by Steve Grimm
Quantum Microsystems Incorporated
P.O. Box 179
Liverpool, NY 13088
$49.95 Color or Monochrome
Reviewed by Blake Arnold
BB/ST is a relatively new entry into the Atari ST bulletin-board market, and probably one of the most unique bulletin-board programs available. It allows much more customization than most BBS programs, and its features offer a radical departure—features such as its "tree" type message base and its mini-language.
The hardware requirements for BB/ST are typical of most of the Atari ST's bulletin-board system programs: a modem (I recommend a Hayes compatible), at least a 520ST with a single-sided disk drive and monochrome or color monitor. Although BB/ST will run from a single-side floppy-disk system, you'll need two double-side drives or a hard drive, to maximize use of the program. BB/ST itself doesn't use much disk space, but the user log, message bases and file areas can grow large quickly. The BB/ST program itself arrives on a single-side 3.5-inch diskette that contains all the necessary system files (and a few online games) for the program. BB/ST is not copy protected, so it can be run from a hard drive if your setup includes one.
The documentation is very complete, even going so far as to explain the correct use of file pathnames on the ST. As with any program, it's wise to read through the manual a couple of times before you use the program. BB/ST's instruction manual is relatively straightforward and written in a way that is easy to understand. The program itself presents no real difficulties, but if you have a question, a quick flip through the manual should clear it up.
One of BB/ST's unique features is its message system. Instead of using a linear message system like most other bulletin-board programs, BB/ST uses a "message tree" (actually it resembles an upside-down tree). In a linear message base, messages string along one after another without much consideration for their subjects, but in a tree-based system messages fall under a certain "branch" of the tree which contains related subjects. There is one message at the top of the tree; Under this message one might enter messages that would correspond to normal message bases on other BBS programs (such as "General Topics," "Computers," "For Sale," etc.). Under these branches the users may enter their own messages, creating even more branches and sub-topics. In this way a "Computers" message branch could be created, with a "Hot Computer News" branch attached to it, and a "Atari introduces transputer" branch attached to that. In that situation the message tree would look like this:
1. Top of Tree 2. General Topics 3. Computers 5. Hot Computer News 6. Atari introduces transputer 4. For Sale
Each message may have up to 128 "children" (replies) attached to it, and it is possible to keep users from entering messages directly under the top of the message tree. The message tree is a powerful system, but in this case power breeds a certain amount of complexity. The message tree does take a little while to get used to, especially its advanced commands. It contains commands that are radically different from a linear message base's, but after posting a few messages and "climbing" around the tree a little bit, it isn't that difficult.
The tree structure makes it easy to read a message and follow all of its replies, then read another message and follow all of its replies, etc. Messages read in this way follow a logical order instead of being jumbled together as in a normal, linear message base. The tree does have a disadvantage though. In a linear message system users that don't call often can simply go into a message base and post a message; but in the tree system it is proper to look for a related message to post a new message under. In other words, the tree can be more work and more confusing to the infrequent caller. As was stated earlier, the tree is powerful and flexible, but it is also much more complex than a linear message base.
There is a rather large flaw in the way the message file is handled by the bulletin-board program: There is no way to set a limit for the message file's size. The same is true with the user-log files (the files that contain the callers' names and passwords) and a few other files. It wouldn't be too hard for a mischievous user using an advanced terminal program to write a macro to apply for passwords endlessly, which could theoretically result in a disk filled with a large user-log file. The same would hold true for the message base files. Even if no one ever tried to damage the system, it would be nice to have an option to set a maximum file size for those files that currently have no upper limit.
BB/ST's system editors are easy to use, almost to the point of not even requiring the manual. The editors are built-in to the BBS itself, which means you don't have to exit the program to access editing functions. The main SYSOP (System Operator) menu contains commands to access most of the other editor menus, and also to perform disk operations; the other editors are a little more specialized.
The SYSOP message menu contains commands that are used for maintenance of the message tree. It allows the SYSOP to save entire message branches to disk to be reloaded later, change the privilege flags of branches, delete unused branches (by days old or straight deletion), and to move branches to different parts of the message tree. These commands are powerful and convenient, but BB/ST's message tree lacks something that most other BBS programs provide: automation. Although the tree may be automatically compacted (deleted messages are erased and file area is recovered for new messages during compaction), it is still up to the SYSOP to perform the dead branch deletion functions.
