Apple cart. (column) Stephen Arrants.
For the past two week, I've been spending almost all my time trying to set up a communications link with our New York office. Currently, we send material to be typeset from Morris Plains to New York by courier. When you work with the tight deadlines we have, getting something typeset even a few hours earlier can help. Well, the lines are up, and we are plugged into the computer in New York. After endless tests of the modem, terminal software, and telephone lines, everything seems to work. Which brings me to the topic of this month's column. Telecommunications A Foreword into the Past
Around the same time Babbage introduced his Analytical Engine in 1822, Andre Ampere experimented with various concepts over electrical wires. Samuel Morse took Ampere's idea and his friend Alfred Vail of Morris Plains, NJ, developed the telegraph and the system for transmitting letters and numbers that later became known as Morse code. This was the first step in communication using electrical signals over a distance.
From that milestone to the development of computers, sending information over wires became routine. Different standards evolved over the years, with the RS-232C becoming the standard for microcomputer communication.
As we all know, the Apple is a very open system. That is, almost any peripheral device can be added by simple attachment to the Apple slots. Adding telecommunications capabilities to an Apple is not difficult. There are three things you must consider: hardware, software, and what you want to access. The answers to these questions may seem complicated, but it is really quite simple. Let's take a look at the options available to you. Hardware
You really need concern yourself with only two pieces of hardware. You need a peripheral card to communicate with the outside world and a way to get signals to and from your Apple. Almost any RS-232C serial card will work in telecommunication applications. This card allows data to be transmitted to and from your computer in a standard fashion. Connected to that card is a modem, or modulator/demodulator.
A modem takes the electrical impulses from your computer, converts them into sound, and sends them over a telephone line. It also takes the sounds coming from another computer and converts them into electrical impulses that your Apple can understand.
Modems are either direct connect or acoustic. A direct connect modem offers more reliability and versatility because there is nothing between it and the phone line. It can also answer the phone automatically, if another computer is calling you, or automatically dial another computer. Direct connect modems plug into your telephone, usually in the back, where the phone connects to the line. If you wish both the phone and the modem connected, buy a telephone jack doubler, a device that first right into the receptacle behind a desk phone and give you two receptacles--one for the phone line and another for the modem connection. With the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the past few years, permission from Ma Bell is not needed.
One thing to consider when purchasing a modem is speed. Most electronic bulletin boards, on-line information services, and other computers communicate at 300 baud. Baud is a unit of transmission, sometimes defined as bits-per-minute. The term takes its name from Baudot, an early pioneer in telegraphic communications. Three hundred baud will serve almost everyone's needs. Twelve hundred baud is growing more popular, but not every local bulletin board offers this speed. Since many commercial information services impose high surcharges when 1200 baud is in operation, you end up paying about the same amount whether you stay connected for 30 minutes at 300 baud or 10 minutes at 1200 baud.
Consdier the "cleanliness" of your telephone line. Errors tend to become more serious at higher rates of transmission. But if 1200 baud is what you want, make sure it is Bell 212 compatible. It should say this on the packaging or advertising. Do not get a Bell 202 compatible modem; this protocol isn't used frequently and can cause trouble when your call is routed through a satellite.
You can buy a modem separately or as part of a software package.
Data in the form of characters are encoded into bits. Length can be either 5, 6, 7, or 8 bits, because of the various standards that have arisen over the years. Each bit is transmitted as a pulse across the phone lines, each pulse having a defined duration. At the receiving end, the other computer must be synchronized to the pulses sent. It must know when a bit starts, how long it is, and when a character starts and stops.
Microcomputers use asynchronous operation. That is, characters can be thrown onto the transmission line in almost any fashion; timing is not important. But transmission must be at a fixed rate and must be framed with start bits and stop bits. These bits delimit a character, providing a check on what is sent.
