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Tom R Halfhill, Features
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Many futurists believe that
someday telecomputing will be the primary use for home computers -an integral
part of every modem household.
You've probably already heard
the predictions about home banking, home shopping,
"electronic newspapers," tele-games, and on-line
encyclopedias and data bases. Actually, all of these services are available
today, though perhaps not in all areas, or in an affordable or mature form. But
times are changing fast.
All of our
electronics/communications technologies seem to be merging, moving together
toward a common center. Think about it: telephones, television, cable systems,
satellite receivers, video cassette recorders, videodiscs, video motion and
still cameras, home computers... everything is evolving toward some kind of "telectronic"
supersystem that someday will fuse these now separate parts into an integrated
Will it really happen within
our lifetimes? There are strong indications.
TV sets are starting to come
equipped with cable tuners and extra jacks for home computers, videogames, and
other accessories. Wide-ranging information services aimed at personal computer
users already are accessible with a local phone call in every major city of the
United States. Similar systems in Europe are even more advanced. Some cable TV
networks and banks in the United States are test marketing interactive systems
using low-cost home computers as terminals. A few of the latest personal
computers to be introduced, including those from Atari, Radio Shack, and
Osborne, offer built-in phone modems as a standard feature.
A new division of Atari,
Ataritel, is working on a secret project that will unite home telephone and
computer technology in a new way. Some people, instead of commuting to the city,
work at home with personal computers or remote terminals tied into their
employer's computer over the phone lines. Video cameras are overtaking Super-B
movie cameras in popularity. Still cameras that replace film with magnetic disks
and which display their photos on TV sets will be available in a few months.
Soon, it seems, the entire
household will function around this emerging video/computer/telecommunications
supersystem -what one futurist has dubbed the "electronic hearth."
For certain, there are
social, as well as technological, trends which must be considered. So we'll have
to wait and see exactly how things develop. In the meantime, though, this
exciting frontier is open to pioneers. It's similar to the groundbreaking days
of personal computing five or six years ago.
Telecomputing today is still
young. And you can help it grow of you’re new to the field of telecomputing,
you'll quickly discover that it shares something unfortunate with personal
computing in general- telecom-puting consists of a few easily understood
concepts obscured by thickets of thorny terminology .
We'll sort out
theterminology in a moment (note the glossary accompanying this article). First,
let's review the basic concepts:
1. Two or more computers can
be hooked up to each other with wires.
2. With the proper
programming, virtually any computers hooked up in this way can exchange
virtually any kind of information.
That's it. Does it seem too
simple? Believe it or not, practically everything else you'll ever
read or hear about
telecomputing consists of extensions (complications) of these two basic
The "wires" which connect
the computers together are usually ordinary telephone lines, just like the ones
in your home. (But they don't have to be: it's possible to hook up two
computers across a room or within a building using ordinary wires with the right
plugs on the end.)
The "proper programming" is
often the hard part. The computers may not be normally compatible with each
However, you probably won't
have to worry about this. programs to cover all the standard situations you're
likely to encounter are already written.
These programs act as
interpreters. They even make it possible for seemingly incompatible computers,
such as Commodores, Ataris, Apples, TRS-80s, and others, to communicate as
easily as United Nations diplomats. Now, let's enlarge upon these concepts.
To communicate through
ordinary telephone lines, a computer requires a device called a modem. "Modem"
(rhymes with "load 'em") means "modulator-demodulator.' When two or more
computers are communicating over the phone, each computer requires its own modem
at its end of the line. The modem is connected between the computer and the
phone line, and it allows the computer to send/receive information to/from the
When you are sending, the
modem takes the data in the form of electronic signals from the computer and
converts it into audio tones. Then the modem sends the tones through the phone
line. These tones, if you hear them (sound like very fast Morse code).
