The Dawn of the Modern Internet Age
First just very briefly of what it means before diving into its history and learn more about it.
is an acronym short for Bulletin Board System or sometimes called CBBS – Computer Bulletin Board Service s a computer server running software that allows users to connect to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, the user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users through public message boards and sometimes via direct chatting
A precursor to the public bulletin board system was Community Memory, started in August 1973 in Berkeley, California. Useful microcomputers did not exist at that time, and modems were both expensive and slow. Community Memory therefore ran on a mainframe computer and was accessed through terminals located in several San Francisco Bay Area neighborhoods.The poor quality of the original modem connecting the terminals to the mainframe prompted Community Memory hardware person, Lee Felsenstein, to invent the Pennywhistle modem, whose design was highly influential in the mid-1970s.
Community Memory allowed the user to type messages into a computer terminal after inserting a coin, and offered a “pure” bulletin board experience with public messages only (no email or other features). It did offer the ability to tag messages with keywords, which the user could use in searches. The system acted primarily in the form of a buy and sell system with the tags taking the place of the more traditional classifications. But users found ways to express themselves outside these bounds, and the system spontaneously created stories, poetry and other forms of communications. The system was expensive to operate, and when their host machine became unavailable and a new one could not be found, the system closed in January 1975.
Similar functionality was available to most mainframe users, which might be considered a sort of ultra-local BBS when used in this fashion. Commercial systems, expressly intended to offer these features to the public, became available in the late 1970s and formed the online service market that lasted into the 1990s. One particularly influential example was PLATO, which had thousands of users by the late 1970s, many of whom used the messaging and chat room features of the system in the same way that would become common on BBSes.
Early modems were generally very simple devices using acoustic couplers to handle telephone operation. The user would first pick up the phone, dial a number, then press the handset into rubber cups on the top of the modem. Disconnecting at the end of a call required the user to pick up the handset and return it to the phone. Examples of direct-connecting modems did exist, and these often allowed the host computer to send it commands to answer or hang up calls, but these were very expensive devices used by large banks and similar companies.
With the introduction of microcomputers with expansion slots, like the S-100 bus machines and Apple II, it became possible for the modem to communicate instructions and data on separate lines. A number of modems of this sort were available by the late 1970s. This made the BBS possible for the first time, as it allowed software on the computer to pick up an incoming call, communicate with the user, and then hang up the call when the user logged off.
The first public dial-up BBS was developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess. According to an early interview, when Chicago was snowed under during the Great Blizzard of 1978, the two began preliminary work on the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. The system came into existence largely through a fortuitous combination of Christensen having a spare S-100 bus computer and an early Hayes internal modem, and Suess’s insistence that the machine be placed at his house in Chicago where it would be a local phone call for more users. Christensen patterned the system after the cork board his local computer club used to post information like “need a ride”. CBBS officially went online on 16 February 1978. CBBS, which kept a count of callers, reportedly connected 253,301 callers before it was finally retired.
A key innovation required for the popularization of the BBS was the Smartmodem manufactured by Hayes Microcomputer Products. Internal modems like the ones used by CBBS and similar early systems were usable, but generally expensive due to the manufacturer having to make a different modem for every computer platform they wanted to target. They were also limited to those computers with internal expansion, and could not be used with other useful platforms like video terminals. External modems were available for these platforms but required the phone to be dialed using a conventional handset, making them unable to accept incoming calls without manual intervention. Internal modems could be software controlled to perform both outbound and inbound calls, but external modems had only the data pins to communicate with the host system.
Hayes’ solution to the problem was to use a small microcontroller to implement a system that examined the data flowing into the modem from the host computer, watching for certain command strings. This allowed commands to be sent to and from the modem using the same data pins as all the rest of the data, meaning it would work on any system that could support even the most basic modems. The Smartmodem could pick up the phone, dial numbers, and hang up again, all without any operator intervention. The Smartmodem was not necessary for BBS use but made overall operation dramatically simpler. It also improved usability for the caller, as most terminal software allowed different phone numbers to be stored and dialed on command, allowing the user to easily connect to a series of systems.
