The Online Experience

II Alive Volume 1 Number 1
March / April 1993

Modems and telecommunications have a mystique which I can only describe as, well, mysterious. Perhaps it’s the words themselves. “Modem” certainly is a bizarre one, even for a techno-coinage, and “telecommunications,” despite being composed of easily-recognized roots, is a big one. Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t really understand what it’s all about until you’ve actually experienced it.

Probably worst of all is the fact that telecommunication has a reputation for being difficult. While it does have its unique tribulations, it’s no harder than anything else you can do with your computer, and it’s certainly one of the most rewarding things you can do. Yet for some reason, hardly anyone (less than 25% of Apple II owners) has a modem. And if you don’t have a modem, you probably don’t know what you’re missing.

This first installment of Modem Nation will remedy that. We’ll skip most of the technical stuff and concentrate directly on what a modem can do for you.

SO WHAT’S A MODEM?

Your computer, as you probably know, thinks of everything in terms of numbers zeroes and ones. Sounds, text, graphics-even programs are reduced to numbers inside your computer. The data emerging from your computer’s serial port is a stream of numbers, and is therefore referred to as a digital signal. But the phone system is designed to transmit sound-an analog signal. The two types of signals are incompatible at a basic level. You can’t just plug a serial cable into your telephone jack and expect anything useful to come out at the other end of the line.

Enter the modem. The transmitting modem converts the digital signals that come out of your computer to sounds, then sends these sounds over the telephone line. At the other end of the connection, the receiving modem converts the sounds back to digital signals and sends them into the serial port of the receiving computer. The sounds modems make are unintelligible to humans; to the naked ear, modem transmission sounds like a cross between a screech and static.

Converting a digital signal to sound is called modulation; converting the resulting sound back to a digital signal is called demodulation. The word “modem” is short for “modulator-demodulator” which is what the devices were actually called by the engineers who invented them. That name lasted about five seconds outside the lab-real people rejected the whole mouthful of syllables and promptly abbreviated it. For some reason lost in the mists of time, “modem” is pronounced “MOEdem” and not “MOD-eem” as you might expect from its component parts.

If changing data into sound and back just to get it from Point A to Point B seems like a terrible pain in the neck, well, it is, sort of. The technology involved is neither elegant nor simple. But despite the inherent limitations of the phone system, today ‘s modems are an effective and affordable way of getting data back and forth through the phone lines.

In the future, digital telephone networks will allow us to send data directly through the telephone networks at incredible speeds. We won’t need modems, although we will need network interface boxes. It’s called ISDN, Integrated Services Digital Network. Until it’s finally here, though, modems will have to suffice.

WHAT GOOD IS IT?

All right, a modem allows you to transmit and receive data across your phone lines. So who do you call? What do computers say to each other? In short, why would anyone want one of these things?

Well, forget your mental images about computers talking to each other. We’re not dealing with machines that go beep in the night. The real reason to buy a modem is not to talk to computers, but to talk to other people. The primary vehicle for talking to other people with your modem is the Bulletin Board System, or BBS.

A BBS is where people hang out online. (“Online” is more of a place than a modem status- it’s where you “go” when you connect to a BBS. Of course, you don’t really go anywhere, but it ‘s very easy to think of calling BBSs as traveling through a phone line once you’ve done it.) As the name implies, conversations on a BBS occur in the form of messages posted by the people who use the bulletin board. One user might ask a question. The next person to call the BBS might read the message and post a response. The next user might clarify and elaborate on the response or answer the question from a different angle. And so on. When the person who asked the original question calls back the next day, there might be a dozen responses to his or her original message. It’s all menu-driven and pretty simple to operate.

Most BBSs have several independent message areas. Each message area carries one thread of conversation. One might be for general chat among the users of the system.

Another might be for computer-related discussions. Still others might discuss religion, politics, model railroading, science fiction, music, knitting- anything and everything the users of the system are interested in. Dozens of simultaneous, intermingled conversational “threads” just waiting for you to read and contribute to.

Do BBSs seem like a long, involved way to have a conversation? Well, if you want to say something to a particular person, it’d be faster to just call them on the phone. But the best part of BBSing is that you never know who’s reading your messages, or who will reply. You’ll “meet” people you might never meet otherwise- from across the country and around the world-and immerse yourself in new ideas and new viewpoints. It’s a glimpse into the future of the global village, where everyone knows everyone else and distance is no obstacle to communication. And where nobody cares about race, religion, age, or physical disabilities. Or even what kind of computer you use.

