Atari's Bulletin Board
5 STs with hard disks, 12,000 monthly calls
By Gigi Bisson
"I have a closet larger than this," Neil Harris says as four people squeeze into the Atari BBS.
Here, in a room so narrow you can stretch your arms and touch both walls, is what might be the largest bulletin board system (BBS) in the country, perhaps the world. Running on five Atari 520ST computers, five Racal Vadic 300/1200 baud modems, five Atari SM204 hard disk drives and Michtron BBS software, the 24-hour Atari Base BBS gets some 12,000 calls a month, nearly 350 every day.
The "closet" is actually a small office in the bustling Customer Service Department of Atari's headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. The tight space does have its drawbacks. "I'm developing a crease in my forehead from typing down here," jokes sysop (system operator) Greg Kranich as he bends down to a keyboard on a shelf one foot off the floor.
Although Neil Harris' official title at Atari is director of Marketing Communications, a job that encompasses everything from overseeing Atari's advertising campaigns to a hectic Customer Service operation, his pet project is the Atari Bulletin Board.
Harris gets help from three volunteer sysops. Greg Kranich (an 8-bit fan) and Dave Flory (past president of the BAAUG users group and an ST enthusiast) are both San Jose police officers. Fred Beckman (another ST fan) is a postal worker.
Many businesses now operate bulletin boards to deliver information to customers. For example, Michtron Software has a BBS that gets 50 calls a day. But as far as we know, Atari is the only microcomputer company that runs its own bulletin board.
Most questions are answered by other users in an ongoing dialogue. However, many callers find their questions already answered in the online notes before they even have to ask.
"A year ago when the rumor mill was very active, people started turning to Atari for the real facts," Harris says. The bulletin board grew out of the need to get out quick, accurate news about the new line of ST computers and the new Atari Corp.
Now the Atari BBS has become one of the company's most important customer service tools. Questions about products, software and hardware problems can be addressed 24 hours daily, every day of the year. News reports and Atari press releases from the BBS are also upload to SIG * Atari on CompuServe. Unlike Atari's free bulletin board, CompuServe charges an hourly fee. But on the other hand, CompuServe can usually be accessed from local numbers without any long-distance charges.
HOW IT GREW
The BBS started in August, 1985 on two Atari 800 computers and a Corvus hard disk, running programmable BBS software called NightLight. An ST version of this program should soon he available for about $50 from Paul Swanson, Box R, Billerica, MA 01821.
When the Michtron BBS program for the ST became available, Atari added two 520STs to the system. But within one month, callers discovered which phone numbers went to the STs and which were linked to the slower computers and they stopped calling the 8-bits. Now the 800s have been replaced by STs and an extra 520ST is devoted to answering questions from Atari dealers.
"We can deal with four times as many questions on a BBS as we can with live customer service reps at the other end of a phone line," Harris says. But the most popular service is public domain software--350 ST programs, 250 8-bit programs and 200 picture files.
A hot program can reach people incredibly fast. Harris picked up a West German game called Puzzle/Puzzle on a world-wide VAX mainframe network called UseNet. He posted the public domain game on the Atari BBS and within two days, Atari fanatics were playing it all over the U.S.
"If something's hot, people are downloading it within five minutes," sysop Beckerman says. But piracy isn't tolerated on the Atari BBS. Offenders who attempt to upload copyrighted software will find that they have about one minute of connect time a day.
The service has become so busy the Atari even considered purchasing a VAX. Using five ST computers doesn't only save money, however. "This way we are forced to push the ST harder," Harris says.
Currently the five 520STs are running five separate but identical bulletin boards, each with its own telephone line. "Ideally, we would like to figure how to make them talk to each other and exchange messages," Harris says about a project that he's been working on with some bright Atari engineers. Harris would like to see the ST become to telecommunications what the Macintosh is to desktop publishing.
Flory volunteers at Atari one day a week, not counting the 16 to 20 hours a week he puts in from home. "My sweetheart wishes I spent the time with her," he says. Why on earth would Flory and Kranich, two cops who investigate accidents for San Jose Police Department, spend so much time at Atari? "This is a total escape for us. When we leave the station we can come here and change our identity," says Kranich.
As long as Atari users continue to call, the dedicated group of sysops will continue to put in long hours answering questions and brainstormilng on ways to expand the service to handle the calls that usually continue nonstop around the clock.
"Atari users are very community oriented and helpful, that alone is very gratifying for us," Harris says.
Atari Base BBS
1196 Borregas Avenue
Sunnyvale, CA 94086