Arlon R. Leviton
The Price Of Telecomputing
Folks, I've got a confession to make. This page came very close to being blank this month. I was far beyond my habitual fashionably late, two-weeks-behind-deadline mode of operation. Even Bill Wilkinson had sent in his column for this month, an event usually reserved for coinciding lunar and solar eclipses occurring on February 29. What was wrong?
I was, dear friends, becalmed in the telecomputing doldrums. Me, of all people, contemplating the light-emitting diodes of my collection of modems for hours on end, at a loss for words! What was the cause of this strange malaise? After all, I had been using three new commercial information services over the last month. And a rundown on one alone is usually fodder enough for a good column.
Both General Electric's Genie and ViewTron's ViewData are being heavily promoted as the latest and greatest information services for computer hobbyists. I'll be glad to give credit where it is due-both GE and ViewTron have created relatively smooth systems with decent user interfaces. But I find that both are lacking in originality. Both services stick to what is by now the standard formula of special interest groups (SIGs), online conferencing and magazines, public domain libraries for downloading, shopping services, and games.
Then there's BIX (BYTE Information eXchange). BIX makes no pretenses about being everything to everybody. It is first and foremost a message-based conferencing system. While BIX's scope may be limited and its ease of use leaves something to be desired, the quality of its user base is the big attraction. BIX users tend to be technophiles. If you're having trouble debugging a LISP program or want to add an RS-232-controlled Veg-A-Matic to your system, you can probably find help on BIX.
Time Is Money
So why am I grousing? I'm becoming concerned with the pricing of time on the commercial services intended for home users.
I was one of the early users of the online services and I remember what we paid for nonprime time way back when: Two and a half bucks an hour was the going rate for 300 bps speed, and if you waited until the wee tiny hours of the morning, you could even run 1200 bps for under five bills. Most early users also recall the promises of even lower rates once the user base was expanded. Instead, the hourly access charges for nonprime time use have steadily risen.
Yes, it's true that the rates for daytime access have fallen. And it's true that many more functions have been added to the various services. And, yes, the cost of staffing has risen over time. However, the cost of computing power and data storage has dramatically fallen during the same period.
In the late 1970s, Scott Adams of Adventure International was once asked how he priced his popular series of adventure games. Adams replied that he used the firstrun movie method of pricing. His basic premise was that consumers should get some hours of use from any software purchase and should pay no more for that use than the hourly cost of attending a first-run movie. That works out to about two to three bucks an hour at today's prices.
If you accept that formula, it's not hard to come to the conclusion that most of today's information services (even the "bargain" services) are expensive-especially when compared to today's hardware prices. The owner of a $130 Atari 130XE or Commodore 64 can easily fork out $40 to $80 a month for using an information service a couple of hours a week.
Drinking From The Well
One hopeful glimmer of sunshine is The Well, a project of Stewart Brand and his cadre of Whole Earth Software Catalog counterculture techno-renegades. The Well is a low-cost ($2/hour) conferencing system for the San Francisco Bay area. The system runs on a VAX minicomputer with a capacity of 40 phone ports at the offices of the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review in Sausalito. The service was codeveloped with NETI (Network Technologies, International) of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I've accessed The Well via PC Pursuit and have found it to be a conferencing system of extremely high quality. The Well's biggest problem is the relatively low number of users the system can support at one time.
Let's hope we'll see a proliferation of systems like The Well in the future. If Brand and his cohorts are willing to share the system software with other groups of like-minded enthusiasts, that may indeed come to pass. Since The Well's software is Unix-based, it can likely be ported to a Unix-capable mainframe computer 10 to 20 times the size of The Well's VAX. Such systems could support 300 to 400 users at a crack and are readily available on the used market at bargain prices.
I predict that someone out there will make it happen within the next two years. Keep your eyes and ears open and the bucket ready ... you may be dipping into a Well soon.