By Anton Graham
The United States is where the computer bulletin board culture began and it is still the U.S. that is leading the way towards … what? The Computer Society? Some would say it’s already with us.
During a recent visit to the United States, I talked with a number of bulletin board sysops successful shareware program authors. It’s clear that what they began in the early 1980s with the support of a few enthusiasts has grown into serious business. But the money and the virus threat have yet to completely kill the BBS community’s remarkable spirit of althruism.
Boards come and go so fast that no one can keep up with them – all you need is a small computer, a modem and a phone line. No one knows how many there are.
Mike Sabot, who runs the AESC bulletin board from Atlanta, Georgia, estimates there to be 3-4,000 boards across the United States.
“It’s still growing pretty rapidly, I’d say by anywhere between 10 and 25 per cent a year, although there is a fast turnover,” he said. “A lot of boards start up, die and are quickly replaced by another one.”
“The problem is people don’t realise the work that involved in keeping one running. So they start a board and before you know it they’re back down because they get eaten up by telephone bills.”
An amazing range of information — and inconsequential rubbish — is available on these boards with specialist operations dealing in just about every subject you can think of.
There are “Computers for Christ” boards pushing the gospel and real estate boards pushing property. Astronomy and astrology, science, sport and sex, it’s all there if you know the telephone number. Boards dealing with geneology seem to be particularly popular, although I suppose that could come under the loose heading of sex.
In Minnesota there is a board called the Political Forum through which constituents can make complaints to, and get answers from, a state senator.
The world has woken up in recent months to the danger of computer viruses — programs which replicate and sprad themselves through computer networks — and Trojans — apparently innocuous programs which contain hidden worms of code on nefarious missions, from practical jokes to data destruction.
But despite all the panic and the publicity, there have been very few confirmed viruses and Trojans found on the public BBS network in the States.
It’s ironic that the restricted scientific and defence computer networks seem to be far more vulnerable to these pests than the public bulletin boards to which access is virtually unlimited.
“The media has hyped that more than it really exists,” said Sabot. “I’ve been running my board for four years and I’ve yet to see a Trojan.”
But fear of trouble has prompted many sysops to increase security. Boards which used to be completely open, such as Atlanta’s AESC, have placed certain restrictions on access and tightened up regiatration procedures to verify who applicants are.
“Several years back, vindictive hackers were able to break into systems and destroy them, but it’s almost impossible to do with current software,” said Rickie Bellitz, an electrical engineer who runs a board in Knoxville, Tennessee called Data-comp which is rated amongst the best in the United States.
The sysops of the main boards across the country stay in constant touch with each other, but there are as yet no national organisations of the BBS sysops, although that situation would presumably change pretty fast if the government in Washington decided to take a closer interest in the activities of the bulletin boards.
“There are a couple (of associations) othat are forming, but it’s hard to get one going because so many sysops are individualists,” said Sabot.
The Boss bulletin board, based in Tenafly, New Jersey has started insisting on all callers using a users using a unique password in order to foil potential saboteurs.
“The main reason for this is that some bulletin boards in the country are being set up in order to steal passwords and then the sysops of those boards are logging into other boards with those passwords for the full intention of doing damage,” says Boss sysop Mark Seiden.
But the main problem the boards face at present is capacity.
Badly-run boards quckly wilt and die, but the good boards are swamped with calls, even where mutli-line access is available. Some have special restricted numbers for members who have paid a larger fee to guarantee them access to the board.
“I now have over 1,800 registered users on my board and there’s over 200 boards in Atlanta,” said Sabot. “Some boards that are even bigger, boards running seven, 10 lines, are satrurated also.”
“File hogs” are the bane of some boards, tying up telephone lines for hours as they download programs. For some people, the bulletin boards are clearly addictive, and even the hefty telephone bills they rack up don’t deter them for long.
“People sometimes slow down when they get the phone bill, but after a while they go back to calling,” said Sabot. “It’s not uncommon to hear a guy say, gee last month I hit 700 dollars in phonebills, I guess I’ll have to lay off for a little while. So he lays off for a while, then he’s back on and runs up another 700-dollar bill.”
The bulletin boards feature thousands of shareware and public domain programs, but the shareware industry which was born there has begun to expand into other areas.
“For some shareware authors, the bulletin boards are the big distribution medium but for me, it’s not so much so because my programs are all so big,” said Jim Button, one of the pioneers of shareware and author of the PC-File database program.
“It’s too expensive and time-consuming to download them from the bulletin boards, so they tend not to be shared as much that way,” he added.
The time factor, along with a fear of viruses, has helped spawn a growing number of shareware disk distributors which sell disks containing shareware programs for a few dollars each , a practice the shareware authors encourage.
But the boards remain the ideal market place for programmers just starting out who have a good idea and no cash to market their brainchild.
“People can’t imagine what resources are at their fingertips through these boards,” said Data-comp’s Bellitz. “If they knew, I’m sure every last one of them would go out and buy a modem and hook in.”