Should your business be on-line?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, January 14, 1994

Yesterday's hobby, tomorrow's business tool?

Lamont Wood and Dana Blankenhorn, would have us believe.

Their book suggests that computer bulletin boards have grown
beyond being a spare-time enthusiasm for computer hackers, and are
now a useful feature for businesses of all size.

In their book, they give a readable description of BBSs, and a
history of their development, from experiments by two computer
users with primitive CP/M machines in the late '70s, to todays
systems, which can sport up to 100 phone lines or so.

They discuss the fundamentals of computer telecommunications, from
the point of view of both a first-time user, looking at modems and
telecommunications software, and a potential sysop (BBS System
Operator), looking to set up a BBS for business or hobby use.

There's a good chapter on legal issues... copywrite, privacy,
pornography. In it is a quote from Rusty Hardenburgh, who runs the
89-line Rusty and Eddie's BBS from his home in Boardman, Ohio: "
There's a disclaimer against commercial files. No one has ever
been convicted of having a commercial file online, but I don't
want to be a test case". Ironically, soon after this book's
publication, Rusty and Eddie's was shut down, for just that. They'
re back in business, but it seems like Rusty has become the test
case on this issue.

As well, the book looks at on-line etiquette, and reviews some of
the biggest BBSs in North America, as well as a range of BBS and
general telecommunications programs.

There's a bonus disk included, with a copy of Hayes' commercial
Smartcom EZ telecommunications program, provided by the company in
the hope that you'll get hooked, and want to move up to more
powerful versions of their software. The SLMR mail reader, and a
variety of telecom-oriented utilities are also provided.

While software in general has gotten easier to use,
telecommunications has remained an area of mystery to many users;
modems and modeming software is not yet 'plug and play'... the
jargon of 'stop bits', 'protocols', UART chips, and more have
conspired to keep many potential modemers confused.

Partly to educate the vast majority of computer owners who could
be telecommunicating, but aren't, there have been a number of
books appearing over the past year or two. There have been
thousand page monsters from prolific writers John Dvorak and Jerry
Pournelle, for example (both co-written with others... perhaps a
sign that the field of telecommunications is too intense even for
these computer-writer pros).

Wood and Blankenhorn's book is much more approachable than either
of those weighty volumes. And while those are written entirely for
people wanting to log onto existing BBSs, this book includes
information for people or companies wanting to run their own BBS (
and points out that you don't need to be a corporate bigshot to
run such a service).

Unfortunately, there are a few areas simply not mentioned at all.
The book assumes that everyone is using a PC; users of Macs or
other platforms are simply ignored. And even PC users are assumed
to be using plain DOS. Many BBSs are run using Desqview or OS/2
for multi-tasking, and there's increasing interest in
telecommunicating under Windows. These topics are simply ignored.

So are extensions of BBSing... on-line services such as
CompuServe, or the increasingly popular Internet. Many businesses
in BC are discovering that their needs can be met by an existing
service such as Mindlink, rather than going to the trouble of
creating their own dedicated system. A discussion of the pros and cons of these
approaches would have strengthened this book.

In fact, I would have expected a book titled BULLETIN BOARD
SYSTEMS FOR BUSINESS to make a stronger case on why a business
SHOULD run a BBS... while some reasons are briefly hinted at in
the opening chapters, some real-life success stories would have
strengthened their pitch. Case studies of companies who have
chosen to run a BBS, looking at both the problems and the pluses.

Despite these weaknesses, this book is a good introduction to
anyone looking to start a BBS, whether for business use, or (
despite the title) as a hobby.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan