back to article What did turbonerds do before the internet? 41 years ago, a load of BBS

While large chunks of the US used this year's Snowmageddon to binge on streaming TV or tweet selfies with snowmen, take a moment to remember the Great Blizzard of 1978, which led to the first Bulletin Board Service (BBS) taking to the phone lines 41 years ago. Those brought up with the seemingly endless amount of storage and …

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  1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Not dead yet

    BBSs aren't dead. Their spiritual descendents are forums : owner-moderated, often with a personal agenda, often for self-promotion. Although I can see their good points for certain uses, I'm unable to understand why email groups are pushed into forums because 'they're more modern'. They're not, they're just BBSs with a pretty web face and all the disadvantages - polled for updates, unintegrated with push delivery systems (that have been modern since the 80s), a home for cute features and draconic rule.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Not dead yet

      Indeed, my neighbour still runs one. ISDN was one of the drivers for BBS in Germany because it made having multiple lines easier and had "vastly" superior data rates. OS/2, and to a lesser extent AmigaOS, also made it easier to run BBS because of the flexibility of ports.

    2. GlenP Silver badge

      Re: Not dead yet

      I agree re. Forums vs. Email, a virtual* boat club I'm a member of decided that forums and Facebook were the way to go instead of the email list that's been running fine for years.

      A year or so on and the email list is alive and kicking, the forum is dead and the Facebook group might as well be.

      *Virtual since we have no premises and meetings are mainly online.

      1. MrBanana Silver badge

        Re: Not dead yet

        Email list based groups are fine for a small level of traffic. Once the number of emails per day gets above a certain limit then you have to invest time in curating the input, via email rules, switching to daily digests, or other mechanisms to control your inbox. It's much easier to deal with the data deluge using a forum based system that has a topic subscription mechanism and other ways to manage notifications. It may be OK when it's you, Nigel and those two other blokes from down the pub, but pinned topics, FAQs, shared documents, hosted videos, etc are all reasons why email list groups don't scale well, and forums do.

        1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

          Re: Not dead yet

          You can do topic subscription on mailing lists. But generally, you just create new MLs when required. Google Groups does a reasonable job of serving both kinds (e-mail and forum) of users.

          Article-based forums à la Reg are fine, I suppose because they're so ephemeral. I haven't looked at any posts elswhere on the forum because it's too much bother.

    3. billdehaan

      Re: Not dead yet

      I'm unable to understand why email groups are pushed into forums

      They're pushed into forums because for nontechnical people, "the web" and "the internet" are interchangeable terms.

      Hell, for most tech support, they are interchangeable terms. I still remember trying to get support for Rogers' (major Canadian telco) usenet server back in the early 2000's, only to find that before I could get past the level one support, I had to explain to the level one support tech what usenet was. Even the knowledgeable ones said things like "oh, I know that, it's like a web board, right?".

      There are wonderful protocols like RSS and NNTP that solve certain types of problems quickly, efficiently, and elegantly. And for the technically inclined (most Register readers would reach the bar), they are obvious. But for the mundanes, the average user on the street, if it's not on the web, or there isn't a simple IOS/Android app for it, they've already lost interest before you can explain the benefits of it.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Not dead yet

        >because for nontechnical people, "the web" and "the internet" are interchangeable terms.

        Like the author of the article's byline; It wasn't TCP/IP that killed off the BBS but the later rise of HTML and the ability to people to host their own forum, effectively distributing the centralised BBS.

        Interestingly, from an information organisation and access viewpoint, many of the HTML/web replacements for BBS's are still vastly inferior to the 1980's dial-up systems - I mean it is 2019 and El Reg have only introduced (simple) conversation threading in its forums.

        1. DCFusor

          Re: Not dead yet

          @roland - I was there myself, and everyone here seems to be forgetting that bandwidth was increasing almost as quickly as you could get to the store to buy a new shiny modem. And that ability to host your own site became a lot cheaper with the earliest version of "the cloud", compared to the poor BBS operator who needed all those phone lines - and modems, and on prem hardware.

          Less problems for the big boys (AOL and pals here in the US). *That* version of cloud worked due to the prevailing economic, bandwidth, and hardware conditions.

          These days, with hardware dirt cheap and your "modem" coming with your phone service anyway....not as sure the cloud is as great an idea (Office 3xx anyone?) as when it made TCP/IP worth doing - remember it "wastes" lots of bits compared to just sending them with little to no reliable error detection/correction/resending.

          Hence the development of some up and download programs/protocols (kermit and friends) that accomplished those things themselves, or at least made the attempt. TCP/IP won because it was mostly better, and universal.