Also involved in this error checking is parity. When data are transmitted, errors can occur if the line is "dirty." This can cause an extra bit to be included in a character, causing a parity error. To guard against such problems, a parity bit may be appended to the word sent, making the total number of binary ones in the word odd or even, depending upon the type of parity chosen. An extra or missing binary one will tell the computer that an error has occured. Depending on your software, the computer may ask for that specific word or character to be resent or flaf it for later examination. Parity may be odd, even, or absent. Software
What you want to do will have bearing on what type of software you should consider. If you just want to transmit what you type rather than capture or send files, "dumb" terminal software is what you need. This bare-bones software is cheap and easy to use, but severely limited in scope. You can't download files, capture data for printing out hard copy, or do much else. Smart terminal software isn't much more expensive, and the added features are welcome. What features should you expect?
All smart terminal software should allow the transmission and capture of disk files. For example, suppose you see a terrific new utility in the download section of a bulletin board. Transferring it to your Apple disk drive is certainly much easier than copying the program by hand and then typing it into the Apple.
Let's say that you want to place a public message on many boards. Why spend time typing it over for each board? Why not save it as a text file and transmit it with one keystroke?
Having the ability to interrupt the data capture at any time can prevent host prompts and commands from being saved to disk. Suppose that the program you are capturing has special control codes or commands that might make a mess on your computer? The ability to flag for later editing or change them to harmless or more meaningful characters is a feature you should look for.
Pay attention to the file transfer protocols that are offered. You must have identical software for transfer to work. What a protocol does is use an accepted way of functioning. It uses a specific length of data for each transmission block sent or received. If a block sent does not match an agreed upon figure, a protocol error results. The receiver then tells the originating computer to send the block again. Many protocols exist. The closest thing to a standard is called the Christensen protocol, also known as Modem, XModem, or CP/M standard. It is the most widely used protocol among microcomputer systems, though others are used.
Other useful features include access to DOS commands. This is useful if you can't remember the exact file you plan to send, or if you need to delete some files to make room on a disk for a long file. Software that allows storage of macro commands is useful, especially when you use a complicated log-on series. A phone directory that can automatically look up and dial is almost a necessity if you use many services.
Some software allows communication only at 300 baud or less. If you are serious about telecommunications, get a software package that allows you to select baud rate. Sooner or later you may get a modem with 1200 baud capability. Don't let your software lock you in. Starting Small
Now that you have the hardware and software, what can you do with it? For a start, call up a local bulletin board. These are usually privately run and free, and the interests of their users are almost limitless. There are boards of fantasy game players, photographers, science fiction fans, hardware/software purchase or trade, and on mamy other topics. Most Board are free form, however. They can include many different interests and philosophies, with few restrictions.
Operators are called Sysops, and they may be available on-line to answer questions you may have or just talk. Often, the board operates on the Sysop's own Apple. Therefore, don't expect it to be up 24 hours a day. After all--there are other things to do with an Apple.
When you dial up a bulletin board, a signal is sent from the host computer to your Apple. After this carrier is received, your modem sends our a signal telling the host that a connection is established. From that point on, you are connected with another computer. Instructions are displayed on your monitor. They may or may not ask for your name, address, phone number and type of computer. A password can be issued that allows for faster log-on and access to restricted parts of the board, such as a download section. Don't give a phony name or phone number. If you want to use a "handle," tell the Sysop in a private message and usually he will oblige.
Get involved in the board. If someone asks a hardware or software question, and you think you know the answer, answer it! A board needs active discussion to survive. Unfortunately, it is rare to have more than one user on at a time. Any discussion that takes place will resemble using the mails.
Quite often, uploading and downloading are available. You can upload to the host and download to your Apple. If you are on a general board--one that isn't exclusively Apple-oriented--there may be programs for the IBM PC, TRS-80, Color Computer, and many other computers. You can download these files if you want, course, you could save them a text files and translate them into Applesoft if you wish.
