Bulletin Board Systems

This is a short chapter for a couple of reasons. First off, it can be difficult to find a bulletin board system (BBS) in your area, and because the resources available for finding them vary from place to place, I can't really help you. Second, there's no telling what level, if any, of Internet access a BBS may provide. With those caveats aside, for limited Internet access, an account on a FirstClass, NovaLink Professional, or TeleFinder BBS might be an inexpensive and efficient way to start out on the Internet. I consider these three to be the main graphical BBSs in the Macintosh world. Several others exist, but aren't used nearly as heavily.

Note: A BBS is a computer system that you can connect to, usually via modem. Once there, you can upload and download files, send and receive email, and participate in discussions. Unlike the commercial online services, a BBS usually serves a small group of people in a specific area.

I don't cover anything but the main graphical BBSs in this chapter because, frankly, there are so many of them and most are ugly to use. I use a Mac because I don't like custom character-based menu interfaces, and almost every BBS with a character-based interface that I've ever used has irritated me. The editors are lousy and the commands are cryptic, and it's just not what using a Macintosh is all about. So, if you can only find Internet access through a character-based BBS, you're on your own, although it may marginally provide Internet email and Usenet news.


FirstClass BBSs are actually most commonly used as conferencing systems within large companies and organizations. However, they're also extremely popular among the user group community (see figure 13.1).

Figure 13.1: FirstClass Login window.

With SoftArc's excellent FirstClass BBS software, and a special add-on gateway to the Internet, a Macintosh BBS can sport both a clean graphical interface and provide an email and Usenet news connection. Most of these sorts of Internet connections are handled through UUCP gateways, which means the FirstClass BBS calls an Internet host every few hours to transfer email and news. However, there are an increasing number of FirstClass BBSs that have dedicated Internet connections. These can offer faster turnaround on mail and news, as well as the promise of additional Internet services like FTP in the near future.

It's also possible, though still somewhat unusual, for a FirstClass BBS to be accessible over the Internet. You can come in by way of a standard Telnet session or via the graphical FirstClass software if you have a MacTCP-based connection to the Internet.

The easiest way to use FirstClass over the Internet is if the organization running the FirstClass server gives you a FirstClass settings file, at which point you can just double-click on it to launch FirstClass and connect to that server. However, if you don't already have a settings file, it's relatively easy to create one.

Note: The FirstClass server I use in this example is called designOnline, an online resource for design professionals. Anyone can login, although you'll only have limited access at first. You also can read about them on the Web at:

To create a settings file, launch the application. Click Cancel when it asks you to open an existing settings file and choose New from the File menu. After you name and save the settings file, FirstClass brings up the Login window dialog. Click the Setup button, and from the Connect via pop-up menu, choose TCP-IP.FCP (see figure 13.2).

Figure 13.2: FirstClass TCP Setup dialog.

Enter the IP name or number of the FirstClass server to which you want to connect in the Server field. Click the Save button to save your changes. Of course, if you already have an account, you can enter your userid and password as well. From this point, using FirstClass over the Internet is just like using it via a modem.

Note: By default, the graphical FirstClass client uses port 3000. Click the Setup button in the Communications Setup dialog box, and then turn the Advanced Settings triangle. If you telnet to a FirstClass server, you generally use port 3004 instead.

FirstClass can receive Usenet newsgroups via an Internet gateway, which is an excellent way to bring more information into a fairly small BBS. Unfortunately, the current interface to reading news isn't as full-featured as I would like. Working with threads is difficult or impossible, and there's no easy way to entirely skip an uninteresting thread (see figure 13.3).

Figure 13.3: FirstClass newsgroups.

To send an email message to the Internet, type the Internet address and append ,Internet to it. My Internet address from a FirstClass system looks like ace@tidbits.com,Internet. Because most FirstClass systems don't call out all that often to send and receive Internet email, don't expect immediate responses. Sending email to a FirstClass BBS is no different than sending to any other Internet site -- you must know the username and sitename.

In general, you can figure out usernames by taking the person's username on FirstClass and replacing the spaces with underscores (and FirstClass is pretty good at guessing based on your attempt). However, making this change can result in some ugly addresses. If I am Adam C. Engst on a FirstClass board, for example, the Internet form of my username on the local dBUG BBS (run by Seattle's downtown Business Users' Group) is adam_c._engst@dbug.org. Again, the sitename in the address is individual to each FirstClass BBS. It's also possible for the administrator to create aliases, so I could also be ace@dbug.org on the local BBS. The aliases are simply easier for others to type.

Note: FirstClass distinguishes between usernames that identify you to other users (Adam C. Engst, for example) and userids that identify you to the software (mine on the local BBS is 1892). It's not a big deal, but if you want to be correct....

If you can find a local FirstClass BBS that's also in some way connected to the Internet, I recommend you try it out. It's a good interface for getting started with Internet email and news, and most BBSs have either minimal or nonexistent fees.

You can find more information about the FirstClass software from SoftArc by sending email to sales@softarc.com. You can download the free FirstClass client software from any FirstClass BBS, or on the Internet in:


NovaLink Professional

With a graphical interface called NovaTerm, NovaLink Professional can support Internet email and Usenet news. It also can accept connections over the Internet, either in command-line mode via Telnet or with the graphical client via a MacTCP-based Internet connection.

