Kendall Wrightson discovers an on-line future...
Following a hasty decision to buy an Apple Modem back in 1986, I fiddled around with an application called MacTerminal and several months later, the mercurial delights of the bulletin boards were mine to experience. I logged on to the (now defunct) Telecom Gold and after several brief and outstandingly tedious connections, ended the romance as acrimoniously as I could possibly manage. The recriminations continued when, three months later, British Telecom sent me ICI's phone bill. Or so I thought.
Apart from the cost factor, command line driven bulletin boards offer all the user friendly charm of CP/M or one of the multifarious flavours of DOS. However, over the past months I've been treading the boards once again thanks to the adoption of Graphical User Interfaces. GUIs make for an entirely different experience; it's like rummaging through a friend's well stocked, but rather slow hard disk. You just double click and see what's inside. As you're browsing, a dialogue box appears asking if you would like to chat...
Both of the boards I've checked out over the past month — Cosmos London (see screen dump) and Electronic Courier — offer similar diets of news, tips and product information. There's plenty of System Software, bug fixes for popular programmes, plus stacks of public domain share and freeware. Downloading large applications (250K plus) can take half an hour or more if your modem operates at 2400 baud (a common speed for the cheaper modems), but it's usually worth it — purchasing the application from a PD archive would almost certainly cost more than a half cheap rate phone call.
Like all bulletin boards, both Cosmos London and Electronic Courier offer 'Conferences' — public forums where documents are 'posted' to a single address (essentially a Mac folder on the service provider's hard drive). Like a notice board, conference mail can be read by anyone. Readers may choose to respond and replies are public too. Deliberations are held for months or longer, and it's possible to search mail for specific topics or key words. It's also possible to set up a private conference if you can get five or more people to join in. Cosmos London offers a public conference called Musicians & MIDI while Electronic Courier offers MIDI Chat. Both offer advice on hard and software problems.
If you've used other bulletin board systems you'll have experienced the trauma of compressing and binhexing files before you can send them, worrying about transfer protocols (XModem, Kermit, etc.) then decompressing and de binhexing all received files. In Cosmos, the First Class Client GUI takes care of all that kind of stuff, and when downloaded, a document can be run immediately. First Class is particularly intuitive and includes sampled voices to let you know when mail has arrived or files have completed downloading. Unlike other systems, it's also possible to carry on browsing or chat with other users while downloading.
It's also possible to post mail or download files to individual subscribers. As an alternative to the Fax, E-mail is an useful and vastly under-used facility. For example, I sent this monthly column to SOS via Cosmos by creating a small mail item and attaching a file (the article). When Debbie at SOS logged on to Cosmos, a sampled voice informed her that mail was waiting. Double clicking the mail item downloaded it and it appeared as a ClarisWorks 2.0 icon on Debbie's desktop ready for editing. Later on, I checked that the file had been read by querying the mail item's history.
In fact, it's possible to send any kind of Mac document, spreadsheet, graphics and in our area of interest, MIDI sequences — digital audio files are too large and therefore uneconomical in terms of both cost and time. However, for relatively small items, Cosmos is faster than the post and you can check that the item was delivered.
Assuming you have a modem (a 2400 baud model can be had for less than £100) joining Cosmos London or Electronic Courier involves nothing harder than dialling up and logging on from any old terminal programme (I used a ClarisWorks communications document) and downloading the GUI application TeleFinder User and First Class Client respectively (both are free and Cosmos London offers a Windows version of First Class Client).
Once you've logged on with the GUI application (First Class or TeleFinder), you're given an ID and limited freedom to browse and download. Having paid an annual subscription fee (Cosmos charge £20, for example), your ID is upgraded, all restrictions are removed and you can start exploring folders, downloading juicy shareware and sending mail. Cosmos London ((Contact Details)). Electronic Courier ((Contact Details)).
Apple has its own GUI bulletin board, called AppleLink. However, with a £95 registration fee, a £5 monthly charge and connection charges of 36.3 pence per minute at 2400 baud (plus the cost of the phone call), the majority of AppleLink subscribers are Apple dealers, software houses and peripheral manufacturers.
However, next year Apple are due to launch a new service based on the US On-Line system. Whereas AppleLink is operated from a single mainframe in Ohio, the new system will be based at various Apple sites around the world and should offer far more facilities. As the new service is aimed at Mac users rather than Mac service providers, it should cost less too. (AppleLink Enquiries (Contact Details)).
"Apple hope to develop a worldwide network through which all Macs (and Newton PDAs) can communicate."
Communications is, in fact, Apple's next Big Thing. In addition to the new on-line service mentioned above, Apple has also taken steps to build telephony and communications facilities into all new Mac hardware and system software. Hardware wise, the Mac AV architecture includes an AT&T DSP that mimics a modem (see Apple Notes September and October). Thus, with the right software, an AV Mac can be used as a telephone, a Fax or a telephone answering machine.
Software wise, this month sees the launch of System 7 Pro (£100), an up-market version of the Mac OS that includes Apple's Open Collaboration Environment software. AOCE has been developed to permit Mac applications to share information and services. PowerTalk — an AOCE service included with System 7 Pro — adds several new icons and menu items to the Finder. Two such icons are an In Tray and an Out Tray. With System 7, mail items can be read only after launching the appropriate application, or in the case of e-mail, logging on to the bulletin board (AppleLink, Cosmos, etc.). However, with System 7 Pro, PowerTalk takes care of all incoming mail, 'delivering' it to the In Tray and notifying you of its arrival.
In addition to receiving mail, System 7 Pro adds a Mail menu to the Finder and to all AOCE aware services so that the current document can be sent to a specific address — Fax or e-mail.
It's also possible to send and receive mail via PowerTalk from non-AOCE services, should the service provider offer a Memory Service Access Module. An MSAM is a software driver that translates between PowerTalk and a non-AOCE service. For example, First Class (Cosmos' GUI) might offer an MSAM that tells PowerTalk when mail has arrived. Double clicking the mail item would automatically log your Mac on to the service so that the mail could be read.
In fact, Apple's AOCE and PowerTalk architecture goes much further, a main goal being to bring about the paperless revolution that was first predicted back in the '60s. As documents have to be signed, the revolution never happened. Apple's solution to the signature issue is DigiSign, a government approved electronic 'signature' that can be added to any document. A personal DigiSign is issued by an known authority and can be checked like a credit card. Apple's system also encrypts sensitive documents so that they cannot be decoded by casual or professional hackers.
Apple hope to develop a worldwide network through which all Macs (and Newton PDAs) can communicate. Since Apple doesn't own any phone cables or air time, deals have been struck with everyone and anyone who does, including British Telecom and Mercury. However, there are still several problems that need to be tackled for Apple's communications dream to become reality. The first is data transfer speed: 9600 baud modems are widely available at a fraction of their cost two years ago. This is fine for large text documents, but transferring 16-bit stereo digital audio, 24-bit graphics and QuickTime movies, 9600 baud is still slow (and therefore expensive).
High bandwidth, digital lines like BT's ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) offer a solution, but at present an ISDN line is expensive and in more rural communities, unavailable. In the States, Lucas Film solved the issue by installing their own digital network to connect their studios...
You can contact me via Cosmos. Send mail to KWrightson. See you on board.
Feature by Kendall Wrightson
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