are accomplished with simple commands. For example, to stop sending text to your screen, you press CONTROL-S. To skip through the text at a speeded-up rate, you key in a CONTROL-O. CONTROL-Y moves you from the item on the menu item you are on back to the previous menu. The most important one is CONTROL-Z. If you are stuck in a program you don't want and want to get back to the previous menu, a CTRL-Z will do the trick for you.
You can move back one menu with each CONTROL-Z until you get all the way back to the main menu. All you have to do is wait for a program prompt and then key in the code.
Once you have learned the rudiments of navigation, it is time to explore Delphi in depth.
The various services of Delphi are accessed from a main program menu which lists the categories in Figure 1. Figure 1. APPOINTMENTS-CALENDAR BULLETING BOARDS CONFERENCE DELPHI-ORACLE EXIT FINANCIAL SERVICES GAMES GUIDED TOUR HELP INFOMANIA LIBRARY MAIL NEWS ON LINE MARKETS PROFILE TRAVEL WRITERS' CORNER
Delphi is a completely menu-driven system. To access any of these basic service categories from the main menu, all you have to do is to type the first two or three letters of the service in which you are interested, and you are on your way. After a short pause, you will be seeing the menu for the category you picked. In this menu will be the various specific services and options from which you may choose.
Believe me, this is not very complicated. The menus and prompts make everything clear to you without recourse to the printed manual. Delphi Services
Let's summarize what a few of the service categories have to offer.
Appointments-Calendar is designed for the frequent Delphi user. It will be most valuable to daily users of Delphi. The service allows you to input your appointments for any given date in your personal storage area of Delphi. On the date of an appointment, if you access appointments. If it is after 2:00 p.m. your time, you will see remaining appointments for the day plus tomorrow's engagements.
Bulletin Boards is a subject I have to handle with care because Glenn McIntyre, general manager for product development, says that the entire system is going to be redone. By the time this issue of Creative Computing hits the stands, that reprogramming should be completed.
It should suffice to say that as of this writing, the Bulletin Board is very much like many smaller BBS systems one would run into around the country. There are categories of messages touching on a wide range of topics, and the BBS system is getting good use. The difference is that on the Delphi BBS, you are likely to be reaching a national audience.
Conference is one of the most endearing services I have encountered in any information utility. A virtually unlimited number can join the conference at any given time. McIntyre says that the largest group in which he has personally participated was 14 strong. The program also allows the conferees to form separate groups.
For example, one group could be talking about politics while the other was discussing computers or the space program. Individuals can switch from group to group with perfect freedom. Even with only three or four, the one-screen conversation is lively, with the floor going to the fastest typist. The bottom line is that Conference is stimulating, great fun and the most addictive aspect of Delphi I have encountered so far.
Financial Services offers a banking service. You keep a bank account with Delphi which will, on your instructions, pay your monthly bills. You instruct Delphi which creditors and how much to pay, and Delphi sends out the checks and balances your account for you. This is an exciting feature which one hopes will develop to include other banking services, such as savings accounts, brokerage, sales of money market instruments, etc.
The other aspect of the Financial Services program is the Advice option. In this area you can see the weekly stock recommendations of an investment counselling service. The service tells you which stocks they recommend you buy and which to sell. What the service does not provide is the analysis behind the recommendations. You do have a chance to look at the weekly and yearly perforamnce figures for the recommended stocks, however, a feature which can either give you confidence or terrify you, depending on how correct the previous recommendations have been. Accessing this feature, by the way, costs an additional $.95 per use.
Games is generally not as exciting as the rest of the utility. The games offered are text only games, of course, and if you have a copy of David Ahl's Basic Computer Games series of books you are not missing much. On this subject, McIntyre says that an exciting multi-participant adventure game is in the works and may even be on line as you scan these pages.
Infomania is the program which offers some of the most interesting activities and features. There is a selection of electronic newsletters available, including one called "Inside Delphi," which keeps you abreast of the latest developments of the utility. You can create your own newsletter, with clearance from the Infomania editor.