      2. Mr Benny

        Re: Not dead yet

        "There are wonderful protocols like RSS and NNTP that solve certain types of problems quickly, efficiently, and elegantly. And for the technically inclined (most Register readers would reach the bar), they are obvious"

        Unfortunately its not obvious to a lot of the current generation of developers who seem to think any network related progamming requirement should be solved using HTTP because the only thing they understand is some high level web library and if you ask them what a socket is they'll say its something you put a plug in and as for the OpenSSL library, forget it, you might as well be talking ancient greek.

        Also the concept of lean and mean to keep down network latency and improve throughput is alien to them and they just don't get the fact that HTTP(S) is hideously inefficient for transmitting small data packets. My previous job was a constant uphill battle with these clowns and their MBA cheerleaders. In the end I was overruled and now they're running half a dozen AWS EC2 instances just to match the throughput of a single rackspace server. Aside from the ignorance, fuckwittedness and general refusal to learn anything seen as "old school" (even though old school still powers the basis of the internet) inherent in dev these days you have to wonder at the enviromental cost of all that extra power required for their ineffecient designs too.

      3. Peter2 Silver badge

        Re: Not dead yet

        before I could get past the level one support, I had to explain to the level one support tech what usenet was. Even the knowledgeable ones said things like "oh, I know that, it's like a web board, right?

        In the UK, 1st line on a helldesk used to be £12-£15k in government, with the 15k reached after several years of service. IIRC the ITIL recruitment chapter explicitly says don't bother trying to hire anybody competent because they won't work for the minimum wage, and they'd leave quickly if they are competent.

        So if you got somebody who'd heard of usenet in an ITIL enviroment then the recruiter slipped up.

        All first line is there to do is eliminate the most stupid of the calls coming in, or the ones that don't actually work for your company. Managing a servicedesk I was surprised that a good half of the calls were dealt with at the first line, either because the device wasn't turned on, the caller didn't work for the company etc and other easily thinned out calls with maybe a minute worth of troubleshooting. (5 minute call length in total; getting the user to give you their name and the asset number of the equipment can easily take 3-4 minutes if you are conversing with some users)

      4. Alistair
        Windows

        Re: Not dead yet

        @BillDeHaan:

        Ahhhh -- I remember the UseNet racks. And no, RSS didn't manage that. Rogers had an agreement with Ryerson, allowing their platforms and connections, providing power and connectivity, allowing Rogers Cx's access. It was a roaring mess of cabling, but it worked.

  2. }{amis}{
    Thumb Up

    The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

    As things like Reddit just feel to me like BBS reheated for the internet age.

    1. billdehaan

      Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

      Despite being an old fart, I didn't get onto Reddit until about a year ago, when a search for a technical question linked to a Reddit posting that I wanted to follow up on.

      Looking into it a bit deeper, I found that the structure of Reddit follows that of the Usenet more closely than BBSes. It's got a similar hierarchy, similar moderator structure, and similar layout. Also the same problems that historically plagued usenet are still around on Reddit today.

      I found it amusing, since usenet today doesn't really resemble the usenet of 1990 any more, being more of a repository of binaries than discussion groups now. Reddit lets people link to content, and post images/videos as thread starters, but it's more discussion based than usenet is now.

      1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

        Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

        Also the same problems that historically plagued usenet are still around on Reddit today.

        You mean AOL users are allowed on Reddit? That's when Usenet really started going downhill.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

          ... surely Usenet had already started going downhill when they let Compuserve users in!

          1. whitepines

            Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

            Even more basic. Just regular users would do it in...

        2. billdehaan

          Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

          That was September. That was the month the schools got the freshmen in, and thousands no newbies, with no concept of what's now called netiquette, were dumped onto usenet at once.

          AOL was originally known as "eternal September", because it dumped hundreds of thousands of those users, all at once, onto the system.

    2. Chung Leong

      Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

      How likely are you to meet people who hang out at a subreddit? Members of a BBS typically all lived in the same area code. It was quite normal to have get-togethers. Home visits happen frequently too, as back then BBSes were forums to buy and sell computer parts. The fact that people know each other at a personal level makes the atmosphere very different.

      1. Graham Butler

        Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

        >How likely are you to meet people who hang out at a subreddit?

        Pretty likely if you're on your city's sub. I've met quite a few folks from /r/Edinburgh (where I live) and /r/Boston (where I was seconded for a couple of years)

        1. billdehaan

          Re: The concept is not reall dead if you ask me

          Likewise. In fact, oddly enough, despite my frequenting /r/Toronto and /r/Mississauga, I actually ended up meeting with someone from /r/Pebble to buy a used smartwatch last week.

          Of course, with BBSes, if they were linked (FidoNet, PCBoard, Opus, RIME, or other), you were just as likely to be talking with someone from the other side of the planet as the other side of the street, too.

  3. sgrier23

    BBS's - those were the days

    Greetings.