Most BBSs are run by ordinary people from their homes as a hobby. There are probably dozens in your area, a local phone call away. And most charge no membership fees.

Virtually all BBSs also offer electronic mail (to send private messages to other users of the system), file libraries (for acquiring new programs and data files for your computer), and online games (where you can compete with other users). Some BBSs even allow more than one person to call in at once-these BBSs often feature multi-player games or real-time chats, where you can actually interact with the other callers “in real time.” (“Real time” means that a message you send will be read by other users instantly, as opposed to normal BBS activities where there’s a time delay between the time you post a message and the time someone else reads it.)

And then there’s networking. We’ll talk about networking more in future installments of this series, so for now, let’s just say that networking allows BBSs to pass messages back and forth around the world and for everyone on all the networked BBSs to contribute to di scussions. As you can imagine, this brings an even greater range of experience and opinions onto your computer screen.

Some BBSs let you use an “alias” instead of your real name. These systems can be great places to relax and let your hair down, to discuss controversial issues, or just babble aimlessly. No one needs to know your true identity- you can become someone else online. (On the other hand, some of these systems are infested with immature users and perpetrators of copyright infringement. Those kinds of systems will usually be pretty obvious from the start.)

Since BBSs are run by individuals and not faceless corporations, each BBS has a different slant, usually reflecting the interests and personality of the sysop. Some sysops maintain a relaxed, casual atmosphere, while others are all business. Somewhere, there’s one-or several- that you’ ll feel completely at home with. And, remember, most of them cost nothing to Join.

MORE THINGS YOU CAN DO ONLINE

But wait, there’s more! While most BBSs are, as we mentioned, run by individuals and cost you nothing, others are run by businesses. Some of them also cost you nothing, and even the ones that do charge for access are often worth investigating.

Many computer companies maintain a bulletin board system for customer use. Callers can ask questions on the BBS and get expert advice from company representatives-plus the BBS serves as a meeting place for users of the company’s products to share ideas and tips. Most of these BBSs are also free, as long as you’ve bought something from the company that owns the BBS.

Other BBSs are run for profit, instead of as a hobby. Usually, these systems offer something that’s difficult to find on other BBSs, such as specialized programs, adults-only conversations, online games, or real-time chats. It’s not unusual to see a small “pay” BBS with ten or twenty incoming lines. Some are expensive; some are not. And some of the expensive ones are worth every penny, while some “bargains” might be useless to you. Shop around.

Some other institutions also have BBSs, or at least modem services. Many libraries let you search their card catalog via modem, some universities will give outsiders access to mail and network facilities (if you’re a college student, you’ ll be amazed at the things you can do at your school via modem), and there’s even a service run by the National Institute of Standards that will tell you the exact time from an atomic clock (there’s also a program which will synchronize your IIGS clock to this signal!).

Finally, there are commercial information services, including CompuServe, GEnie, America Online, and Delphi. These systems are definitely run for profit and offer the same kinds of things small local BBSs have, only bigger, while adding their own mix of unique services (online shopping, weather and news reports, airline reservations, and electronic encyclopedias, to name just a few). Their user base spans the globe, and many computer companies maintain online “technical support lines” on these services. We’ll be covering the major online services in more depth in future installments of this column. And we haven’ t even mentioned telecommuting (yes, commuting).

WRAP IT UP, I’ll TAKE IT

How’d you like to have hundreds of people on call to answer your questions about your Apple II? How’d you like to hear the latest rumors, download the latest software, and read about the newest releases two months before you’d see any of it in a typical magazine (yes, even this one)? How’d you like to meet people who are both like and unlike you in often startling ways? Start thinking about what a modem can do for you.

A modem is not just expansion for your computer. It expands your mind, too.

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About the Author

Jerry Kindall

Jerry Kindall was Quality Computers' technical writer and served as II Alive's Editor in Chief from its inception through mid-1995. He is currently a contract programmer writer at a certain Large Software Company in the Seattle area. He and his wife breed and show Glen of Imaal Terriers.