The user-log editor is relatively straightforward, and contains options to set privileges such as call time per day, message base access, commands for terminal setup and other functions that affect what areas of the BBS each user has access to. One thing missing from the user's information displays is a list of passwords. This is a feature that should be included in any bulletin-board system program, and this is the first program that I have seen that does not allow a SYSOP to view the user's passwords. Of course if you have a sector-editor program such as Disk Doctor, you can view the passwords, but this should not be necessary.
The bulletin-board system's configuration editor contains information such as pathnames to files (message tree file, download libraries, text files, etc.), security levels to the message tree and file-transfer areas, modem setup commands and other system-specific configuration items. It is possible to change aspects of the configuration file while the BBS is online, which can be handy for remote SYSOPs.
The menu editor is used to change traits of the bulletin board's menus. There are commands to do such things as send E-mail and display text files, along with commands to move around the message tree and commands to download/upload files. In short, there are commands for all of the functions of the BBS, and they can all be edited. With the menu editor it is possible to add items to the menus, create new menus and to chain almost any non-GEM program into the BBS through use of the program's mini-language.
BB/ST's mini-language can be used to write small programs for the BBS, and the manual contains a few examples of mini-language programs such as a lottery-number generator program and a database program that allows users to display certain selected text files to the screen (useful for bulletins). The mini-language is similar to a tiny implementation of BASIC mixed with BBS-specific commands and contains statements such as IF and GOTO. Intermediate level BASIC programmers should have no problems with the mini-language, but beginners may want to enlist the help of a more experienced programmer.
Through the mini-language it is also possible to pass parameters to a TTP (TOS Takes Parameters) program. It would also be possible to write a utility for users to view the files in an ARChived (ARC) file, extract the files they wanted and then download those files. The mini-language combined with the ability to pass parameters and execute TOS, TTP and other non-GEM programs is definitely one of BB/ST's strong points. With this ability it is possible to customize the system to do exactly what you want.
You don't have to be a great programmer either; compiled GFA BASIC programs work very well, and I don't think you'll find an easier language to work with. Another nice feature of BB/ST's ability to execute external programs is that it continually monitors the modem's carrier detect line; should the modem lose the connection the BBS will simply reset itself for the next caller (it also automatically redirects I/O to the modem).
For those who would like to write more in-depth programs for BB/ST, there is a "Programmer's Guide to BB/ST" available from QMI that has details on how to communicate with the BB/ST program from another (external) program. With the mini-language and external program ability, it is very easy to implement suggestions from users, which is an important feature when considering any BBS program.
File transfers are also an important part of any bulletin-board system program, and BB/ST has an easy-to-use, yet powerful file-transfer menu. There may be a maximum of 16 file areas, which should be more than enough for most setups. Included in BB/ST's file-transfer menu are options to view files in an ARChive, extract files from an archive into a temporary archive that may then be downloaded, and upload and download files via Xmodem, Xmodem CRC, Ymodem, Ymodem Batch, Fmodem and ASCII. Also in the file-transfer menu are options to view new files, and to change the current file area the user is in, along with a few ther useful commands.
BB/ST has a terminal mode that the SYSOP may use to call other bulletin boards or telecommunication services without having to exit the BBS program.
It is strictly a no-frills terminal, but does have options to change duplex, baud rate and to transfer files via any of BB/ST's implemented protocols.
The program also allows the use of voting polls for users, and even has an option to allow users to create polls or add selections to existing polls. When a poll is viewed, BB/ST will display the total number of votes and the percentage of the total for each selection. If certain users create problems with the polls (such as adding unnecessary voting selections), it is easy to remove their access to the poll section. The same holds true with all of BB/ST's areas (message bases, etc).
Another of BB/ST's features is the ability to display Vidtex graphics in almost any text file. Vidtex graphics may be used in menus, messages and just about anywhere else the program displays text. Other BBS programs may allow Vidtex, but most of them require a separate set of Vidtex files to do it; BB/ST needs only one set of files for Vidtex and ASCII modes. BB/ST will simply skip over any Vidtex portions of the file if the user is not in Vidtex mode.
Obviously there isn't room here to go into a detailed description of all of BB/ST's features, but I've tried to reveal most of its high and low points. BB/ST is a unique program with several unique features, but it also contains a few oversights such as the user log and message files not having an upper size limit and the inability of the SYSOP to easily view the password file. On the other hand, features such as its mini-language and configurable menus are powerful and allow the SYSOP to create a nicely customized BBS. If you'd like to see a BB/ST system online, call the QMI Customer Service BBS at (315) 457-7216.