Going Online Part 2

by John S. Davison

 

Issue 24

Nov/Dec 86

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Telecommunications is still a mystery area to many owners. Is it worth it? What equipment do you need? In this two part article John Davison reviews the most popular package and gives a first hand account of his experiences.

In Part 1 of this article we looked at the Datatari communications package, including the Miracle Technology WS2000 modem, Datatari interface, and MultiViewterm communications software. Part 2 describes what happened when we first tried to use it 'for real'. Remember, we were complete beginners at the telecommunications game, and hadn't a clue what to expect. Except for one thing - a hefty phone bill. But The Lady of infinite Wisdom had provided us with a jar so we could pay for our calls as we made them.

First Contact

My son produced a list of bulletin boards from a computer magazine, giving us a good starting point. The Atari based Basildon ITEC board (0268-25122) got the honour of being our very first contact, so we configured Multi-Viewterm to its requirements and dialled the number. The phone rang, then a high pitched whistle was heard. Great - a modem at the other end! Quick, this is costing money - switch software into terminal mode, switch modem online, and ... and ... and ... nothing! The screen stayed blank. We re-checked software and modem settings, and these seemed okay. A few tentative keystrokes made no difference, either. It obviously wasn't going to work, so we gave up. Cost so far: 40p (cheap rate). Not a good start.

Undaunted, we chose another board from the list. This was SABBS (0698-884804), an Atari based board in Scotland. We dialled and waited. Yes, there was the modem tone and ....YES! Something on the screen - we were talking to another computer! When the shock of this success had subsided, we gingerly followed the logon procedure shown, then selected a few commands from the seemingly meaningless list presented, without really knowing what we were doing. We eventually found a help facility, and got it listed to the screen (and in the buffer), so decided to log off and print this out to study, so we'd have more idea of what to do. BUT - how dickens do you log off?

At this point there was a great temptation to simply switch off the modem and hang up the phone, but this, apparently, is one of the greatest sins you can commit in the eyes of a board's System Operator (Sysop), as it can sometimes cause the software to 'hang', making the board unusable by later callers. Perhaps that what had happened to the Basildon ITEC board. We resisted this, and eventually discovered the correct command, and logged off. Phew! 

The next job was to get the printout. Oh NO! We forgot to turn on the buffer to capture the screen messages. What a waste of time - and another 1.20 on the phone bill. At that point we decided to call it a day, having spent 1.60 on phone charges and having got nowhere. I ostentatiously dropped coins to the value of 1.60 into the jar The Lady had thoughtfully provided for the purpose, and made enthusiastic noises to her about how we'd got on.

The Breakthrough

The following night we made a startling discovery. Buried in the middle of the magazine list of bulletin boards was a system called Gamlingay CBBS (076750511), based about 4 miles from where we live! Local phone charges! So we set up again, and dialled in. I remembered to turn the buffer on this time, and ....there was the board, clear and bright! It claimed to belong to the Chiltern CP/M User Group, and invited us to register if we weren't already users. This involved giving name, where calling from, and password for use on future calls to the board.

A help function called up an explanation of commands and facilities. We selected the message facility, and discovered a lower level help facility which explained how to use the various message options. We chose a summary list of all the current messages on the board. The list was long and items were soon lost by scrolling off the top of the screen, but no matter - this time everything was going into the buffer on the 130XE and could be called back to the screen at any time, or dumped to cassette, disk, or printer for reading later.

Found - Other Atari Users

Most of the message subjects seemed foreign to Atari users, with frequent references to Wordstar, Dbase II, CPM, BIOS, and other CP/M topics. But suddenly, a reference to Atari, then another. This was more like it. We then went into the Read Message function to get the full text. The first one was a general invitation to all Atari users to contact the message originator. The second one was a cry for help in locating an Atari cassette recorder.

Plucking up courage, we chose the Enter Message function, and replied to the first message, explaining that we only had the modem on loan, and he wouldn't hear from us again if he didn't reply pretty quickly.

There was little else of interest to Atari users so we decided to log off. We were invited to leave a message for the Sysop if we wished, so we left a few complimentary words about his board, and logged off. This time, we'd been online for 35 minutes for a cost of about 30p - very reasonable.

Next Stop - Micronet

The Datatari package is also suitable for accessing Viewtext services, the most well known of which is probably PRESTEL, with its successful offshoot Micronet. The bad news is that to use this service you have to pay a subscription, currently 16.50 per quarter, and this is on top of your phone charges. For this you get access to both Micronet and the more general PRESTEL services. The good news is that in most of the U.K. you can log on through a local access number, which means you only pay local call rates, currently about 43p per hour.

To get into PRESTEL/Micronet you need a User Identification Number and a Password, which you're only given after you've signed up for the service and handed over your money. However, you can try out the service for free before joining. Just call Micronet on 01-278-3143 (voice line) and they'll give you details of the special demonstration section and how to log onto it.

The Datatari package handled Viewtext in the same fuss-free way it handled 'normal' bulletin boards. The only disappointment was that, although the software reproduces the PRESTEL graphics, they're only in monochrome. You don't get the glory of full colour. You can set the background to the colour of your choice, but that's about it!

We spent a pleasant 30 minutes wandering around the demonstration section, looking enviously at the special facilities for Commodore, Sinclair, Amstrad and Acorn owners, and wondering if Micronet would ever wake up and begin supporting The Best Home Micro in the World. I guess you know the answer to that as well as I do.