The introduction of the Smartmodem led to the first real wave of BBS systems. Limited in both speed and storage capacity, these systems were normally dedicated solely to messaging, both private email and public forums. File transfers were painfully slow at these speeds, and file libraries were typically limited to text files containing lists of other BBS systems. These systems attracted a particular type of user who used the BBS as a unique type of communications medium, and when these local systems were crowded from the market in the 1990s, their loss was lamented for many years.
Higher speeds and Commercialization
Speed improved with the introduction of 1200 bit/s modems in the early 1980s, giving way to 2400 bit/s fairly rapidly. The improved performance led to a substantial increase in BBS popularity. Most of the information was displayed using ordinary ASCII text or ANSI art, but a number of systems attempted character-based graphical user interfaces which began to be practical at 2400 bit/s.
There was a lengthy delay before 9600 bit/s models began to appear on the market. 9600 bit/s was not even established as a strong standard before V.32bis at 14.4 kbit/s took over in the early 1990s. This period also saw the rapid rise in capacity and a dramatic drop in the price of hard drives. By the late 1980s, many BBS systems had significant file libraries, and this gave rise to leeching, users calling BBSes solely for their files. These users would tie up the modem for some time, leaving less time for other users, who got busy signals. The resulting upheaval eliminated many of the pioneering message-centric systems.
This also gave rise to a new class of BBS systems, dedicated solely to file upload and downloads. These systems charged for access, typically a flat monthly fee, compared to the per-hour fees charged by Event Horizons BBS and most online services. A host of 3rd party services sprang up to support these systems, offering simple credit card merchant account gateways for the payment of monthly fees, and entire file libraries on compact disk that made initial setup very easy. Early 1990s editions of Boardwatch were filled with ads for single-click install solutions dedicated to these new sysops. While this gave the market a bad reputation, it also led to its greatest success. During the early 1990s, there were a number of mid-sized software companies dedicated to BBS software, and the number of BBSes in service reached its peak.
Towards the early 1990s, the BBS industry became so popular that it spawned three monthly magazines, Boardwatch, BBS Magazine, and in Asia and Australia, Chips ‘n Bits Magazine which devoted extensive coverage of the software and technology innovations and people behind them, and listings to US and worldwide BBSes. In addition, in the US, a major monthly magazine, Computer Shopper, carried a list of BBSes along with a brief abstract of each of their offerings.
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was considerable experimentation with ways to improve the BBS experience from its command-line interface roots. Almost every popular system improved matters somewhat by adding ANSI-based color menus to make reading easier, and most also allowed cursor commands to offer command-line recall and similar features. Another common feature was the use of autocomplete to make menu navigation simpler, a feature that would not re-appear on the web until decades later.
A number of systems also made forays into GUI-based interfaces, either using character graphics sent from the host, or using custom GUI-based terminal systems. The latter initially appeared, unsurprisingly, on the Macintosh platform, where TeleFinder and FirstClass became very popular. FirstClass offered a host of features that would be difficult or impossible under a terminal-based solution, including bi-directional information flow and non-blocking operation that allowed the user to exchange files in both directions while continuing to use the message system and chat, all in separate windows. Skypix featured on Amiga a complete markup language. It used a standardized set of icons to indicate mouse driven commands available online and to recognize different filetypes present on BBS storage media. It was capable to transmit data like images, audio files, and audio clips between users linked to same BBS or off-line if BBS was in the circuit of FidoNet organization. On the PC, efforts were more oriented to extensions of the original terminal concept, with the GUI being described in the information on the host. One example was the Remote Imaging Protocol, essentially a picture description system, which remained relatively obscure. Probably the ultimate development of this style of operation was the dynamic page implementation of the University of Southern California BBS (USCBBS) by Susan Biddlecomb, which predated the implementation of the HTML Dynamic web page. A complete Dynamic web page implementation was accomplished using TBBS with a TDBS add-on presenting a complete menu system individually customized for each user.
