Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 2 / FEBRUARY 1985 / PAGE 100

Telecommunications: the ideal and the reality; choosing and using telecommunications software. Barry Keating.

Vincent arrived at the office early this Monday because he had come straight from home rather than stopping for his usual cup of coffee and conversation in the lobby Coffee-Corner. He was troubled by the way the market had closed on the previous Friday and felt he should notify the other trust officers of the reasons he was switching from Treasury securities to long-term corporate bonds.

Sitting at his desk, he called up his word processor and jotted the note he had composed during the drive in. When he had finished typing, he dispatched the note to the trust officers by typing "trust officers" in the "Mail to:" position on his mail form. The note would soon be in the "mailbox" of trust officers located from New York City to San francisco--his mail program would take care of assembling the 20 names and their transmission protocols, as well as the actual transmission. A few years ago he would not have thought of making 20 telephone calls or sending 20 notes in a morning's work, but now it was easy to contact the members of the trust group and pass useful information and hunches along to them.

The other reason Vincent had come in to the office early was that he knew he had to begin preparing the speech he was to give the following Monday. While it was a week away, he wouldn't have time later in the week. He was to speak next Monday to the firm's executive committee; the briefing was to take the form of his forecast for the coming year and his roundup of this year's operations. He had given a similar talk in each of his three years in his present job, so he called up the notes from last year's briefing (which were "filed" on the corporate mainframe). Reading through them, he was surprised at how accurate his predictions had been. He decided to pattern this year's talk along the same lines and to be sure to mention the accuracy of last year's forecast.

To make the points he wanted to emphasize at the meeting he would need some recent data on the operations of the trust department and some background economic information. Access to the corporate database was rapid because of his priority user number; once the log-on was complete (executed with a single keystroke), he queried the system for last year's rate of inflation month-by-month, the dollar value of corporate bonds issued week-by-week, and the dollar value of Treasury securities issued week-by-week. He rearranged the tables to his liking (why couldn't the database format reports his way?) and pasted them into last year's talk, which would soon be this year's talk.

Vincent remembered the probing questions he had been subjected to at last year's briefing, and he was determined to be ready for them again. He created a file of information which he thought would help him answer the expected questions. Why not include the growth rate diagrams he had used so effectively last year? Quickly he updated them and attached the diagrams to the dataset. He left a note for the computing center manager, explaining that he would need this dataset online for a briefing the following Monday--that would insure that he had priority access to the information, tables, and diagrams from the podium in the boardroom. The new color, large screen projector was capable of much higher resolution than the old one; he would enjoy being able to display his information graphically, and if anyone asked a "what if" question, he was ready to answer it with information in his dataset.

It was almost 9:00 a.m. by the time he had finished the outline for the briefing and stored it in his dataset (it would then be visible on the monitor screen when he gave the briefing). Vincent recalled that he still needed the reservations for his flight the following day. He could have requested ticketing through the corporate travel office, but he hadn't put the request in on Friday and they needed at least who days. A short sequence of keypresses and he was staring at the airline schedules for tomorrow's flights to Chicago. He highlighted the flight he wanted and requested that the ticket be held at the departure gate. While he was online to the airline guide, he decided to check the fares for a planned family vacation. A new, lower fare was available from his preferred airline, but it required a ticket purchase today. He went ahead and bought the tickets; they would arrive in the mail the following day.

Now, he had better get back to his real work. He surveyed the latest data from the market and called up his "tickler" file to see if he could take advantage of the steep drop in bond prices. He decided that his anticipation of the situation had kept him a step ahead of the market; he updated the tickler file just as the telephone rang. It was a voice message from John in Customer Relations (John had probably set the message for delivery in his outgoing voice-mail). John had been contacted by a foundation interested in creating a portfolio and had suggested that Vincent might be the person to contact.

Vincent called up the firm's information on the foundation on his micro screen and noted that a trust officer had called on the foundation only last month; they had not seemed interested in setting up a trust. John had mentioned, however, that a recent windfall to the foundation was the probable cause for the contact. Vincent brought up the newsfile database and queried for stories relating to the foundation. John was correct; the foundation had been endowed by a benefactor only last week. He left a voice message thanking John for the lead and recommendation, and after hanging up quickly typed a note to the foundation's director as listed on the screen. He knew the letter (a hardcopy of what he had typed) would arrive later that day.

he also sent a copy of the letter along with a note to the "new business" trust officer (that mail world arrive immediately).

