by Lawrence I. Charters, Vice President, Macintosh
The March General Meeting was all about shedding light on computer telecommunications, a killer polysyllabic word that means, according to the commercials, "reaching out and touching someone." One hundred years ago, you would do this by hopping on a horse or into a buggy, traveling to the nearest telegraph office, and paying someone to translate abbreviated English into Morse Code.
But now, in the comfort of your own home, or dorm room, or office, or garage, or your lap, you can reach out with your computer and send messages all around the globe. Sending and receiving information via computer is threatening to eclipse voice telephone calls as the primary use for the world-wide telephone system.
So for March the Pi hosted Global Village, one of the world's largest modem manufacturers. Keeping with this theme, we also demonstrated the prototype Internet edition of the Pi's own TCS (Telecommunications System), a bulletin board with a generic name and a wild past that may soon be eclipsed by an even wilder future.
Instead of Morse, however, we really needed help from Edison: the projector loaned to us for the meeting did not have a projection lamp. Pi member Jonathan Hardis volunteered to make a run to a photography store to get a replacement, and did not return until the meeting was all but over, which proved most unfortunate. (We'll explain why later.) We borrowed a projector lamp from an overhead projector, though the 250 watt lamp was a dim cousin to the 410 watt lamp normally used in the projector.
Meanwhile, back at the Pi office, construction workers decided that Saturday was the perfect time to work on overhauling the electrical system, which meant no power at the office. This also meant no power to the Pi bulletin board system, making it difficult to demonstrate by calling in from Northern Virginia Community College. And that meant Jon Thomason, the Pi's Telecommunications Systems Officer (E-mail: email@example.com), worked all night preparing a huge mass of equipment for transport to the General Meeting, then set it up, and then demonstrated it to a large audience.
All on his birthday.
Just the Fax
Founded in 1989, Global Village is a young company but, according to Kim Laczynski (407-995-0907, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), not a small one: they are shipping over 150,000 modems a month. These range from tiny modems designed to fit in PowerBooks to external modems for desktop computers to their unique One World network communications hubs.
Two elements distinguish Global Village modems: 1) they are inexpensive, and 2) they include the best fax software available. Apple selected Global Village modems for many of their Performa bundles, and the Mercury 500 is the only modem ever made for PowerBook 500 computers. Most customers probably purchased the modems for data transfer, but the fax software is so good, and so easy to use, that virtually everyone who has a Global Village modem has become addicted to sending faxes.
How easy to use? At any point, running any program that has a Print function in the File menu, holding down the Option key before selecting Print turns it into a Fax function. You can fax directly from Word, FileMaker, WordPerfect, a drawing package, or even fax your desktop, icons
and all. This last capability, incidentally, has a practical side: users at remote sites can fax you a "picture" of how their computer is set up, aiding in troubleshooting.
Kim illustrated her presentation with a slide show running directly from her PowerBook. At one point the audience got to see her log of faxes sent and received, and it was immediately clear she is a believer in her company's products: it was a lengthy, and quite varied, chronicle of faxes sent everywhere. A few weeks earlier she requested a map showing how to get to the General Meeting, and had it faxed directly to her PowerBook sitting on her bed. Telecommunications, and bedrooms, will never be the same.
Accompanying Kim was Wyn Davies, a systems engineer (408-523-2203, Email: email@example.com),
who demonstrated a One World combo communications hub. This small device,
about the size of a three-ring notebook, has Ethernet and LocalTalk ports, for connecting to any Mac network, and can do all of the following: send faxes directly from the desktop of any Mac on the network; serve as a dial-out modem for any Mac on the network; and serve as an Apple Remote Access server allowing Macs at remote locations to call in and attach themselves to the network, and take advantage of all network services.
Global Village sells other One World devices that do different combinations of these tasks (a fax-only server, a networked modem server, with and without Ethernet, etc.), but Wyn's demo of the combo device looked much more attractive than the alternatives. A management package, which runs on a Mac on the network, allows you to keep track of faxes sent, restrict usage to certain people, or even reprogram the ports (the units hold either one or two modems) for specific purposes.
Not shown, but also of interest is the new One World Internet server, an all-in-one package that gives small companies and organizations direct access to the Internet via a networked hub. Though somewhat expensive (the $1,999 hub also requires you to purchase connection time through Global Village at $3.95 per hour or $250 per month, plus a per-user fee), the unit received a rave review in MacWeek (March 27, 1995, pp. 29, 32-33) due to its exceptional ease of use and installation.
Into the Unknown
Closing the meeting was a brief live demonstration of the Internet plus a more lengthy demonstration of the Pi's TCS Explorer Service. Located elsewhere are details of how to sign up for Explorer Service; for this report we'll concentrate more on the technical details, beginning with some background.
The original plan was to call in to the Pi's bulletin board directly from the stage at the General Meeting, and briefly review a few of the features people should be using (downloading messages, global reading of new messages, global reading of new files, batch downloads) but often aren't. Because of the power outage caused by construction work at the Pi office, this wasn't possible.