Rise of the Internet and decline of BBS
The demand for complex ANSI and ASCII screens and larger file transfers taxed available channel capacity, which in turn propelled demand for faster modems. 14.4 kbit/s modems were standard for a number of years while various companies attempted to introduce non-standard systems with higher performance, normally about 19.2 kbit/s. Another delay followed due to a long V.34 standards process before 28.8 kbit/s was released, only to be quickly replaced by 33.6 kbit/s, and then 56 kbit/s.
These increasing speeds had the side effect of dramatically reducing the noticeable effects of channel efficiency. When modems were slow, considerable effort was put into developing the most efficient protocols and display systems possible. Running a general-purpose protocol like TCP/IP over a 1200 bit/s modem was a painful experience. With 56 kbit/s modems, however, the overhead was so greatly reduced as to be unnoticeable. Dial-up Internet service became widely available in 1994, and a must-have option for any general-use operating system by 1995.
These developments together resulted in the sudden obsolescence of bulletin board technology in 1995 and the collapse of its supporting market. Technically, Internet service offered an enormous advantage over BBS systems, as a single connection to the user’s Internet service provider allowed them to contact services around the world. In comparison, BBS systems relied on a direct point-to-point connection, so even dialing multiple local systems required multiple phone calls. Moreover, Internet protocols allowed that same single connection to be used to contact multiple services at the same time, say download files from an FTP library while checking the weather on a local news web site. In comparison, a connection to a BBS allowed access only to the information on that system.
According to the FidoNet Nodelist, BBSes reached their peak usage around 1996, which was the same period that the World Wide Web and AOL became mainstream. BBSes rapidly declined in popularity thereafter, and were replaced by systems using the Internet for connectivity. Some of the larger commercial BBSes, such as MaxMegabyte and ExecPC BBS, evolved into Internet service providers.
The website textfiles.com serves as an archive that documents the history of the BBS. The historical BBS list on textfiles.com contains over 105,000 BBSes that have existed over a span of 20 years in North America alone. The owner of textfiles.com, Jason Scott, also produced BBS: The Documentary, a DVD film that chronicles the history of the BBS and features interviews with well-known people (mostly from the United States) from the heyday BBS era.
In the 2000s, most traditional BBS systems migrated to the Internet using Telnet or SSH protocols. Between 700 and 800 are thought to be active in 2020, fewer than 30 of these being of the traditional “dial-up” (modem) variety.
Software and Hardware
Unlike modern websites and online services that are typically hosted by third-party companies in commercial data centers, BBS computers (especially for smaller boards) were typically operated from the SysOp’s home. As such, access could be unreliable, and in many cases, only one user could be on the system at a time. Only larger BBSes with multiple phone lines using specialized hardware, multitasking software, or a LAN connecting multiple computers, could host multiple simultaneous users.
The first BBSes used homebrew software quite often written or customized by the SysOps themselves, running on early S-100 bus microcomputer systems such as the Altair 8800, IMSAI 8080 and Cromemco under the CP/M operating system. Soon after, BBS software was being written for all of the major home computer systems of the late 1970s era – the Apple II, Atari 8-bit family, Commodore and TRS-80 being some of the most popular.
A few years later, in 1981, IBM introduced the first DOS based IBM PC, and due to the overwhelming popularity of PCs and their clones, DOS soon became the operating system on which the majority of BBS programs were run. RBBS-PC, ported over from the CP/M world, and Fido BBS, created by Tom Jennings (who later founded FidoNet) were the first notable DOS BBS programs. Many successful commercial BBS programs were developed for DOS, such as PCBoard BBS, RemoteAccess BBS, and Wildcat! BBS. Some popular freeware BBS programs for DOS included Telegard BBS and Renegade BBS, which both had early origins from leaked WWIV BBS source code. There were several dozen other BBS programs developed over the DOS era, and many were released under the shareware concept, while some were released as freeware including iniquity.
