I'm something of a completeness freak because every time I completely ignore various topics, I always end up answering questions about them. Therefore, although the following commercial online services and bulletin board systems (BBSs) aren't necessarily as common or useful for Internet access as those I've discussed previously, I feel that they're worth mentioning.
I'd hesitate to even mention a heavy-duty corporate, command line-based email system like MCI Mail, except for one thing. If you're clever, and can send email from another account, you can receive unlimited Internet email via MCI Mail and an 800 number for $35 per year! I know little about the system, other than the fact that MCI improved its speed in the past year or so, but I gather that MCI makes its money by charging heavily for the messages you send. Let's call MCI and see what they say.
If you dial 800-444-MAIL, you wait on hold for what seems like an eternity. But, as the nice recording says, MCI Customer Support (or at least its recording) is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In theory, if you wait long enough, someone will pick up the phone and tell you how to sign up for MCI Mail.
MCI Customer Support finally answered after ten minutes. I made the mistake of mentioning that I was writing the rate information down in a book, and immediately got the bubonic plague treatment. Public Relations didn't answer the phone, and the supervisor would only fax me a rate sheet (the background here is that I hate fax modems and they hate me). The moral of that story is, never tell people you're writing a book.
Will wonders never cease? On the third try, I managed to browbeat my Telebit WorldBlazer into receiving the fax. The MCI propaganda informed me (after six useless pages) that it costs $0.50 to send the first 500 characters of a message. The next 500 characters cost an extra $0.10, each subsequent set of 1,000 characters after that (up to 10K) is also $0.10, and each set of 1,000 characters after 10K is only $0.05. Sheesh, no wonder they didn't want to tell me over the phone. All those charges come on top of the $35.00 per year for the mailbox; so if you send much mail at all via MCI, the costs add up fast.
Here's a free idea that just might work. If you can download your MCI messages and convert them into a file in Unix mailbox format, Eudora can read them in. Set Eudora so that messages appear to come from your MCI account (so that all replies go back to your MCI account). Then, even if you must call long distance to send mail with Eudora (which is easy enough with a number of providers), you could receive gobs of email via MCI and download it via that 800 number. But, of course, you didn't hear this suggestion from me. You figured it all out on your own.
As this book goes to press, MCI Mail has recently announced that it intends to add Internet access to its service. This isn't too surprising, since Vinton Cerf, president of the Internet Society, is also now a senior vice president for data architecture at MCI. All that Internet users will get, apparently, is access to additional MCI Mail services, such as electronic message transfer to letterhead, use of signature graphics, image transmission via fax, alternate addressing when sending a fax, and automatic retry for fax and telex. Frankly, I'm not impressed, but if you wish to find out more, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and type help in the body of the message.
Without a doubt, one of the simplest methods of gaining limited access to the Internet is through a local bulletin board, often run by your local user group (see figure 9.40).
Figure 9.40: FirstClass Login window.
Until recently, none of the Windows BBS programs were able to communicate with an Internet host. With SoftArc's excellent FirstClass BBS software and a special add-on gateway to the Internet, a BBS can sport both a clean graphical interface and 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.
It's also possible, though currently 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 WinSock-based connection to the Internet.
Configuring the FirstClass client software to use an Internet host tool is fairly straightforward. Just go to the setup configuration screen and select tcp-ip.FCP as the connection mechanism. Then in the Server entry, just put in the IP or hostname of the BBS server. Once you've connected, it looks just like any other FirstClass BBS that you'd call via modem.
FirstClass can receive Usenet newsgroups via the 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 skip an entire uninteresting thread (see figure 9.41).
Figure 9.41: FirstClass newsgroup reader.
The Windows FirstClass client has a look and feel that is quite unlike any other Windows application. Drop-down list boxes behave differently, and the edit controls (the boxes that you can type text into) have a strange dotted-outline to them. Perhaps on a different platform, such as the Macintosh, it feels better. However, to first-time Windows users, FirstClass is nonstandard. I expect that this is because it roots come from the world of the Mac.
Sending email on a FirstClass system is easy. Just go to the Message menu and choose New. FirstClass presents you with a message window (see figure 9.42).
Figure 9.42: FirstClass email window.
To send a message to the Internet, type the Internet address and append ,Internet to it. My Internet address from a FirstClass system looks like email@example.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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.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 email@example.com on the local BBS. The aliases are simply easier for others.
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 get more information about the FirstClass software from SoftArc by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I cannot recommend any of them as a replacement for a full WinSock-based Internet connection, the commercial online services provide an easy way to dip into the Internet without diving headfirst. The liability of taking the dip in favor of the dive is that you'll quickly find that in terms of Internet access, the commercial online services are extremely shallow. Many bulletin boards have gained full Internet access in recent months as well, and I expect more to appear all the time. Since most bulletin board systems charge little or nothing for access, they can be a great way to obtain inexpensive Internet access.
Enough talking about limited access, though; let's move on to Unix Shell accounts, which are as powerful as they are ugly for Windows users.