An EARLY network!

Going online before we had the 'Net

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 19, 2002.

For most of us, "going online" is synonymous with "browsing the Web" or "surfing the ‘Net."

But it hasn't always been so. (And, in fact, the Web — shorthand for World Wide Web — is only one portion of the Internet.)

While the Internet was originally developed as a resource-sharing tool in the late 1960s, its use was heavily restricted until the early 1990s. Unless you were a university researcher, government employee or in the military, odds were you had no access to the Internet before then.

And yet millions of us were already online, going back to the late 1970s when the first personal computers were joined in the market by low-cost modems.

Some of us took our early forays into cyberspace through commercial services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and GEnie. But others — at times even more than were using those commercial services — were exchanging e-mail, downloading files, reading newsgroups and even playing online games via the computer Bulletin Board System, or BBS.

Once the owners of those first personal computers — Apples and Commodores and Ataris and Tandys and Sinclairs — realized they could use their modems to hook up to other computers via the phone line, it wasn't long before the first telecommunications software appeared.

The very earliest programs to hook PCs up to each other over phone lines were undoubtedly self-written and had very basic functions. Even the first commercially available telecommunications software was fairly bare-bones — no more than a dumb terminal emulator with a dial-up function. I remember chatting with a friend over our 300 baud modems when we realized we could talk a heck of a lot faster by simply unplugging the modem and picking up the phone!

But you could use your modem for things you couldn't do with the phone. Besides chatting, you could use the modem to send software — programs or data files — to another computer.

Still, as the above examples show, much of the early online activity for PC owners was one-to-one — and each user had to be at their computer for the process to work.

By the early 1980s, though, there were specialized software packages that automated the process of letting others dial-in to your computer through the phone line — where they could leave messages, upload or download files, eve play simple text-based games.

These were the first Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs.

A BBS was simply a personal computer (usually, although some undoubtedly were run on minicomputers and mainframes) with software to manage dial-in sessions. The software had to make it easy for visitors to navigate their way around the BBS, and secure enough to keep hackers from getting into the rest of the computer.

In the mid- to late 1980s, two of the more popular BBS programs were created in San Diego. Morgan Davis, who later founded and still helps run CTS, one of the larger ISPs in town, wrote a BBS program for the Apple ][ computer called Pro-Line. Considering that the Apple ][ maxed out at 128Kb of RAM and accessed, at most, 10 meg hard drives (with most consigned to floppies), it was an incredibly powerful program. There were Pro-Line boards at many public schools around town then — much as most schools today have a Web site for sharing information, submitting homework, etc.

The other locally written BBS software that gained a good market share was called CMS, and was written by some high school kid in Point Loma whose name eludes me (and who is probably approaching middle age today!). CMS ran on MS-DOS machines, which were more powerful than the Apple ][, but it was no less impressive a bit of design. CMS and Pro-Line became popular because they made it easy for system operators — or sysops — to set up their BBSs.

By the late ‘80s, there were dozens of BBS packages out there for the prospective sysop to choose from. WildCat was probably the most popular, but others from that period include WWIV, TBBS, SearchLight, TriBBS and VBBS.

In the mid-‘80s, local computer magazines like ComputorEdge (then still known as Byte Buyer), began to run lists of local bulletin boards for their readers. When I first started going online in 1987, there were about four dozen boards listed. When I took over the On-Line San Diego column in the spring of 1993, there were hundreds of boards listed. By the time I gave up the column two and a half years later, the list was over a thousand and ComputorEdge had moved it from the pages of the magazine to its own BBS.

And those were only the public boards, those BBSs whose sysops accepted new visitors. There were an uncountable number of private boards — BBSs whose sysops never advertised their number, didn't allow visitors.

As mentioned, until the early ‘90s, you couldn't get on the Internet — and even if you could, there was no World Wide Web. The ‘Net consisted of telnet, ftp and text-based search engines like Gopher, Archie and Veronica. The only files to be found, anyway, were those on government and university systems. For most of us, the Internet would have been boring even if we could have gotten on (although its off-limits status then did, of course, give it that romantic allure of forbidden fruit).

So the BBS was a more welcoming habitat in cyberspace than was the Internet. While the Internet of the ‘80s was defined by a Unix prompt, the BBS had an easy-to-navigate menu system. When you first called a BBS, you'd usually be shown a welcome screen — often a picture done up with plain text like you sometimes still see in e-mail signatures. Then you'd be asked for a Login name, and generally prompted to type "new" if you didn't have an account. Once logged in, the main menu would offer choices along the lines of Files (for which you'd type F), Messages, Games, Chat, etc. Each of these would then have its own menu, and most were quite easy to navigate.

Since there were a half-dozen BBS programs that dominated the market, and since most sysops stayed fairly close to the built-in menu templates, once you learned to navigate one WildCat board, you'd be familiar with most other WildCat boards you might call.

As to what made a popular BBS, well, that came down to both the sysop and the users. A sysop started a board, hosted it, and supervised it — but it was the users that gave it its personality, that created a sense of community. No sysop alone could create an ongoing dialogue in the newsgroups, could post enough new shareware files to keep all the users happy, could generate enough characters to make the online games competitive. In order to have a successful board — particularly if you wanted to charge a small subscription fee to cover the costs of your phone service and computer upgrades dedicated to the BBS — you needed to attract a loyal user base.

While many BBSs were local, others were networked. While the Internet was off-limits, the BBS community came up with an innovative, creative work-around: the alternative network.

The largest and most popular of these was FidoNet. It was essentially an Internet composed of BBSs. Each BBS was a node of the FidoNet; as a node, the BBS was responsible for calling one ore more nodes each day to exchange e-mail and newsgroup messages. By offering FidoNet e-mail, sysops could give their users true international e-mail. It wasn't as fast as today's Internet e-mail — a FidoNet message might take a day or more to work its way cross-country, going from bulletin board to bulletin board. But it was free and convenient.

FidoNet — and the other networks like it (ChristNet, QuikNet, BRE!Net, PUMPnet, CHAOSnet) — also offered networked newsgroups. Now you were conversing with potentially thousands or more other online denizens, rather than just the few dozens or hundreds on your local BBS.

The BBS peaked in the early 1990s, with the advent of faster modems and the graphical interfaces that the faster connections allowed. While the color ANSI graphics had still been text-based, the Remote Imaging Protocol, or RIP, standard allowed BBSs to offer an interface not so different from the Web.

But by then Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web, Congress had opened up the Internet to the public, and the BBS' days were numbered, even if none of us saw it coming.

From a high of probably 1,400 public BBSs in San Diego County in 1994, by 1999 there were only a couple dozen left — back to what we had when I started out online in ‘87. While BBSs could and did adapt to meet the Web's standard for ease of use, they never could compete with the fact that with the Internet, you only dialed once no matter how many sites you visited.

With the BBS, you either called local boards or paid long-distance tolls. And if you, like I did, maintained accounts on several boards, then you had to call each to check e-mail, read newsgroups, etc. It was more time-consuming than if you engaged in the same activity on the ‘Net.

The BBS community fought back briefly. The RIP standard, as mentioned, allowed for a fully graphical interface. Off-line mail readers and scripting languages allowed users to automate their e-mail functions: your PC would call all your favorite BBSs, check for mail, and upload any outgoing messages you had.

But it wasn't enough. While the BBS survives today, it's in the same status it held in the early ‘80s: a venue for hobbyists, those who like to tinker, who prefer the method to the task.

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