Another fascinating activity is the Collaborative Novels program. There can be as many as four under composition at any given time, and to participate, all you have to do is read everything that has been written in the novel of your choice up to that moment and then make your contribution.
The Delphi Poll is another Infomania option; it lets you create and conduct opinion surveys on any issue you please. Up to 100 polls may be conducted simultaneously. You can not only vote but also record your comments on the questions.
Less than a dozen plls were active when we looked in on it in September, and participation was very light. Electronic Library
One of the most impressive achievements of Delphi is the Library system. The three major components are the Kussmaul Encyclopaedia, the Dialcom Library, and the Research Library.
The Kussmaul Encyclopaedia is, like any print encylopaedia, a general research tool. The Delphi vesion contains more than 20,000 entries on a very wide range of topics.
I accessed the article on Napoleon Bonaparte, one of my particular heroes, and found that though the entry was not exceptionally long, it did touch on all the major achievements and accomplishments of his career. For additional detail, cross references to realted topics in the encyclopaedia were included in the text. At the end of the article, there was a list of cross referenced articles on related information. By keying in the number of the desired article, you can go right to it.
The articles, though brief, are well written and enjoyable on an adult level. I also had the strong feeling as I leafed through it, that most children would find the service useful and interesting.
For people who need utility programs for scientific and business applications, the Dialcom Library (at an extra fee) allows you to use a large number of helpful routines. Falling into the four general categories of business, computing and editing, mathematics, and statistics, the programs perform an interesting variety of tasks. Among the familiar and variety of tasks. Among the familiar and arcane utilities are programs to balance checking accounts, compute the moment of inertia for beams, calculate the sum torque acting on a lever to compute the various quantities for a Markov chain, and compute the amortization of a mortgage. In all there are 121 of these programs as of the time I write.
The Research Library is a collection of over 200 databases covering an extremely extensive range of subject matter. To read the monographs, articles, and other data in this library you must sign up for the database separately, and you must be prepared to pay substantially higher fees than for normal Delphi time.
It would be impossible in this space to cover all the topic areas, but here are some of the subjects: agriculture, international market forecasts, biographies of scientists, water science and pollution management, aquaculture, an index of criminal justice periodicals, coffee agriculture, abstracts on the rubber industry, U.S. public school directory, abstracts on non-ferrous metallurgy, health planning, and private and goverment grant information.
The Mail program is, as you would expect, an electronic mail system (to sound like you know all about it, call it "E-Mail"). Enough said, except to mention that after you have read your message, it disappears from the database forever.
Under the Online Markets heading there is a bazaar where you can sell that oscilloscope or the crock pot you have been trying to unload. At present it is more like a classified ads section than anything else. Delphi has grander aspirations for it, as a place where companies, public authorities and municipalities can do business requesting quotes and estimates, and advertise for bids.
In Writers' Corner, you can store and retrieve text files of almost any length that you have created on your home word processor. You can also use the edit functions of the Writers' Corner to create text files for use in keeping personal records to send to others via Delphi's electronic mail system and to publish in the Infomania section of Delphi. You even have the option of having your work set in camera-ready type. You may also use Writers' Corner to encode original programs in Basic, Cobol, Fortran, and Pascal. Summary
It is obvious in strolling through the Delphi system how new a utility it is. The system has been put together with great originality, however, and it succeeds in making the user feel right at home. There is nothing forbidding about Delphi; it invites use and reuse.
There is a wonderful potential here, a potential that I think will be fulfilled. BBS Numbers
Figure 2 is an intermittent feature of this column, a listing of bulleting board system numbers. I do not--and this magazine does not--vouch for the accuracy of each number. Anyone can commit a typo, after all. We also do not guarantee that all of them are still operating. To have your BBS number published, send it to me c/o Creative Computing. I will check it out to se if it is for real before I write it up.
If the service has an asterisk after, it is a 24-hour number. This month's listings are of IBM bulletin boards. It is not a comprehensive list, but it should be enough to get you started.
Products: General Videotex Delphi (data transmission system)