By MATTHEW RATCLIFF
First Time Online
Telecomputing is more than just another way to use your computer. With the help of inexpensive modem hardware connected to the RS-232 serial interface of your Atari, your telephone line becomes a gateway to hundreds of other Atari users who share your interests.
The most common and affordable use for a modem is accessing local bulletin board systems (BBS). These are simply modem-equipped computers running special communications software which automatically answers the phone, thus allowing callers to access the computer's databases with their own modems and computers.
In principle, the local BBS is not all that different from the bulletin board down at the laundromat except that it can be much more interactive. Accessing a BBS can be a real social event where you share ideas with other modem users on many topics. A BBS is a place where you could make fast, lifelong friends. If you ever actively used a CB Radio, then you already have a good feel for what it's like to communicate with others on a BBS.
Over 5 years ago I called my first sysop (system operator who owns and maintains the BBS host computer). He has become a very good friend and we both are now officers in the same Atari users group (computer club). Sysops dedicate their computer, modem and phone line to a BBS just for the love of it. Setting up and running a BBS can be an expensive and time-consuming process-addictive too.
A BBS is usually made up of several database "forums," each one covering a different topic. Typically you will find a main database on more general interests and at least one on programming. Other common forums include movie reviews, commentaries on sports, coverage of local computer club events and computer gaming tips.
Talking with a BBS over your modem is like running a program on your own computer, with menus to guide you along. At the main menu you might choose the general interest forum. There you could read messages and reply to them as well. Entering and editing a message takes a bit of practice, but the BBS software usually provides enough help to get the job done.
However, a BBS has more to offer than just an arena for debate. Generally the BBS will provide a database of public domain programs that you can "download," using your software's communications protocol for transfering program files over the phone. Sysops may require that you contribute to the forums or upload public domain files occasionally to achieve a higher "clearance" allowing you more freedom on the BBS.