BBS systems on other systems remained popular, especially home computers, largely because they catered to the audience of users running those machines. The ubiquitous Commodore 64 (introduced in 1982) was a common platform in the 1980s. Popular commercial BBS programs were Blue Board, Ivory BBS, Color64 and CNet 64. In the early 1990s, a small number of BBSes were also running on the Commodore Amiga. Popular BBS software for the Amiga were ABBS, Amiexpress, C-Net, StormforceBBS, Infinity and Tempest. There was also a small faction of devoted Atari BBSes that used the Atari 800, then the 800XL, and eventually the 1040ST. The earlier machines generally lacked hard drive capabilities, which limited them primarily to messaging.
MS-DOS continued to be the most popular operating system for BBS use up until the mid-1990s, and in the early years, most multi-node BBSes were running under a DOS based multitasker such as DESQview or consisted of multiple computers connected via a LAN. In the late 1980s, a handful of BBS developers implemented multitasking communications routines inside their software, allowing multiple phone lines and users to connect to the same BBS computer. These included Galacticomm’s MajorBBS (later WorldGroup), eSoft The Bread Board System (TBBS), and Falken. Other popular BBS’s were Maximus and Opus, with some associated applications such as BinkleyTerm being based on characters from the Berkley Breathed cartoon strip of Bloom County. Though most BBS software had been written in BASIC or Pascal (with some low-level routines written in assembly language), the C language was starting to gain popularity.
By 1995, many of the DOS-based BBSes had begun switching to modern multitasking operating systems, such as OS/2, Windows 95, and Linux. One of the first graphics based BBS applications was Excalibur BBS with a low bandwidth applications that required its own client for efficiency. This led to one of the earliest implementations of Electronic Commerce in 1996 with replication of partner stores around the globe. TCP/IP networking allowed most of the remaining BBSes to evolve and include Internet hosting capabilities. Recent BBS software, such as Synchronet, Mystic BBS, EleBBS, DOC or Wildcat! BBS, provide access using the Telnet protocol rather than dialup, or by using legacy DOS-based BBS software with a FOSSIL-to-Telnet redirector such as NetFoss.
BBSes were generally text-based, rather than GUI-based, and early BBSes conversed using the simple ASCII character set. However, some home computer manufacturers extended the ASCII character set to take advantage of the advanced color and graphics capabilities of their systems. BBS software authors included these extended character sets in their software, and terminal program authors included the ability to display them when a compatible system was called. Atari’s native character set was known as ATASCII, while most Commodore BBSes supported PETSCII. PETSCII was also supported by the nationwide online service Quantum Link.
The use of these custom character sets was generally incompatible between manufacturers. Unless a caller was using terminal emulation software written for, and running on, the same type of system as the BBS, the session would simply fall back to simple ASCII output. For example, a Commodore 64 user calling an Atari BBS would use ASCII rather than the machine’s native character set. As time progressed, most terminal programs began using the ANSI standard, but could use their native character set if it was available.
COCONET, a BBS system made by Coconut Computing, Inc., was released in 1988 and only supported a GUI (no text interface was initially available but eventually became available around 1990), and worked in EGA/VGA graphics mode, which made it stand out from the text-based BBS systems. COCONET’s bitmap and vector graphics and support for multiple type fonts were inspired by the PLATO system, and the graphics capabilities were based on what was available in the Borland BGI graphics library. A competing approach called Remote Imaging Protocol (RIP) emerged and was promoted by Telegrafix in the early to mid-1990s but it never became widespread. An industry standard technology called NAPLPS was also considered, and although it became the underlying graphics technology behind the Prodigy service, it never gained popularity in the BBS market. There were several GUI-based BBSes on the Apple Macintosh platform, including TeleFinder and FirstClass, but these remained widely used only in the Mac market.