A few words about these free programs. First, don't expect to find a copy of VisiCalc, or Lode Runner. That would be a copyright violation and Sysops are fanatical about keeping their systems clean. Second, you get what you pay for. The programs are frequently undocumented; the descriptions may not match performance; and many may not work at all. Still, I have found a few programs that were worth the time and effort. Rarely, you find a program that is so well-written and documented that you would have paid for it.
For every one two programs you downloaded, upload one. The program you contribute doesn't have to be the most amazing piece of code ever written. Maybe you have a better way to draw a shape or a new twist on formatting a screen display. If it is a bad program, the marketplace will let you know. Here, though, it is the effort that counts.
Where to start? I have included a list of some BBSs across the country.
For a more comprehensive list, dial up Novation at (213) 881-6880. Though the list they provide isn't complete, it includes hundreds of different boards. Some BBSs spring up and die very quickly. Don't be discouraged. Moving Up
If you get tired of the small boards, and you can affored them, there are several large timesharing systems available. The Source, Compuserve, Dow Jones, and Delphi are just a few of the systems available. After using small boards, using one of the large systems makes you feel like a kid in a candy store. There is so much available that you may find it tough to decide where to start.
Don't take too long, though. These systems charge by the hour and hit you with a surcharge if you run at 1200 baud. Rates may be as low as $5 per hour after 6 p.m. local time, rising to about $30 per hour during business hours.
What is available? Well, you can do almost anything: read news right off a wire service (AP, Reuters) or talk with different users in a chart mode or Citizen Band radio simulation. Out of work or thinking about changing career? Add your resume to a special database or look at the want ads. You can send mail to a friend's account on the system, learn how to program, do some programming, or buy something over the computer.
Games are available on-line. What makes these games exciting is that more than one person can play at a time. You not only play against the computer, but against the other players. Hollywood gossip, a personal advice service, horoscopes, and other forms of entertainment are available.
Perhaps the most useful features are the Sigs or Special interest Groups. These are bulletin boards and discussion sections revolving around one interest. There are Sigs for feminists, automobile collectors, science fiction fans, and an almost limitless number of other interests. These Sigs are not run by the timesharing system, but by the people in the Sigs.
Well, I think that that is enough information to give you a start. Let me know if you discover an unusual BBS. From time to time we will publish telephone numbers of boards across the country. Letters
To Lisa Handley of West Palm Beach, FL: As a general rule, the files generated by one calc-type program may be successfully transferred to another if the data are saved in DIF format. DIF, or Data interchange Format, is the format that VisiCalc files began using. Many other calc programs, such as MagiCalc and SuperCalc, allow their files to be saved in this format. As always, ask your dealer if the particular package you are considering allows for DIF file storage.
To Donald McInerney of dearborn, MI: I use Apple Writer IIE and I haven't experienced the problems you mention. Perhaps you are losing letters because you do not strike each key completely. Is anyone else experiencing this problem? Do you strike a series of keys and find letters missing?
To James Workman of Zanesville, OH: Here is how to delete that space after underlining in Apple Writer IIe: Embed a CONTROL-H after the underline token, and punctuation marks will immediately follow the underlined text. The sequence is CONTROL-V, CONTROL-H, CONTROL-V. That's all there is to it!
To all who have written about trading up to an Apple IIe: I'm sorry, but I cannot put you in touch with a dealer offering this service. The retail market changes very quickly, and even if I knew a dealer offering trade-ups in your area, the dealing period would be over by the time my reply reached you. Future Cart
Next month, a report on the September survey. I'll print your answers, questions, comments, and complains (none so far!). Keep those surveys coming in. I read each one and take your suggestions seriously.
This morning, I saw a demonstration of Supersprite, a peripheral card that allows the creation and use of sprite graphics on the Apple. I couldn't believe what this card did. It is one of the most innovative and exciting Apple peripheral cards to come along in years. I'll have a review next month. Also reviewed will be Key-Wiz, a special keyboard that can be configured for your own needs.