Or was it? Jonathan Hardis, a member of the TCS crew (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), recently purchased a portable RJ-11 phone jack for use with his cellular telephone. By plugging a modem into the portable jack, you can make a modem connection over the cellular network. This sounded like a neat trick so, in addition to everything else, an Apple IIGS and accompanying modem were hauled to the meeting to act as a modem server. The new, revised plan called for dialing out from a desktop machine on the stage over a regular phone line, and then having the cellular telephone, attached to a modem and the Apple IIGS sitting on the stage, answer the call and connect to the TCS server, also sitting on the stage. Delightfully bizarre.
The revised plan fell through, unfortunately, when Jonathan was sent on a wild lamp chase, searching a large portion of Northern Virginia early on a Saturday morning for a 410 watt projector bulb. Lacking his expertise,
portable phone jack, and cellular telephone, we skipped what promised to
be a unique demonstration.
Interesting hardware was not in short supply, however. In addition to Jon Thomason's Power Mac 6100, there was the Pi's Quadra 700, which acts as a Internet gateway and provides Domain Name Service through Tenon System's MachTen, a version of UNIX that runs on top of MacOS. And there was also the Macintosh IIfx AppleShare 3.0 server that is the heart of the TCS, linked via Ethernet to the Quadra and 6100.
Assisting Jon in setting all this up was the TCS Apple II guru, Dale Smith (Email: email@example.com). The two of them set up this impressive collection of Pi owned and privately owned computer equipment, covering two long tables and spilling out onto the stage, in about 30 minutes. We should have videotaped the setup as it was, to me, probably just as interesting as the demonstration.
Skipping over the TCS demonstration, we launched into a brief demonstration of the Internet. As the Quadra 700 was already "on" the Internet via a modem link, and Jon's Power Mac was linked to the Quadra via Ethernet, he went net surfing directly from the comfort of his own computer, without a modem.
The first stop was a government-owned UNIX computer with environmental
data. Jon connected the old fashioned way, with NCSA Telnet (a free terminal package), and used some standard, hopelessly obscure UNIX commands to display some highly cryptic data. He then quickly entered the 21st century by launching Netscape, a graphical World Wide Web browser, and connected to the same UNIX machine. This second connection required no obscure typed commands and no cryptic displays of data. Instead, everything was displayed in neatly formatted text illustrated with color pictures
Netscape (from Netscape Communications), MacWeb (from MCC
EINet), and Enhanced Mosaic (from Spyglass) are three commercial Web browsers that, along with the public-domain NCSA Mosaic, have revolutionized the Internet. Instead of forcing every user to be a UNIX guru and learn the dark secrets of telnet, FTP, gopher, and a host of other sinister incantations, Mac users can now go "net surfing" using their mouse to click on links to computers, pictures, files, sounds, and anything else placed on the World Wide Web.
Something Old, Something New
Before explaining the link between the World Wide Web and the TCS, it might help to offer some background. At present, the TCS consists of 14 Apple II computers that answer modems and serve as links to the Macintosh IIfx file server that stores all messages and files. When you call the TCS, an Apple II computer and modem devote themselves to your call and handle all your needs, using custom software written by Jon Thomason in AppleSoft BASIC and 6502 machine language.
When you want to send an electronic mail message to someone outside Washington Apple Pi, the TCS hands over the message to an Apple IIGS computer running ProLine, a commercial UNIX-like bulletin board package written by Morgan Davis of San Diego, CA. The Apple IIGS periodically calls a UNIX computer at the Pi's Internet provider, and sends off your message and picks up any new messages that may have arrived.
On the good side, this system does work, most of the time. On the bad side, it fails if everything doesn't work just right, and was never designed to handle the volume of message traffic that the Pi generates. The UNIX computer at the Pi's Internet provider frequently locks files, preventing them from being transferred to the TCS. When this happens, messages "bounce" back to the sender, frequently with an error message claiming the Pi's electronic mail system doesn't exist. The telephone connection is also prone to disruption for a number of reasons, the chief one being that neither the phone line nor the software were designed for "robust" Internet access. Fixing these problems requires an inordinate amount of effort on the part of both the TCS volunteers and the Internet provider.
The proposed TCS Explorer Service would retire the Apple IIGS as a mail server, replacing it with a Mac-based mail server running software in an Internetstandard fashion. The modem link to the Internet provider would also be retired in favor of an ISDN link (a special high-speed dedicated digital phone line), and a new gizmo would be added: a remote access server. While regular TCS bulletin board calls would continue to be answered by Apple IIGS computers, Explorer Service calls would be handled by the remote access server.
This server, which looks like a boring box with lots of phone jacks for modems, is designed, as the name suggests, for handling remote access links. Among its many virtues, however, is the ability to handle IP (Internet Protocol) packets. By dialing into the remote access server, not only can you reach the new, graphical, hypertext-based TCS bulletin board, but you can also reach the Internet.
