Your own Bulletin Board

Matthew Jones, SYSOP, ECABBS


Issue 7

Jan/Feb 84

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Telecommunications are the way of the future and the last issue of PAGE 6 pointed the way with an article by Jonathon Sanders, Sysop of SBBS. I intend to continue that theme with a description of what is involved in operating and remotely using a bulletin board.

Firstly though I will explain how I became familiar with modems and programming the 850 interface. It started when I first saw that Maplin Electronic Supplies were producing their own Modem. We decided that modems were a thing of the future and ordered some for the shop. In preparation for their arrival, I read up on telecommunications and discovered that I would need a terminal program. The only Atari compatible terminal program I knew of was JTERM published in Compute! magazine and so I typed it in.

Some weeks later, the first of the modem kits arrived and I spent the rest of the day - and night building it. The main problem I came across was a case for it. I had not ordered one as I did not know the size required. The only case available that fitted was a fishing tackle box from Woolworths! Maplin can now however supply a case. After building the modem, I scoured the magazines for numbers of bulletin boards to ring and soon the wires were singing with the tones of my modem.

From this point I was a regular user-of TBBS, a bulletin board in London, with little happening of interest apart from having to make a small modification to the modem as Maplin suggested. It was at this point that John Newgas, Sysop of TBBS went on holiday rendering TBBS inoperable. What was I to do? I had nowhere to call! Scouring the numbers again, I chanced upon CBBS North East. This was the only one I could get through to regularly so this became my haunt. Some time after, ANTIC reviewed TELETALK a smart terminal package. 'I want one' I shouted and so ordered it for stock. From that moment on I have used TELETALK for all telecommunications because of its far superior facilities.

Now we come to the point where I started to get interested in the programming of the things. CBBS NE has a download section and TELETALK has controlled download facilities (i.e. it can ask for block repeats if there is a glitch on the line), so I wanted to be able to do this sort of download. On investigation, TELETALK has 256 byte blocks, CBBS 128 byte blocks. Foiled! This impass made me look into that impenetrable 850 manual and after the seventh successive read, my interest in bulletin boards made me decide that I wouldn't bother to write a terminal program, I would write a bulletin board! So ECABBS, the Efficient Chips Atari Bulletin Board System was conceived and the trek began.

The equipment needed to run a bulletin board is almost identical to that needed to access one. The equipment consists of a 40K Atari computer with BASIC, Atari 850 RS232 interface, T.V., at least one disk drive, a printer (preferable but not essential) and a modem. Really the only different feature is a ring detect and answering mechanism in the modem. Your modem may already have one but if not it can easily be added with a few components The other requirement of the modem is that it can operate in ANSWER mode as all callers will be using ORIGINATE. The Board can be run with one disk but obviously the more you have, the larger the amount of information that the Board can hold.

The average Board is very easy to use as far as the Sysop is concerned. The hours of use are up to him and all he has to do is to boot the system at the appropriate time. The Software will load and run automatically and the Sysop need not do anything else. He will have the option of setting the time so that the log will give the time that the calls were received. The log is a record of the options the remote caller chose and enables the Sysop to analyse the use of the various facilities. This log may be stored on disk, on a printer, both or not at all. Another record the Board may keep is the 'Userlog'. When people sign on to the board, they are usually asked for their name and the Userlog is a store of all these names. It is more of interest than of use. These two files are called the SYSTEM files and are not accessible to the caller. The software has three types of file, the SYSTEM, MESSAGE and SOFTWARE files. Included in the System files are the program itself, any support programs and menus. Messages are stored in various ways on various systems. They may be saved in large unalterable files which saves directory space or in individual files, which are easily modified with a word processor. The last type of file is the Software which is available for the caller to download.

There is really only one task for the Sysop to do, although it is quite a job, and that is to keep the board up to date and interesting. Old messages have to be removed, new software found, and queries have to be answered.

Calling a board is just a matter of dialling the number and when you hear the tone, connecting your modem and putting the phone down. If a voice answers, DON'T HANG UP, the person answering will tell you when the board will be back on. He is probably using the computer himself as there is no need for it to be dedicated to the BBS. When you are 'locked on' to the host computer, the procedure is fairly simple. If a board is run on an Atari, the very first thing you will be asked is 'Are you an Atari?' or 'Do you need linefeeds?'. Ataris do not need line feeds so answer appropriately. You will then be sent a 'Welcome' message which will probably give the latest news. Next you will be asked to log on by giving your name and location before being given the main menu. This may be a short option list from which you can call up a full version or a full menu from which you can elect to have shorter versions sent in future.

Bulletin boards are there for you to explore, so try everything and leave some messages for others, even if you don't know them. BB's are interactive, if you just read and don't write, you can't get the most from the board. At certain times you may find that the screen is scrolling faster than you can read and it is therefore usually possible to pause the board's output by pressing P or CTRL-S. Any key or CTRL-Q will start it up again and E or CTRL-C will terminate the file.

Most systems have a 'Page Sysop' facility. Paging will cause an audible signal to be given by the host computer to let the Sysop know that you wish to contact him directly as opposed to leaving a message. If the Sysop is around he will break in to 'chat', an option he can select at any time. In Chat mode, the start of which will be indicated by a 'Sysop on line' message, anything you or the Sysop types will be sent to the other person. I think that you will find Sysops to be friendly creatures, so don't worry if you find you have just got back benewted from a night on the town, and whilst trying out your kit in a stupor, the dreaded 'Sysop breaking in to chat' message comes up. Even at three in the morning! He has probably just come in as well! It has happened, I was the caller!

When you have finished on the board, don't just hang up, because besides being impolite, it might confuse the BB. Select to Log Off and you will then be asked if you wish to make any comments or suggestions. Make these if you wish and you will get a thanks for calling message and the system will close.

The last thing I should mention is the two types of timeout. If you do not respond to a prompt within a minute or two, a message will be sent asking if you are still there. If you are, press a key to let the system know, otherwise it will assume you are not interested and will hang up. Also, most systems have some sort of time limit on its use, on ECABBS this is an hour, and it is designed to stop hogging and let more people use it. You will not be 'timed out' in the middle of a download, so you need not worry about getting only half a file.

Have fun. If you have any queries about modems etc. write to me or give me a ring on 0249 657744 during the day or leave a message on the board (same number) after 6 p.m.