So how far do you want to go with bulletin board systems?
At the very least, even if you never venture onto the Internet, you should occasionally check out the BBS of your hardware and software manufacturers. You'll often find bug fixes, and free software updates, with Microsoft's BBS (reached at (206) 637-9009) a veritable treasure trove of add-ons.
Eventually you'll probably collect a half-dozen or so support BBS's. Make shortcuts to the connection files and put the shortcuts in a folder. Then put the folder in the Start Menu and you've got instant access. You can't beat technology.
A good example of what you'll find on these BBS's is an upgrade to our favorite little telecommunication program, HyperTerminal, from Hilgraeve, the company that wrote the program for Windows 95.
Free for personal use, the update adds automatic redial of busy phone numbers, crash recovery for resuming interrupted file transfers, and better support for foreign characters.
HyperTerminal PE, as the update is called, also makes it easier to type commands directly to your modem, as a way to test the modem. You'll also be able to use it for the specialized type of Internet connection called telnet, which we'll cover in more detail later on in this series.
Oddly, the relevant files are buried down deep in the Hilgraeve BBS, which you can dial into at (313) 243-5915. You can also find it on the Internet at http://www.hilgraeve.com.
Once you connect to the site, establish an account and go to the file menu-select items No. 93 and 94. Item 93 is a zipped file labeled HTPE3.exe, for HyperTerminal Private Edition 3.0. Item 94 is a so-called "readme" file that explains all the new features.
Bless 'em, HTPE3.exe is a self-extracting archive that installs itself automatically and painlessly. Unless you tell it otherwise, it simply wipes out the old version of the program and replaces it with a new one. At this point, if you have antivirus software, you'll probably see an alert, which you can safely ignore. All it's detecting is the modification of an executable file, which is something that both viruses and installing programs will do when they update software. There's also a fair number of text files on the BBS that are helpful for troubleshooting - a feature that's fairly typical of manufacturer-supported BBS's.
But is tech support and upgrades all you want?
Maybe, but I'd recommend that anyone who plans to use the Internet regularly take a few weeks, at least, prowling through the local bulletin board scene. All it costs is your time, and you'll learn a great deal about how to use your modem, your software and how to get around strange places electronically.
When you do this, one of the first things you should learn is how to find more of them. The ideal bulletin board is a local call away, with a crowd you like and lots of cool shareware for downloading.
In fact, there are all kinds of local BBS's, ranging from free one- and two-line systems run by precocious teen-agers to big commercial operations that charge a fee. Increasingly, BBS's are tied into the Internet for e-mail, and maybe even full Internet access.
The smaller boards tend to have their own personalities, with some emphasizing shareware, some gaming, some conferences, where you can read what other people have to say on a topic, then respond with your own views, or simply chat.
Local BBS's are wonderful. True, they're more cumbersome and far less information-rich than the Internet. But they're often free, and more often than not they represent a local community of one form or another. You aren't going to make any friends on the commercial sites we've been examining, but the odds are pretty good you will find new friends and keep 'em on some of the local bulletin boards.
Additionally, local BBS's tend to compile lists of other local BBS's, which can start you on a journey that may take months to complete - if you ever do.
But, my oh my, where to start?
Fortunately, there are a number of national BBS surveys that collect and organize BBS phone numbers. BBS operators fill out a form and send it in, and people who run the survey add the information to their database. There's other useful info in these surveys, too: You'll get some idea of how big the setup is by looking at the number of phone lines, for instance, and the name may hint at its content (an "adult" BBS is probably going to be named a little differently than something for the technically inclined). Keep in mind, though, that BBS's - for the most part run by hobbyists - come and go like swallows, and the list you work from today will probably be obsolete in a few months.
We'll leave BBS's with a warning: With the hundreds of megabytes of shareware available on the typical BBS, it is tempting to snag a dozen programs at a time and install them all at once.
Any time you add a new program - even the shrink-wrapped kind you buy at stores - there's a chance that you'll somehow make the computer unstable. I know, it's not supposed to work that way, but often enough it just plain does, and the more stuff you install, the more you tempt fate.
If you use your PC for anything important, like your checking account, I'd suggest you refrain from installing more than one or two pieces of shareware a week. Test the new program with your old ones. If something goes haywire, it should be fairly easy to isolate the offending software.
Next week, in the interest of getting you out of the office a little more for the balance of the summer, we're going to look at some business communications option, including remote-control programs.
Acer America: (408) 428-0140
Apple: (408) 996-0275
AST: (817) 230-6850
Compaq: (281) 518-1418
Gateway 2000: (605) 232-2023
IBM: (919) 517-0001
Borland International: (408) 431-5096
Broderbund: (415) 883-5889
Claris: (408) 987-7421
Lotus: (617) 693-7001
Microsoft: (206) 637-9009
Symantec: (541) 484-6699