    BBS, my first florey into the world of connecting a computer to another via the telephone system. I had an Amiga 500 with a super-fast 14.4KB modem - all my mates had a 9.6KB. I could rocket a 1MByte file in just under 5 minutes. those were the days.

    My BBS was called Guru-10, and I had lots of fun connecting and getting files. My mum was always annoyed that the telephone line was in use, so my parents thought about getting a second line fitted - just for me. But, I would have to pay the bill. I thought no, I can't afford that. me, being a student at the time with no money - except my grant.

    With the BBS came FidoNET - the first email system generally available to Joe-Public. Absolutely brilliant, being able to send messages to people and getting replies back. The only issue was that to get the reply back in real time you needed to be connected.

    So, what I needed was a Dialler / Offline Reader system - TRAPDOOR and APRIL were the tools I used. I created a system called AmiPoint v2.1 which automated the installation of these systems on people's Amiga. CU Amiga did a review and said "Amiga Point v2.1 Comms for the masses - exactly as it should be."

    Those were the days, sometimes I wish it was all still like this - especially after receiving 1500 pieces of email junk in a day. time to SELECT-ALL and then DELETE. If its important, they'll email me back.

    1. Richy Freeway

      Hairnett BBS

      I still remember my Fidonet address!

      2:251/56.10

      Haven't tried dialing in to Hairnett BBS to check my main in a LONG time! It's just dawned on me that I still know the phone number too!!!

      1. Laura Kerr

        Re: Hairnett BBS

        So do I!

        2:250/368

        I still have it all archived away; in fact I dug it out a few years ago. Ah, the joys of the phone ringing in the wee hours as the midnight line delivered the mail, and awaiting the next Night Owl CD in the post.

    2. Down not across Silver badge

      Re: BBS's - those were the days

      I used to run (or help run) few TBBS systems back in the 80s on Kaypros (2, 10). Later on I ran the MS-DOS version as well for a company for their support.

      I did also run Waffle on UNIX with a dial up UUCP link for mail and news. Needless to say access to email or Usenet wasn't particularly widespread in late 80s, early 90s.

      Those were the days indeed when incoming text flowed in at 300bps, so you read it more or less realtime.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oh yes..

    I remember those days, filled with scouring Byte (no, physical copy, nearly didn't fit through the post flap) for modems because the game then was that local telco charged you a fortune for "approved" modems which tended to be rubbish in comparison of what you could order from the US - after all, if you're in the business of selling minutes, you don't want people to have access to stuff that lessens the duration of a call.

    In those days I started travelling with a screwdriver and some crocodile clips, to bypass all that "we need to have a different plug than the neighbours" malarky that the electrics industry was using too - and, amazing as that sounds, that is still ongoing.

    I cannot count the number of 25pin RS232 boxes I've made with switches for straight and cross over. Thankfully I started just after the rubber cup 300 baud times, but I did have a 1200/75 modem for a bit, upgrading as new standards came out.

    As timing goes, a few days ago I actually came across a manual I wrote in 1989 which contained my then FidoNet address.

    By the way, that was also the first time I became aware of the need for personal computer multi-tasking. It didn't take long before we started using DoubleDOS to run both BinkleyTerm and BBS and have some computing power left for doing other things, but then again, this was in an era where 640k indeed still appeared to be enough (well, ~ish - when we started moving to 286 and beyond, that limit pretty much went too).

    1. PickledAardvark

      Re: Oh yes..

      You could also get fake green stickers for imported modems...

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
        Angel

        Re: Oh yes..

        We ahem recycled them from one product & stuck them on another.....Whistles innocently....

  5. PickledAardvark

    I missed the beginning and almost the end

    I first tried using a BBS in 1995 using the 14.4 kb modem I'd bought to access the internet at home. There were a few hobbyist resources that hadn't moved to the internet and some were better on BBS. But that changed quickly.

    Back in the late 1980s, some work colleagues used a dialup connection to access hensa.micros, a big UK freeware/shareware software archive on JANET. Was this a direct connection or did some BBS operators have gateways?

    HENSA: Higher Education National Software Archive, I think.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: I missed the beginning and almost the end

      I remember getting a 14.4k modem and thinking 'I cant read that fast'. But that was OK as I was on AOL and they took care of that.

      1. Trilkhai

        Re: I missed the beginning and almost the end

        I remember getting a 14.4k modem and thinking 'I cant read that fast'. But that was OK as I was on AOL and they took care of that.

        I remember wanting to upgrade from 14.4 to 28.8 so badly as a teenager that I made a number of charts and graphs to prove to my parents that the up-front cost wouldn't take too terribly long to be surpassed by how much they'd save in AOL hourly fees.