One problem: the Pi doesn't have a remote access server. For the March General Meeting, this wasn't a problem, since the current TCS hardware can support one user connection to the Internet. This is fine for a demonstration, but generating the funds to buy the proper equipment is a critical element to bringing Explorer Service to the Pi membership (see details elsewhere).
New, Improved, and in Color
After exploring a few other Internet Web sites, Jon linked in to the Pi's World Wide Web server prototype (http://www.wap.org/). Since the Web server was sitting right next to him, this wasn't too difficult, but (important point!) it would have been just as easy via a dial-up link; Netscape, and the other Web browsers, don't care if your link is via modem or via a network.
There are two parts to the Pi's Web site: public information (what is Washington Apple Pi, meeting information, information about the Journal, information about the TCS, information on how to join and such), and member information. "Member information" is essentially everything on the TCS: all 10,000 or so files in the file areas, and the tens of thousands of messages on all the TCS conferences, are available only if you type in the proper member ID and password.
Both types of information are handled using the same equipment and software. This is one of the big attractions of Explorer Service: the same investment that opens up the Internet to Pi members (and also provides reliable electronic mail service) will also allow the rest of the world to easily, almost effortlessly learn about the Pi.
Jon demonstrated the new, graphical TCS by doing nothing more than point and click. Want to see a nicely formatted write-up of General Meetings? Point and click. Want a map showing how to get to a General Meeting? Point and click. Want to see a calendar of Pi events? Point and click. Want to learn the True Meaning of Pi? Point and click.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of the meeting, I talked to Jon on the phone. He was at the Pi office, working on packing up things for the meeting and also doing some programming. I urged him to go home and sleep, but he insisted that he had one little programming project he wanted to complete before the meeting.
Not very many hours later, and without a minute's worth of sleep, Jon demonstrated his "little project:" drag and drop file downloading.
He clicked on a hypertext link within the Netscape window which referenced
a file in the TCS file area. In a normal universe, selecting the link might
bring up information about the file.
Jon apparently doesn't live in a normal universe. After clicking on the link, he dragged the mouse off the Netscape window to his desktop, and then let go. Thanks to his midnight programming, this prompted the TCS to transfer the file directly to his desktop. Way cool!
So cool, in fact, that I forgot what I was about to say, and decided it was time to invite questions. These questions, and demonstrating answers to the questions, filled the rest of the meeting.
To Boldly Go
As you might guess by the length of this narrative, I'm sold on telecommunications. I'm also sold on the idea of putting Washington Apple Pi, the world's oldest personal computer group, on the Internet, the world's new electronic marvel. Allowing Pi members to explore the universe with their modems, using an easy to use graphical interface, and letting the rest of the world learn about the Pi, using the same technology, is highly attractive.
And putting a graphical, Internet-compatible face on a 21st century bulletin board built with computers designed in the 1970s has a charm all its own. User groups are famed for projects that push at the limits of the possible. The original Apple I and Apple II computers were designed by Steve Wozniak to a) impress his user group friends and b) thumb his nose at those who said he was crazy. Steve reportedly gave little thought to the idea that these computers might be useful, and certainly had no intention of creating an entire new industry.
Postscript: after the meeting, several of us took equipment back to the Pi office. In the dark, with the sound of construction outside, we wished Jon a happy birthday, ate cake, and watched him play with his presents: a Star Trek communicator pin and a mechanical penguin. Jon is adamant about not being a Trekkie (computer nerd, sometimes; Trekkie, never), so a Star Trek pin (it beeps when you press it) seemed the perfect gift. The mechanical penguin was also inspired and, as soon as we make up a really great story, we'll explain why.
Apr. 22, 1995: Now Software will present Now Up-To-Date 3.0, Now Contact 3.0, and Now Utilities 5.0. Now you have no excuse to be disorganized. (Sorry, I
couldn't help it.)
Main Event will show their AppleScript editor.
May 27, 1995: the General Meeting will be held at the Holiday Inn Bethesda (note the change in location) at 8120 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD. Specular International will demonstrate their graphics packages, including: InfiniD, a 3D modeling, rendering and animation package; LogoMotion, a utility for animating logos; Collage, an image composition package; and TextureScape, a texture generating program with tiling and animation functions. Several other vendors have requested time at the meeting but, as of this writing, none are confirmed.
June 10, 1995: the Washington Apple Pi Semi-Annual Computer Garage Sale, summer edition, will be held at the Allentown Mall, 6200 Branch Avenue, Camp Springs, MD. Shop from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or bring in your Mac equipment for a semi-annual checkup in return for a donation to the Pi. We need volunteers to help with the checkup table.
July 22, 1995: the General Meeting will return to Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale.
Among the goodies given away were: a couple mouse pads, several books, a T-shirt from Iomega, and two Global Village Gold II external modems. (Global Village also distributed a stack of software upgrades to owners of existing Global Village products.) We used numbered tickets for the drawing and, while this made the drawing much faster, the names of the winners weren't recorded.