Herald Journal Columns
June 12, 2006, Herald Journal

The past is prologue: from BBS to Blogs

By MARK OLLIG

The excitement of getting a modem and going online with your new personal computer took off in the early to mid 1990s. Mobile telecommunications and something called the Internet were being touted as technologies that soon would significantly impact how we conduct commerce and communicate.

Around this time, I started a weekly technology (without the techno-babble) column called Bits & Bytes in my hometown newspaper. As I learned about new computer hardware, software, and promising new telecommunications technologies, I shared the information with others — along with a sprinkling of personal opinions.

Early version of online

Some computer hobbyists had begun installing dial-up modems to connect with Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). A BBS is like running your own office intra-net service on your computer. It is accessible from other computers over a telephone line. You can select what menu of software programs you wish to share with others in real-time.

Not many people were online in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Those who were used dial-up modems to connect with a BBS like the one I started. My BBS computer was connected to modems that had an assigned telephone number. People with telephone lines plugged into their modems and connected to their own computers could call in to my computer and log-on to the BBS program.

At that time, installing and programming the BBS software was not a plug and play process! To access my BBS, you needed a 19.2 kbps internal or external modem (modulator-demodulator) configured for 8 data bits/no parity/1 stop bit and a regular copper pots telephone line that plugged into the modem. The modem connected to the computer with an RS-232 (Recommended Standard-232) connection. Your computer used a communications software program similar to ProComm to call the BBS and connect.

Creating a virtual community

A BBS started out like a small island community. Only a few people could be connected at one time, depending on the number of modems. I had five telephone lines connected to five modems, so five online users and I could type away.

BBSs had discussion forums, simple text-chat rooms, a few games, and the ability to send e-mail messages to other users or registered BBS members. Users were mostly from the local communities where the BBS telephone number was a free call. The BBS was a virtual community.

Howard Rheingold, who wrote The Virtual Community, is credited with inventing the term virtual community. He wrote about the potential of this new place called cyberspace, the new electronic villages, and how from the comfort of our homes we could share information, do research, participate in local community issues and eventually work from home or tele-port as he called it.

The BBS is the father to today’s websites and the popular web-logs or blogs, those public websites where authors can start online journals, newsletters, or discussions that others can read and comment (blog) on. Frequently updated to keep the topic current, the blog reflects the author’s position. Anyone can start their own blog on the Internet. My blog is at http://telechoices.blogspot.com

Rheingold wrote about an electronic frontier and a rich online BBS culture. He also wrote of how this new medium would provide infotainment to the masses. The buzz words of 1993 were interactive, convergence, cyberspace and digital future. I was fascinated by Rheingold’s enthusiasm for the potential of the independent dial-up BBS culture, which he tempered by an Orwellian fear of what might happen once we were all “wired to the ‘Net.” (And this was before we could simply point and click!)

Customer expectations drive the need to charge

As the Internet became easily maneuvered using hyper-text links and web browsers like “Mosaic” and “Netscape,” BBS operators tried to bring their users the same online experience they were beginning to experience on the graphical side of the World Wide Web. Operators were spending more time and money on programming software and video graphic card adapters along with installing faster modems.

Some of the larger BBSs realized their users also wanted Internet access. BBSs obtained direct access to the Internet-Backbone and then allowed users access to it through their BBS. Some had the Unix-Unix Network (UUNET) e-mail service that allowed the BBS to send user e-mail to and from the Internet. These BBSs were becoming ISPs and needed to charge their BBS subscribers in order to pay for their direct Internet connection. Many smaller dial-up BBSs that were not supported by paid subscribers shut down and went offline. Some dial-up BBSs are still accessible via a telnet session connection on the Internet.

Today, I am amazed by the endless sources of information, the number of websites, and the popularity of “blogs” on the Internet. How does Mr. Rheingold feel about how his BBS Culture turned out? (He now maintains his own website on the Internet.)

Turning past visions into today’s reality

In August 1998, I wrote my last column for my hometown newspaper in Winsted, Minn. I quoted Albert Yu of Intel Corporation, who was speaking at an electronics convention in Hanover, Germany. Yu stunned the audience by demonstrating the future Intel processor chip that showed a measurable clock speed of 700 MHz (Megahertz.) This was 700 million cycles of blazing computing processor speed that soon would be available on our home personal computers sometime in the future.

That future has come and gone.

In my July 22, 1996, column I wrote “. . . the Internet will become the new phone network of the future... in the next 10 years the Internet itself could become the next telephone network of choice . . . ” I ended that column with “ . . .The Internet may compete with Cable TV . . . soon in my opinion, the day will come when TV stations will be providing programs in real-time, with video and sound over the Internet comparable with or better than the audio and image quality you currently receive on your TV.”

Ten years later, we are using technologies like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) over a broadband medium.

Welcome back to the future.

Being a part of the telecom industry in 2006 is exciting. We are turning those past visions of the future into today’s reality for our valued TDS Telecom and TDS Metrocom customers.

After all . . . it’s about the future.

Mark Ollig is a translations engineer located in Monticello, Minn. and has been active in the telecommunications industry since 1977.