Vincent checked his mail and was surprised by the volume that had accumulated since Friday afternoon. Most of the mail was simply junk which he deleted rapidly. A few of the notes required replies, and he dashed them off quickly. One of the letters was from his counter-part in Denver asking about the new financial instrument introduced last week; Vincent called up a copy of the promotional material and sent it as part of the note to Denver. A series of low tones from the console reminded Vincent that he had a 9:30 appointment.

After the appointment he returned to his micro and requested the investment profiles that had been completed since close of business on Friday. These reports contained the recommendations of the research department; it took a few seconds before the first file arrived from New York. The reports were becoming quite fancy--highlighted at various places in his first report were the specific recommendations of the individual analysts.

Vincent had grown to rely quite heavily on the recommendations of one research analyst in particular, Alice O'Hagan. He moved the pointer to Alice's comments, and they expanded to fill the communications window. Vincent saved them for later use in letters to his clients. This investment report even included a picture of the firm's latest product; Vincent wondered if people really had any use for wrist phones.

It was almost lunchtime when he finished scanning and saving the investment files, and he decided to check the corporate bulletin board before lunch. He pointed to the appropriate icon but was greeted with a lengthy delay; the bulletin board was always the most difficult system to access. What did people do on the bulletin board? Reading the bulletin board was always a great diversion for Vincent, because the message ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. You could almost tell what the mood of the firm was by the types of messages that had been recently posted.

He scanned the entertainment section of the board and found someone willing to sell his basketball tickets for the following Saturday night's game. He would be back in town by then, so he left a note for the seller. After reading through a few of the jokes left by some wag in accounting and the "for sale" ads, he left for lunch. The Real World

All of the operations performed by Vincent are actually available and in use, but few individuals and organizations have all the capabilities Vincent had. Most of us started out as I did with a new microcomputer, a modem, and a software package chosen more-or-less at random because we really weren't sure what we wanted to do with it.

Few new users know much about personal computer communications when they get their equipment, but they are intrigued by the opportunity to connect with a mainframe or a bulletin board. After putting the pieces together and after a few belated attempts to "hook up" with another system, most of us are successful in contacting a local bulletin board system or our corporate mainframe. Usually we are pretty satisfied with ourselves for a while because we can now work on the mainframe from the comfort of our homes without even warming up the car for the trip to work.

When that first connection takes place we usually begin to realize that we aren't able to do all we thought we could do (or all Vincent could do). That is when we have to begin thinking seriously about what exactly we would want to do and what problems we are likely to encounter. Steps in Telecomputing

Using your microcomputer as a "dumb" terminal is the first step in telecomputing; that is what you are doing if you call a bulletin board or mainframe timesharing system and simply interact by typing commands and watching the results on your display. In this mode your computer is not saving anything that scrolls across the screen and you cannot accept or send files.

Even connecting to another system in this simplest of all ways can cause some problems. It sounds easy to connect all the microcomputers in an organization to the mainframe, but it really isn't that simple. Does the mainframe have a communication port? At what baud rate does it function? Does it have an even or odd parity (or none)? Does the mainframe supply linefeeds? Can your software communications package adjust to the mainframe configuration? Can your software emulate a terminal?

We would like to be able to download data from the mainframe and insert it into our micro spreadsheets without reentering the data. We'd like to be able to update files on the mainframe from our micros and send electronic mail to anyone in the organization. We'd like a corporate database we could tap into and call up-to-date information from to use on our personal machines. This is the dream, and in some cases, it can be the reality. Protocol

All communication between computers must take place according to certain ground rules; those ground rules are called the protocol. Communications protocol must be established between the machines before any "talking" takes place. To see why this protocol matching may cause problems, and to see why some communications packages are better than others, requires that we examine a few terms.

In normal communication with another person using the spoken word we must decide who will do what and when. Our informally agreed upon protocol in most situations is simply that when one person is talking, the other person will remain silent and listen. This operational protocol works fine when all parties follow the rules of the game; but when one party decides to interrupt and speak out of turn, the results can be confusing. Part of computer protocol is also deciding who will say what and when. The rules here are not informal and are quite strict (that is, they don't allow for much deviation on anyone's part).