    2. GruntyMcPugh

      Re: I missed the beginning and almost the end

      @PickledAardvark

      I was a HENSA user back in the day,.... but I was working at a Polytechnic, so we were part of the JANET network, so had a direct (ish) connection to HENSA. No idea if it was possible to dial in. We could log in and browse the titles interactively, then once you found something you wanted (I recall getting various Fractal Explorers, and 'Graphics Workshop' from there) , I had to request it with a UUCP file transfer. Once the file arrived, I could then ftp it down to a PC from our VAX.

    3. bartsmit

      Re: I missed the beginning and almost the end

      The big stash of software was Simtel20 out in White Sands Missile Range. The cheapest way to get files was through Trickle, a distributed file forwarding system. "Tell Trickle at Trearn /list" followed by a fetch that would get you the file in 24 hours. The internet was clunky, especially before DNS.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ahm the days of non-resume..

    I had a friend who had quite a well known BBS. Some evenings we'd amuse ourselves with clipping "spongers" (people who neglected the unwritten code of ethics that you were supposed to upload a few things as well if you wanted to download). We'd wait until the last 1% was in download and then drop the line. For that to work we'd have to switch off support for Zmodem as that would simply resume on reconnect, which would nullify our dastardy deeds :).

    The spongers soon learned to go elsewhere.

    Just in case you new kids thought being a BOFH was a new idea :).

    1. DJV Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: last 1% was in download

      You are evil and I salute you! Have one on me!

    2. Laura Kerr

      Re: Ahm the days of non-resume..

      Out of interest, which side of the pond are you on? The term that used to get bandied about in region 25 tended to be 'leeches'.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ahm the days of non-resume..

        Out of interest, which side of the pond are you on? The term that used to get bandied about in region 25 tended to be 'leeches'.

        Well, it was a (bad) translation from Dutch/Flemish, so there's your answer :). My FidoNet address was FidoNet 2:29/12.xxxx. The former sysop of that node frequents these forums so he'll know instantly who I am, and which BBS I was talking about.

        What astonishes me most is that BinkleyTerm (aka Bink) not only still exists, but is even actively maintained. I thought it was amazing that I got a support (or rather update) request two years ago for software I wrote in 1989, but it appears there's more retained from that period than I realised.

  7. jake Silver badge

    Some would say ...

    ... that the BBS thing started with Community Memory in 1973.

  8. Flywheel Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    OS/2

    When I bought a powerful enough PC (a 486DX IIR) I ran a BBS on OS/2. I went through a few popular packages but ended up with Wildcat which had a great scripting language option. Great fun, and I really miss those sweet singing tones of the modems....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: OS/2

      You liar, I bet celebrated like me when you found M0L0 especially when using it late at night.

    2. PDurrant

      Re: OS/2

      wildcat now there is a blast from the past, used in my job back in the 80's

  9. Joe Drunk
    Boffin

    V.32Bis, HST, UART, WWIV, PCBoard, Procomm Plus, Telix, Xmodem/Ymodem/Zmodem, ARC, ARJ, .DIZ.

    I was a hardcore BBS addict.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I think I was about the first licensed user of PKARC in Europe :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Or the _only_ licensed user of PKARC anywhere :)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      >I was a hardcore BBS addict.

      Sure it wasn't addicted to hardcore on BBS, waiting 15mins to download half a picture ?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        In 1990, it was surprising how, eh, "realistic" some of the ASCII art looked if you were far enough away from the monochrome monitor. ;)

        Ah, the days of GIFs and FLIs... CShow2000 and AAPlay ruled.

  10. brym

    Simpler Times Indeed

    I got online in 98, so a little late to the party lines. But I was a good student of newsgroups (alt's: hacking a phreaking mostly) where alot of the then old hats lingered to offer history and support to newbies like me. Found my way onto hyperterm, and eventually into a few stateside boards. Things like that and messing with war dialling saw my first phone bill come in north of £200. Teen me's thirst for knowledge that month almost gave my mum a heart attack when she saw the bill.

    1. Valerion

      Re: Simpler Times Indeed

      I did much the same, albeit a few years earlier. First phone bill made me a very unpopular child for a while!

      1. Graham Butler

        Re: Simpler Times Indeed

        I got hooked on a dialup MUD before vPoPs were a thing. Reading to London wasn't local....ouch

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I remember those days, I ran a couple of BBS system for customer support and used quite a few myself using Wards software on CP/M systems. There was very little fake news or other BS on any of them - it took an effort to get fired up and logged on, I never saw any automated access except to download stuff. Mostly it was techies but there were a few chatty systems around like The Well. People were mostly polite in those days, probably because Zuckerberg's younger brothers were wriggling around on the bathroom floor.

  12. davenewman

    And then there was CIX

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