You can connect to only a few NovaLink systems over the Internet. It's simply a matter of knowing the Internet address and switching to MacTCP in the Settings dialog. I presume that many more have UUCP connections to the Internet for retrieving Internet email and Usenet news (see figure 13.4).

Figure 13.4: Email and news in NovaLink.

If you connect to a NovaLink BBS that has full Internet connections, you also can telnet out of it, which is a nice touch -- and a useful feature for a BBS to offer. In the next version of the NovaLink Professional software, ResNova has promised that you will be able to browse the World Wide Web as well, which is far neater than Telnet. This will set NovaLink apart from the other contenders in the BBS world.

Note: The public BBS that I connected to over the Internet, Global Democracy Network (chrf.gdn.org), is a non-profit human rights organization. It works with members of parliament around the world to institutionalize human rights protections and increase democracy. Along the way, they're trying to get these members of parliament to become Internet users -- a laudable goal. Two other NovaLink systems currently accessible on the Internet are mpd.amaranth.com and infoport.com.

There's not much else to say about Internet connections via NovaLink systems, except that the process seems to work and is relatively speedy. You can contact ResNova Software, the makers of NovaLink, at sales@resnova.com or info@resnova.com, and you can get the NovaTerm client program from any NovaLink BBS, or on the Internet in:



TeleFinder also provides a graphical interface BBS that (with additional software, called InterFinder, from Andreas Fink of Microframe) can connect to the Internet to send and receive email and news (see figure 13.5).

Figure 13.5: TeleFinder Internet Connectivity discussion (and no, I didn't fake the screenshot -- it really said that!).

Note: The BBS package (host and client) is called TeleFinder Group Edition. The freely distributed client program that's generally customized for a specific BBS is called TeleFinder User. The more full-featured shareware client and terminal emulator is called TeleFinder Pro.

TeleFinder Pro has one of the most interesting graphical interfaces I've seen -- it takes over your monitor and sort of reproduces the way the Finder looks. It confused me a bit at first because I have two monitors on my Mac. TeleFinder Pro seemed to move a bunch of my desktop icons around whenever I was in the TeleFinder application. TeleFinder User, in contrast, uses an interface more like FirstClass's desktop within a window metaphor (see figure 13.6). Both work fine for connecting to TeleFinder BBSs.

Figure 13.6: TeleFinder Pro's Change Port dialog.

You can connect over the Internet to a TeleFinder BBS in command-line mode (all of these graphical BBS programs also offer straight character-based modes) by telnetting to spiderisland.com. You need special software to use either TeleFinder User or TeleFinder Pro over a MacTCP-based Internet connection. That software, called TeleFinder User TCP, creates a virtual "port" that you can select instead of the modem or printer port when you're configuring TeleFinder Pro (see figure 13.7). From TeleFinder Pro's Special menu, choose Change Port after installing TeleFinder User TCP in your Extensions folder.

Figure 13.7: TeleFinder Pro's Change Port dialog.

Once you've selected that port, you can configure TeleFinder Pro to "dial" a TeleFinder BBS. Click the port icon for TeleFinder User TCP that appears in the lower left of the screen and create a new Service. In the Service Information dialog, replace the phone number with an @ character and either the IP number or IP name of that machine (see figure 13.8).

Figure 13.8: Configuring TeleFinder Pro for the Internet.

So, to connect to Spider Island's own BBS over the Internet, I told the TeleFinder Pro software (via TeleFinder User TCP) to "dial" @spiderisland.com, which it did, complete with faked modem messages and everything. Once I was connected, everything worked as I expect it does when you dial in via modem, and the speed was even quite good.

TeleFinder User is easier to configure than TeleFinder Pro because you don't have to muck around with changing ports or anything like that. When you launch the program, it presents you with a Connection dialog, in which you can enter your username, password, and the connection method (see figure 13.9). Clicking the Configure button brings up a dialog for entering the IP address and port number (1474 by default) of the TeleFinder BBS to which you want to connect.

Figure 13.9: Configuring TeleFinder Pro for the Internet.

For more information about TeleFinder Pro, contact Spider Island Software at support@spiderisland.com. For some reason the TeleFinder TCP User software wasn't at spiderisland.com, but it is stored on ftp.tidbits.com, You can retrieve either of the TeleFinder Pro and TeleFinder User client programs in:




Wrapping Up BBSs

As more inexpensive Internet connections appear, I expect we'll see many more of these graphical bulletin boards appearing on the Internet. If nothing else, supporting a number of modems and phone lines isn't cheap, so offering connections via the Internet might even be cheaper for many.

Although I cannot recommend any of them as a replacement for a full MacTCP-based Internet connection, the graphical BBSs provide an easy and usually inexpensive way to dip into the Internet without diving headfirst. Of course, you trade that ease of use and lesser expense for limited functionality, although all of the BBSs plan to add more Internet support in the future.

Enough talking about limited access, though, let's move on and talk about enhancements to the common Unix shell account.