When you are receiving, the
J" modem takes the audio tones, sent by the other computer's modem and converts
them back into the electronic signals that are understood as data by your
This process may sound familiar. That's
because it's very similar to the way the computer saves programs and other data
on the cassette recorder. During a SAVE, the computer's output) is converted to
tones which, are sent to the recorder and recorded on tape. During a LOAD the
audio tones received from. An example of an acoustic modem, with its rubber cups
fitting tightly on the telephone handset.
The recorder are converted
back into the original information. A modem works the same way, except the tones
and speed of transmission are different. And, of course, the information is
being sent not to a nearby cassette recorder, but to another computer which can
be as far away as the furthest telephone.
There are two general types of modems for personal computers: acoustic and
Acoustic modems are easy to
spot because they have two rubber cups which fit over the telephone handset's
earpiece and mouthpiece (see photo). The rubber cups must fit tightly to keep
outside room noises from interfering with the audio tones.
Direct-connect modems do not
use rubber cups. Instead, they bypass the handset altogether and connect
directly into the telephone. Commodore's VICmodem, the most popular modem for
the Commodore 64 and VIC-20, is of this type. The VICmodem is a cartridge that
plugs into the rear of the computer, and a cord links it with the telephone (see
Direct-connect modems are
often preferred to acoustic modems because they are less vulnerable to noise
They are the best choice
when the modem is operated in a less than-quiet environment. Until recently,
acoustic modems were more popular because of their lower cost. But new
technology has made some direct-connect modems less costly than many acoustic
models. The VICmodem is widely available for under $100 (see review in this
Equipped with a modem
plugged into a telephone, a computer needs only one more thing to be ready for
telecommunicating: the "proper programming" mentioned above.
This program is usually
referred to as terminal software. In effect, it turns your computer into a
remote terminal of the distant computer. Your computer is more or less
"disabled" as an independent computer and becomes a peripheral or external
device of the other computer. Everything you type on your keyboard appears not
only on your screen, but on the other computer's screen as well. And everything
typed on the other computer's keyboard likewise appears on your screen.
Terminal software completes
the communications link established by the hardware the computers and the
It works with the modem to
translate the data which is sent and received. If the two computers are normally
incompatible with each other -say, if a Commodore is attempting to communicate
with an Atari the terminal program acts as an interpreter to resolve the
With the right terminal
software, you can communicate with almost any computer. This includes not only
other personal computers, but much larger machines as well. College students can
program the university's mainframe or minicomputer from their dormitory room,
using an inexpensive home computer and modem as a remote terminal. Employees can
work at home, accessing their business's computer in the same way. This makes
some of the great speed and power of mainframe computers available almost
All terminal software is not
programmed equally, however. Some terminal programs have features which allow
you to do more than-others.
One of the most powerful
features is upload/download capability .This permits you to send and receive
files. Files can be anything from written letters to actual programs.
For instance, let's say you want to share a new program you've written with a
friend across town or across the country.
You could mail the friend a
cassette or disk. Or, if you both have modems and the proper terminal software,
you could send it by phone. You would call up your friend, establish the
telecomputing link by activating your modems, and "upload," or send, the
At the other end of the
phone line, your friend's computer and modem would be "downloading" the file.
Upload/download is like overpass/underpass; it depends upon your point of view.
The sender uploads as the receiver downloads.
Usually, the terminal
software loads the file off disk at the uploading end before sending it through
the modem. At the downloading end, the file is then saved on disk also. It's
possible to use a cassette recorder at one or both ends, but the relative
slowness of cassettes becomes a big disadvantage, especially when a
long-distance phone link is involved.
Exchanging tiles also
requires lots of memory .Each computer must have enough memory to hold both the
terminal program and the file. This should be no problem with the Commodore 64,
but the VIC-20 needs memory expansion.
Note that even two computers
which are normally incompatible can exchange files in this way. An Apple user
could upload a message or a program to a Commodore user, for example. But
remember, only the phone link has been standardized; the programs remain
incompatible. Still, you might be able to modify the program to work, and it
would save lots of typing.