A computer sees information flowing across a telephone line as a series of bits (which may be either 1 or 0) such as: 001001100011100010101 The bits are interpreted depending upon the protocol of the sending computer. Proper spacing and punctuation are essentially provided by the protocol. Some computers, for instance, read bytes as a set of eight bits; other machines define a byte differently. Traditionally, bytes transmitted over the telephone lines may be either 7 or 8 bits in length. Our microcomputers can be modified with software to accept either configuration, if we know beforehand what we are dealing with.

Obviously, the receiving machine must know the byte protocol (7 or 8 bits per byte) or the "letters" will be read differently by machines on either end of the communication. To make things more complex there are special bits (called start and stop bits) which act like spaces between words or meaningful pauses in ordinary conversation. Most of the software packages in our comparison chart easily solve these problems by allowing you to configure to match any computer on the other end of the transmission. Serious Problems

Serious problems, however, begin when we wish to upload and download files using two different computers (e.g., Apple II to IBM PC, IBM PC to mainframe IBM, Apple II to HP 3000 mini). Since the machines probably use different operating systems and different file structures, uploading and downloading files can be a problem. File transmission is always much more difficult than simple data capture.

Most of the software in our comparison chart handles the task of capturing data through the use of a memory buffer as they come across the screen. When memory is full, the programs write the data to disk in the format of your microcomputer. This, however, is not actually file transfer, since the data are now in the operating format of your receiving machine rather than in the format of the sending machine.

This "capture buffer" system of downloading allows you to save information from bulletin boards and electronic databases, but that information may not be in the exact file structure format you need to be able to use it in another program (like a spreadsheet or statistical package, for example).

Most of the packages listed also allow you to upload information by sending a text file over the telephone line just as if you were typing very quickly the same information on the keyboard. Again, this is not actually a file transfer because the receiving machine is presumably using the capture buffer method of saving the data.

True file transfer (either uploading or downloading) requires both machines to be using the same protocol. That is easy if the machines are identical. The problem arises when the machines on opposite ends of the communication are different.

Even this situation is beginning to be addressed by software manufacturers. Microcom has a package called Era-2 which is available for Apple II series computers, IBM PCs, and Apple Macintoshes. The software uses the same protocol regardless of what machine it is operating from; that protocol is called MNP (Microcom Networking Protocol) and is a standard set by Microcom in the hopes that other manufacturers will accept it and provide packages consistent with it. Plans to support the protocol have already been announced by Apple, Tandy, MCI Mail, GTE Telenet, Dow Jones Information Services, VisiCorp, and Lotus.

What a standard protocol does is allow machines with different operating systems and different processors to pass files (both text and binary) back and forth. Whether this particular protocol will be widely accepted and adopted as the standard remains to be seen.

MNP has recently been adopted by industry giant IBM for its software package the Personal Communications Manager, and since Apple Computer had previously accepted the protocol, it seems a good bet that MNP is ahead of other protocols in becoming the de facto industry standard. Mainframes can also be included in the MNP protocol; Microcom sells a modem for mainframes which embodies MNP protocol.

A separate protocol that is currently available for users wishing to transfer files with mainframes is Softrans protocol. Softrans. F77 is a Fortran program that runs on many different mainframes and is used in conjunction with two microcomputer communications packages called Softerm PC and Softerm 2.

The Softrans protocol allows one system to become the active controller while the other becomes the passive respondent. In micro/mainframe communications the micro is always the active controller. The Softrans protocol may also be used between two micros both running Softerm PC software with either machine acting as the controller. Microcomputer Networks

The software needed for a business to set up a microcomputer communications network (perhaps involving mainframes) to transmit data or reports is available now. For example, it is possible for a publisher with salesmen on the road to set up a system in which orders and requests for complimentary copies are recorded on microcomputers carried by the travelers. The orders and requests can then be transmitted to a personal computer (or a mainframe) at the home office each evening (when phone rates are lowest). Management can easily keep track of sales, and orders are filled more rapidly than if mail were used to transmit the requests.

Many business managers are currently making use of electronic information services available on a fee basis. Information utilities like CompuServe, The Source, Dow Jones News/Retrieval, and Newsnet can be very useful for executives with particular information needs. Like Vincent, these executives retrieve information to include in reports and to aid in making decisions.