Online Before the WWW

Posted By BrokenClaw on June 10, 1999

My enthusiasm for home computing was fueled by my scientific and creative curiosity. I wanted to know how it all worked and how I could make it better, from booting DOS to running programs. I knew what every line in my config.sys and autoexec.bat files did, why they were there, and what effect changing them had. I once spent several hours reading the DOS manual and experimenting with ANSI escape sequences, just to change the color of the DOS prompt, its position, and the information it displayed. I have never been a hacker in any sense of the word, but I remember when I figured out how to use a hex editor to change internal program code affecting text output on the screen. For the computer enthusiast like myself in the early nineties, the most valuable resource was online communication, in the form of the BBS.

For the most part, a BBS (bulletin board system) was nothing more than a project run by a serious computer hobbyist. With the proper software, this person would allow other people, including strangers, to dial in to their home computer and post messages, like a bulletin board, for other people to read and answer. The host, which might be a high school kid, a stay at home Mom, or a professional computer tech, was called the SysOp, system operator. The users could be anyone, usually within the local dialing area, with no special software other than the right phone number, a modem, and a Terminal program. In the early DOS days, I used Procomm Plus. Later when I moved on to Windows 3.1, I switched to QuickLink II, which came with my new modem.

Each BBS was unique with regard to the type of information they shared, the services they provided, and the type of users they attracted. They had names like Dark Side of the Moon, After Hours, Dragon’s Den, and Tech Talk. It was no coincidence that BBS’s got most of their activity in the late, overnight hours. In fact, some were only open at night, because they shared the family computer and the family phone line! All BBS’s had message boards, email among its own users, and files for sharing. Some had online games and chat rooms. Perhaps the most popular BBS game, at least in my area, was Legend of the Red Dragon, known as LoRD, although I never played it myself.

Internet chat rooms and Instant Messages seem trivial today, but BBS chat on a Terminal program had one feature which has been lost: real-time typing. In other words, you would actually see the other person typing one letter at a time. You could see them thinking, choosing their words, changing their mind, correcting their spelling errors. It made BBS chat a more personal experience. However, many BBS’s had only one phone line, which meant that only one person could be online at any given time, along with the SysOp.

I remember my very first experience with online chat. I was logging onto a BBS for the first time. I was filling out the standard questionnaire when all of a sudden my screen went blank, and then the words started printing, one letter at a time, across the top of my monitor: “Good Evening, [Broken Claw], glad you dialed in.” Wow!! It caught me totally by surprise. The SysOp saw that I was new to the BBS, and he wanted to welcome me personally.

Typical users belonged to several, and sometimes dozens, of BBS’s. If the line was busy, you’d just set your Terminal program to keep dialing, or just dial the next BBS on your list. In the Baltimore – Washington area, for example, there were literally hundreds of BBS’s in operation at one time or another. Of course, the BBS was a text-based world on a black screen. The only color and graphics were provided by ANSI sequences, which created colored letters and blocks that looked something like this:


General Chatter

Message (147): Do you remember the old days of the local BBS? …when we used to sign our messages with cool signatures like
~ßr¤Kéñ Ç£äW~

(R)eply. (N)ext message. (M)ain menu. Goto Msg (##).

The mainstay of the BBS was the message boards, and the topics ranged from computers to sports to romance to any other subject the users would support. Many BBS’s joined networks, which meant that messages were shared among the member BBS’s all over the country. You could post a question on your local BBS and receive answers the next day from people all over the country.

On the Internet, this type of messaging exists as the Usenet, also called Newsgroups or Discussion Groups. This public message system is as old as the Internet itself and provides open message posting in thousands of categories. Remarkably, most online users today have no idea that it even exists.

Email, too, could be sent across the network. The other main service of the BBS was exchanging files among the users. Most of the files were created by other computer enthusiasts, whether it was a program to print a newsletter, a graphic file of a sports car or a supermodel, a shareware space game, hints for playing a commercial computer game, clip art for a particular word processor, a program for scientific calculations, or helpful utilities for making your computer work better. And what did it cost? Very little. Most SysOps requested a nominal user fee, a few dollars a year, to help defray the operating costs of equipment and phone service. Others required nothing more than active participation in the message boards and file sharing. Users were encouraged to upload files to the BBS in exchange for the privilege of downloading. File compression (zipping and unzipping) and transfer protocols (with names like XModem, YModem, ZModem, and Kermit) were second nature to the avid BBS’er. In this way, files quickly got passed from one BBS to another.

During this time, the BBS was the main distribution mechanism for shareware. I feel compelled to mention a few of our favorite DOS shareware games that made their name on the BBS circuit: Shooting Gallery by Nels Anderson was a game that tested your skill with the mouse, in aiming and firing at moving targets (just be careful not to shoot Grandma in the bonus round). Galactix from Cygnus Software was a space fighter game, similar to the video arcade game, Galaxion. Ballistix by DMA Design was a two-player game, similar to the table-top game of Crossfire, that had fast action, a scrolling screen, and lots of advanced levels. Turoid by Jason Truong was a breakout-type game, with loads more features. When Windows 3.1 permeated the DOS world, people started to distribute Windows versions of the standard game styles. But they never matched the big bright look of the original DOS games. Incidentally, you can still find most of these games online.

So what happened to the BBS? Put simply, it became obsolete. CD-ROM made the slow processes of file exchange unnecessary. Why spend time downloading games or clip art when you could buy a hundred games or a thousand clip art files on one CD for a few dollars? Internet email blew BBS email out of the water. With a single email address, you can correspond with anyone, anywhere in the world. The Internet had been around for quite some time, but it was a cumbersome text-based (black and white) system. The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties, with it’s graphical interface and easy hypertext navigation, really spelled the end of the BBS. All of the information and interaction provided by the BBS is now available worldwide on the Web. TCP/IP made all other transfer protocols unnecessary. Today, some commercial ventures still maintain a BBS on the Internet for the sole purpose of providing technical support or for sharing messages among a select group of users. However, the days of the personal, local BBS are gone.

In the early nineties, online subscription services like Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL were nothing more than national BBS’s. The only additional service they provided was news and advertising. Their monthly fee entitled you to a few hours of online time (a full subscription to AOL entitled you to 30 hours online per month!). With the proliferation of the World Wide Web, and the growing availability of local Internet Service Providers, market pressure forced them to add Internet service and unlimited connection time.

I remember when AOL first announced that they were removing the time limits. My initial reaction was, “Do they realize what’s going to happen? I know people who will never disconnect!” I’m sure AOL knew what would happen, but they certainly weren’t prepared for it. It took them several months to add enough phone lines to meet the demand.

Today, online services like AOL offer very little over a direct Internet connection. Most of the information and services they provide are accessible to anyone on the Web: news, sports, weather, chat, shopping, auctions, tech help, entertainment, travel, lifestyle, etc, are all available on the Web. AOL’s selling point is that they make it easy by putting it in one package. The tradeoff is that you let them decide the sources and scope of their service.

In the early nineties, online users consisted mainly of computer hobbyists, with a large percentage being high school students. By the end of the decade, online communication was well on its way to becoming as commonplace as microwave ovens. Today, the home computer and the Internet have become synonymous.

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