When BBS SysOps ruled the Earth

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The BBS SysOp rides again!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Wait, back up.

Before the dark times, before the Empire...

No, that's not it either.

There was a time, not so long ago, when average folks couldn't get internet access. they were forced to struggle with slow dialup connections and call bulletin board systems--BBSes--to interact with other people online.

We had email, we had message forums, and downloadable file libraries. Heck, we even had multi-line chat boards where up to 64 people could dial in at the same time to talk with each other in text chat.

For the people that couldn't afford a subscription to services like CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, or even the early progenitor of America Online, there were dialup BBSes. Those subscription services were widely available, but ridiculously expensive.

Getting access to a BBS in those days was fairly simple. You bought a modem for your computer, plugged the phone line into it, and used the terminal software that came with your modem to connect to a BBS of your choice. Numbers for BBSes were available in all of the popular computer-related magazines.

Most BBSes were free, although some provided premium services that might require payment. Once you connected, you could log on as a new user, provide some basic information about yourself, and start using the BBS right away.

BBSes even had their own store-and-forward network much like the internet back then, called Fidonet. All functions were handled by computers using front-end mailer applications which would collect and forward echomail message groups and private email and move them around the globe, all over dialup modem connections. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article on Fidonet to learn more.

BBS system operators--or SysOps--were an inventive lot. Most of us used tools that didn't always function properly, or had trouble interoperating with other necessary applications. It was a delicate balance to get a BBS running smoothly from a combination of disparate parts. I will not bother going into the details of what applications were available, as most of them no longer exist.

My day job as a field service technician allowed me to run a free BBS with two dialup lines. My system was an IBM PS/2 55SX (386SX) with 8MB of RAM and a 200MB SCSI drive. Not top of the line, to be sure, but beefy enough to multitask a BBS under DesqView and later OS/2.

In 1991, I was running Shadowdale BBS, which had already been online for three years. The BBS software I used was Telegard, originally based on the code from WWIV. I had come across Telegard completely by accident when I decided to start running my own BBS, and eventually became involved in supporting it officially. By 1991, I was alpha site #2, second only to the site run by the software developer himself, Martin Pollard.

Unfortunately, SysOps tended to be a fractious lot, and there was a lot of struggle and in-fighting within the organization of support sites and the BBSes we provided support for. By the end of 1991, Martin and I had had enough, and resigned. Telegard continued to be developed and supported by Tim Strike after Martin and I left, until 1999.

While I was busy with Telegard, I was also heavily involved in my local Fidonet network--Net 278, New York City. I ran the Net Echomail hub, handling the transfer of all message forums (analagous to Usenet newsgroups) into and out of our net, while my friend Howie Ducat ran the net hub, which handled administration and email.

At its peak, Fidonet handled over 30,000 nodes, or BBSes. If each of those BBSes had only 50 users, that would still be over 1.5 million users. A tiny spectrum compared to the internet today, but when the internet became commercially available, it was just as small.

When internet access had "arrived" by 1994, the writing was already on the wall. Fidonet still exists in a very diminished capacity, and personally I wonder why it even bothers since everything about it is archaic and redundant. I'm sure the remnants that remain would beg to differ.

BBSes provided very close-knit communities. After all, unless you were calling one of the big services that had local dialup presence in every city, calling long distance to a BBS could become very expensive. So most BBS systems had users that were local to each other. If you were fortunate, you were a regular on a BBS that also had in-person gatherings. I have fond memories of this period in my life, and made many friends through the BBS world. I'm still in touch with a number of them to this day.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special


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