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Future? – Telecomputing Today 1983

Reproduced April 18, 2002 with  permission from Tom Halfhill
Tom R Halfhill, Features  Editor Compute! Sept 1983  now running http://www.halfhill.com/
To see the original source document go to the C= Gallery tab,  Magazine Articles, Compute! Sept 1983
If you want to use any images or text from this site you must  get written approval first.  Click HERE to send an email request explaining your intended usage.

telecomputing3_accustic coupler modem sept 1983Many 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  whole.

telecomputing3_vic-modem_sept 1983Will 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.

Atelecomputing2_sidebar_sept83 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-telecomputing 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  concepts.

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  other.

telecomputing3_sidebar_sept 1983However, 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  other computer.

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  computer.

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  audio  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  direct-connect.

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  photo).

telecomputing4_sidebar_sept 1983Direct-connect modems are  often preferred to acoustic modems because they are less vulnerable to noise  interference.

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  issue).

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  modems.

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  differences.

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  anywhere.

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  program.

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.

What else can you do with a  modem?

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  computer.

telecomputing5_sidebar_sept 1983Some 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  this issue.

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  fee.

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.

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