It's not all bad, though. PRESTEL itself is 'non-sectarian', and there's a lot of free information available in there - over 300,000 pages, they claim. It's potentially useful to anyone, no matter what computer they use. I guess it's rather like a souped up teletext service, with the advantage that you can interact with it.

In addition to the 'free' public information, bulletin board sections, etc., there's also more specialised stuff, which you pay for separately, either by subscription or by paying for each screenful of data you look at. Micronet itself is an example of this, as your 16.50 subscription consists of a basic PRESTEL subscription, plus an extra charge for the Micronet service.

Various companies are now beginning to offer their services through PRESTEL, such as theatre ticket bookings, travel bookings, and home banking services, amongst others. And, of course, there's electronic mail and telex facilities. Unfortunately, as we were only logged onto the demonstration section we couldn't try these things out 'for real'.

Downloading Software

One thing we hadn't tried so far was downloading software. This is often touted as one of the big attractions of owning a modem. Basildon ITEC claim to hold downloadable Atari programs, so we decided to give them another try. This time we got through straight away. After the usual logging on formalities, there were a series of messages announcing free download software specifically for Datatari users (that's us!).

We eventually got to the download area, and found that the only programs were terminal programs to enable you to communicate with the board and transfer download files to disk. As we were already using MultiViewterm this seemed a bit pointless, but maybe we were missing something.

Purely as an experiment we tried to download a Datatari RS232 handler. A simple command plus filename got this started, resulting in what looked like random garbage being written to the screen. After what seemed like an age (at long distance phone rates) it stopped, so we now assumed we had the program in the buffer. But what do we do with it now? It was obviously a machine code program and it was in the buffer with all the other messages we'd had on the screen, so we couldn't simply save it and run it. I guess we should have cleared the buffer, selected download, and turned the buffer on just before the download started. There was nothing in the Multi-Viewterm manual about this.

Happiness at Last

We contacted various other boards over the next couple of weeks, and only came across one that really impressed us. This was the Central Birmingham Atari Bulletin Board System (CBABBS, on 021-430-3761). This one radiated an air of friendliness right from the start. It was easy to use, and had lots of interesting sections on it, even downloadable software - some of it being programs from past issues of PAGE 6. And, it was dedicated to Atari, so there should be little or no Beeb, Commodore, or Sinclair junk cluttering up valuable disk space.

A message explained that Multi-Viewterm has been updated, now having an XMODEM Transfer function, for use in downloading software. You can get this upgrade by returning your original disk to the manufacturer, who will put the new version onto it for you. It went on to explain exactly how you use it to achieve a download. Full marks to the brave souls running this board - and to Miracle Technology for this civilised update policy!

Can You Afford it?

The main barrier to these activities at present has to be one of cost. The package we used costs about 185, which is not bad when you consider what you're getting. The real killer is the cost of the phone calls. This is acceptable if you have a board within local charge range, or are prepared to pay 66 per year subscription to Micronet, but even Micronet isn't of direct interest to Atari users at present.

In all, we were logged onto various systems for 190 minutes. Counting the money in the jar it came to 7.80 - and after only two weeks use! The approximate cheap rate call costs per hour are 4.32 for calls over 35 miles (a little cheaper on some connections), 1.73 for calls up to 35 miles, and 43p for local. A realistic typical session is probably about 20 minutes, if you're doing anything more than just checking if there are any messages for you. So a local board would cost you a very reasonable 18p per session, but a long distance one could cost a hefty 1.44 for the same thing. For comparison, at peak times these costs would be about 4.04, 2.30, and 77p per session respectively. And how many sessions would you have each week? Go on, be honest!

The cost drops considerably if you use the board purely as a mailbox, when a 5 minute session is probably adequate, once you know what you're doing. But - will you be able to resist the lure of peeping into those other areas? Or calling just one more new board? Beware, The Lady with the Jar will be waiting, and you may never have any loose change ever again.

Conclusions

Telecommunicating is great fun, but can be costly if you have no self discipline. Currently, it seems of limited practical use, but then many people say that about home computing in general. It's as useful as you yourself make it.

The Datatari package? It worked very well for what we did with it, but could probably be improved by better downloading facilities, and/or better instructions on how to use the facilities already included. The news from CBABBS indicates that this is already being fixed, although the 12K buffer size problem mentioned in Part 1 of this article still needs attention. Perhaps the author could modify the program to dynamically transfer the data to disk or ramdisk as it is received.

Now we know why  Basildon ITEC were offering those terminal utilities! With these modifications Multi-Viewterm should merit the classification of Excellent. 

The $64000 dollar question - would I go out and buy this package? Shhh! The Lady might be listening .... but the answer is yes.

_________________________

MULTI-VIEWTERM UPDATE

As briefly mentioned in the first part of this article, an upgraded version of the Multi-Viewterm software, which supports XMODEM file transfer is available. This version, which is available as a free upgrade if you send your original disk back to Miracle Technology, includes both Xmodem Upload and Download direct to disk (which means file size is limited to disk size, not the 12K buffer). Other facilities which have been added are: text upload from within online mode (uses X-on X-off); CR/LF conversion to EOL of text in buffer; access to a second disk drive; carousel in View mode; START active in all menus; and many other improvements which make it an even better package.

The upgraded version has been available since September 1985 and new purchasers should therefore already have this version.

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