Personal and affordable online service
By GREGG PEARLMAN, Antic Assistant Editor
GEnie, the General Electric Network for Information Exchange, has become increasingly popular with Atari users since first going online on October 1, 1985. GEnie's first Atari RoundTable started on December 11, 1985. What CompuServe calls SIGS (Special Interest Groups such as SIG*Atari) are called RoundTables (RTs) on GEnie.
In fact, GEnie is now the official commercial onlinel carrier of Atari Corp. BBS information. Atari Corporation Online sections are active on the GEnie RTs for Atari 8-bit and ST computers. About eight Atari Corp. employees are involved in maintaining these two sections as well as an RT for Atari Developers.
GEnie also has an RT for MichTron's ST software technical support. All four of the Atari-related RTs provide bulletin boards, software libraries, news sections and Help files. An real-time online conference on some Atari topic is held on GEnie every week, with Atari Corp. employees always present.
Atari users can get a free GEnie sign-up-saving the usual $29.95 fee--by dialing (800) 638-8369 with a modem, waiting for a connection, typing HHH and pressing the [RETURN] key, then typing in XJM11887,ATARI at the U# = prompt.
Most GEnie personal users log on during evenings and weekends, when the hourly rate takes a breathtaking drop from $35 to $5--even for 1200 baud modems. (It's $10 for 2400 baud modems after business hours.) Other services online including shopping, finance, reference, leisure, games and news.
According to Atari 8-bit sysop Marty Albert, there are roughly 2,200 8-bit RoundTable members. Between 75 and 150 new weekly messages is typical, but there were about 475 new messages per week during the month we were preparing this story.
Chief Atari RT sysop Darlah Hudson counts 6,215 ST RoundTable members. She says that about 1,400 messages per week were posted in the ST RoundTable during the month we were working on this story. This doesn't even include deleted messages, which adds about 10% to the total.
(By Way of Comparison: Mike Schoenbach, sysop of the Atari 8-bit Forum on CompuServe, says that the 8-bit, ST and Developers forums total around 35,000 members, with around 1,500 to 2,000 messages per week. CompuServe hourly rates--anytime--are $6 for 300 baud and $12.50 for 1200 or 2400 baud, with a $39.95 sign-up fee. Upload time is free both CompuServe and GEnie. ANTIC ONLINE is available on CompuServe without any extra charges, just type GO ANTIC when you log on.)
"On our bulletin boards we have individual topics that are easy to find," says Darlah. "Just look at the list of topics and decide which one you'd like to explore. Lately the ST bulletin board has received more detailed messages about WordPerfect than anything else. The same was once true of Publishing Partner. It depends on what's hot."
On the 8-bit board, the SX212 modem generated the most excitement recently, but much is said about the XEP80 80-column box and the upcoming XF551 drive also. "Users are writing programs for the XEP80," says Marty, "and recently someone uploaded a driver to use it with the BASIC XE cartridge.
"In the 8-bit area we're organizing a group project for a program that probably will combine ACTION! and compiled BASIC. We're considering either a MacPaint picture viewer or a terminal program. We want to use a language like ACTION!, which lends itself to the modular approach, and by using machine language subroutines written in BASIC and compiled, we can go from module to module.
"But if I restrict it to just ACTION! or just C, I'll exclude the largest part of our users, the BASIC-only programmers. Interpreted BASIC is too slow for this kind of program, but compiling it will take care of that. Keeping everyone together will be a nightmare, but I'm willing to put in the extra work. Since the 8-bit isn't getting the commercial support that it used to, we have to generate support ourselves."
Darlah and Marty both were avid CompuServe users who tried GEnie one day--Darlah at the suggestion of a friend, and Marry upon seeing an ad in Antic. Neither was enthralled at first. There were as few as two or three new messages a day. There were other things about GEnie that Darlah wasn't sure she liked, so she stuck with CompuServe, occasionally calling GEnie and posting messages.
The 8-bit and ST groups then were all part of one RoundTable. ST users began heading in a different direction from the 8-bit people, and that's when Darlah was asked to get involved. She became a sysop in late 1986. "I wasn't sure if I'd have the time," she says, "but I finally decided I'd enjoy it, because I enjoy customer service.
"One thing I hadn't seen in other online services was personalized customer service--little things that bring users back," she says. "For instance, though uploading is free, it's time-consuming, so we write thank-you notes. And we're more personalized within the system. Users can notify us online any time by asking us to meet them in a particular room." GEnie "rooms" have simulated "doors" you can lock for privacy.