W hat else can you do with a
One popular activity is
calling up bulletin board systems (BBS). A BBS is a computer with an auto-answer
modem that offers some sort of service, either to anyone who calls, or to a
select group of people who know the password.
Most bulletin boards are
operated by user groups, individual hobbyists, computer shops, or other
organizations. A computer is equipped with an auto-answer modem and is left on
during certain hours, some- times 24 hours a day. When you call, the modem
automatically answers the phone and sends a steady tone. This signals you to
activate your own modem, setting up the link.
Once "on-line," the BBS
usually displays a welcoming message and menu of choices on your screen. The
choices depend on the BBS. It may be a local user group BBS that offers members
the latest news and library programs for downloading. Or it could be a
machine-specific BBS with news and programs for users of that particular
Some bulletin boards cater
to other special interests, such as amateur radio or science fiction.
Many allow you to leave mes
sages for other callers to read. There are even dating services and "X-rated"
bulletin boards. There are also a number of Commodore-oriented bulletin boards.
For a listing of phone numbers and hours, see "Commodore Bulletin Boards" in
Almost all of these bulletin
boards are open to virtually anyone. A few, however, require passwords known
only to members of a certain organization.
Besides these privately
operated boards, there are also commercial information utilities which, in
effect, are giant bulletin boards themselves. Instead of operating their systems
with small personal computers, these utilities use vast banks of minicomputers
and mainframes which allow hundreds of callers to be on-line at a time. They
offer wide varieties of services to their subscribers, who pay an hourly connect
Many of these utilities are
specialized data bases aimed at business people and professionals such as
scientists and lawyers. They can be quite expensive -up to $300 an hour.
The most popular
telecomputing utilities for personal computer users are the CompuServe
Information Service and The Source. Some others are the Dow Jones Information
Service, Delphi (run by General Videotex Corporation), and the Dialog
Information Service. Connect fees for these utilities start at about $5 an hour
if you call in the evenings or on weekends and holidays. "Prime time" (business
hours) costs more.
If you live in a major
metropolitan area within the United States, you can usually reach these
utilities with a local phone call. The utility leases long distance phone lines
from each area to its central computers, and the phone charges are included in
the hourly connect fee. In some smaller cities and rural areas, you'll have to
reach the utility through a long-distance network such as Tymnet, whose charges
(about $2-$3/hour) are added to the hourly fee.
It would take a whole
magazine to list the services offered by the information utilities.
There are encyclopedias,
newspapers from all over the country, business news and stock reports,
Associated Press dispatches, the latest sports scores, marine and aviation
weather reports, electronic mail, special interest groups, and even party lines
and telegames (see related articles in this issue).
Some modems or terminal
programs include a free subscription and some free connect time on one or more
of the information utilities (the VICmodem comes with these bonuses). This is an
excellent way to find your way around and get acquainted with what's available.
Here are some hints for
those who want to get started in telecomputing. When choosing a modem and
terminal program, be certain they will be compatible with each other and with
your computer. Even if the salesperson assures you the combination will work,
make sure you can return everything if it doesn't. (The VICmodem comes with its
own terminal software for the Commodore 64 and VIC-20.)
If you want features such as
upload/download, check before you buy. VIC-20 users; especially, should be sure
they have enough memory to run the proper, terminal software. Phone lines can
be temperamental. The telephone system is a marvelous thing, but it, remember,
it's a 19th-century, invention that was originally designed for voice
transmission, not data communications. A good connection is essential for
telecomputing. Interference which is unimportant for voice purposes can easily
confuse a modem. Unfortunately, telephone companies can be difficult to deal
with on these matters. If you suspect a phone line problem, bolster your case by
verifying that your computer/modem/ software combination works on another line,
.Sometimes you can solve an interference problem by moving the TV away from the
modem and telephone. TV sets generate strong magnetic fields. If your computer
is not near a telephone, you'll have to install an additional phone jack or use
a phone extension cord.
Try the extension cord
first; it's cheaper. But if the additional wire causes interference problems,
you may have to resort to another jack.