Marty had also seen things on GEnie he wasn about. So on his first visit he dropped a note to the RoundTable, then logged back onto CompuServe. "When I returned to Genie three hours later," he says, "my questions had been answered. This really impressed me." Marty went online as a sysop in December 1986. "I was rather floored when I was asked, because I wasn't actively seeking a sysop position."
"We needed someone active in the 8-bit area," says Darlah. "Marty was the right person for the job. I'm very happy with the way he creates excitement in the 8-bit area."
Marty and Darlah do their GEnie work at their homes--in St. Louis and San Diego, respectively. Usually Marty spends four or five hours a day with GEnie, but lately it's been six to eight. Darlah used to spend only about two hours a day online, but now she spends eight to 10. "It goes in cycles," she says.
And it's not as though they have nothing to do outside GEnie. Marty is a registered nurse and a Ph.D. in psychology--and he owns a tobacco and pipe store. I keep pretty busy," he says. "I'd have to call myself a workaholic."
Darlah used to have a plumbing business. "I did that and GEnie at the same time, working 20 hours a day," she says. "It was chaotic, so I gave up the plumbing business, which was round the clock. I'm also a workaholic--I need to be heavily involved in my work."
Marty says that the public domain Express! is the terminal program for 8-bit GEnie users. He uses it for about 90% of his terminal work, switching to BackTalk for software library maintenance. The most heavily used ST terminal software is a toss-up between Flash and Interlink, Darlah says. "All our ST Help files for text uploading and offline messages are built around Flash--of course, it so happens that I use Flash. But Interlink has slowly gained interest. People still want an 'everything' program, but there just isn't one yet.
WHO'S ON GENIE
Marty finds GEnie users very different from those on CompuServe, although to Darlah, it's not the users that are so different--it's the services. "Heavy CompuServe users point out things on GEnie that aren't like they're accustomed to on CompuServe," she says. "I used to feel the same way. It's hard to compare the two services because each has benefits the other lacks.
On the 8-bit bulletin board, Marty tends to be "very, very lenient," though he wants to keep it clean. "But I won't let anyone post explicit hints for adventure games. I figure that if I paid $50 for one and saw this hint--without knowing it would be there--l'd be very upset. I tell people to feel free to ask for hints, but to give hints via private messages." Darlah does the same thing in the ST area.
In both the ST and 8-bit areas, users are highly mixed. "We have topics set up where there are technical areas as well as game discussions, modem discussions, whatever," says Darlah.
"Some users know just enough about their new I30XEs to set them up, boot the terminal program and call GEnie," says Marty. "Other users are well versed in both hardware and software."
On GEnie, past messages are always available, either on the bulletin board or in an archive. They never disappear. "Periodically we go through the topics within each category and delete irrelevant messages," says Marty, "and I'm as guilty as anyone else of chit-chat. We put all the remaining messages in order and download all the messages older than, say, 60 days. Then we compress that file and upload it to the library. That way the information is still available, but we've made the bulletin board easier to use."
Darlah says that GEnie Mail is used more on GEnie than Easyplex on CompuServe because GEnie doesn't have an addressable message base. But Marty feels that one big advantage to GEnie Mail is its ability to quickly send an XMODEM file. "Several users who have written 8-bit programs that they want to market have asked me to do informal beta testing for them," he says. "Instead of uploading files to a library, where it wouldn't be 'for my eyes only,' they just send them to me via GEnie Mail."
"We have a service," says Darlah, "in which a developer can send a finished product to a place like MichTron through GEnie. Then MichTron can download it and test it. It's quicker and easier than mail."
Darlah's and Marty's Help files let users learn the system enough to feel comfortable with it. "There are files for navigating through the bulletin board, file transfer, explanation of appropriate settings, how to use mail, etc.," says Darlah. "They're very detailed. Just capture a Help file, print it, and go through it step by step.
"GEnie customer service is excellent. If they can't solve a user's problem, they contact me, and I work with that user online. One of our services is to give a public domain terminal program to users who don't have one. Service is the key."
401 N. Washington Street
Rockville, MD 20850
500 Arlington Center
Columbus, OH 43220
In Ohio: (614) 457-8600
544 Second Street
San Francisco, CA 94107