In the UK, the BBC Micro based OBBS software, available from Pace for use with their modems, optionally allowed for color and graphics using the Teletext based graphics mode available on that platform. Other systems used the Viewdata protocols made popular in the UK by British Telecom’s Prestel service, and the on-line magazine Micronet 800 whom were busy giving away modems with their subscriptions.
The most popular form of online graphics was ANSI art, which combined the IBM Extended ASCII character set’s blocks and symbols with ANSI escape sequences to allow changing colors on demand, provide cursor control and screen formatting, and even basic musical tones. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, most BBSes used ANSI to make elaborate welcome screens, and colorized menus, and thus, ANSI support was a sought-after feature in terminal client programs. The development of ANSI art became so popular that it spawned an entire BBS “artscene” subculture devoted to it.
The Amiga Skyline BBS software was the first in 1987 featuring a script markup language communication protocol called Skypix which was capable of giving the user a complete graphical interface, featuring rich graphic content, changeable fonts, mouse-controlled actions, animations and sound.
Today, most BBS software that is still actively supported, such as Worldgroup, Wildcat! BBS and Citadel/UX, is Web-enabled, and the traditional text interface has been replaced (or operates concurrently) with a Web-based user interface. For those more nostalgic for the true BBS experience, one can use NetSerial (Windows) or DOSBox (Windows/*nix) to redirect DOS COM port software to telnet, allowing them to connect to Telnet BBSes using 1980s and 1990s era modem terminal emulation software, like Telix, Terminate, Qmodem and Procomm Plus. Modern 32-bit terminal emulators such as mTelnet and SyncTerm include native telnet support.
Content and Access
Since most early BBSes were run by computer hobbyists, they were typically technical in topic, with user communities revolving around hardware and software discussions.
As the BBS phenomenon grew, so did the popularity of special interest boards. Bulletin Board Systems could be found for almost every hobby and interest. Popular interests included politics, religion, music, dating, and alternative lifestyles. Many SysOps also adopted a theme in which they customized their entire BBS (welcome screens, prompts, menus, and so on) to reflect that theme. Common themes were based on fantasy, or were intended to give the user the illusion of being somewhere else, such as in a sanatorium, wizard’s castle, or on a pirate ship.
In the early days, the file download library consisted of files that the SysOps obtained themselves from other BBSes and friends. Many BBSes inspected every file uploaded to their public file download library to ensure that the material did not violate copyright law. As time went on, shareware CD-ROMs were sold with up to thousands of files on each CD-ROM. Small BBSes copied each file individually to their hard drive. Some systems used a CD-ROM drive to make the files available. Advanced BBSes used Multiple CD-ROM disc changer units that switched 6 CD-ROM disks on demand for the caller(s). Large systems used all 26 DOS drive letters with multi-disk changers housing tens of thousands of copyright-free shareware or freeware files available to all callers. These BBSes were generally more family friendly, avoiding the seedier side of BBSes. Access to these systems varied from single to multiple modem lines with some requiring little or no confirmed registration.
Some BBSes, called elite, WaReZ or pirate boards, were exclusively used for distributing cracked software, phreaking, and other questionable or unlawful content. These BBSes often had multiple modems and phone lines, allowing several users to upload and download files at once. Most elite BBSes used some form of new user verification, where new users would have to apply for membership and attempt to prove that they were not a law enforcement officer or a lamer. The largest elite boards accepted users by invitation only. Elite boards also spawned their own subculture and gave rise to the slang known today as leetspeak.
Another common type of board was the support BBS run by a manufacturer of computer products or software. These boards were dedicated to supporting users of the company’s products with question and answer forums, news and updates, and downloads. Most of them were not a free call. Today, these services have moved to the web.
Some general purpose Bulletin Board Systems had special levels of access that were given to those who paid extra money, uploaded useful files or knew the SysOp personally. These specialty and pay BBSes usually had something unique to offer their users, such as large file libraries, warez, pornography, chat rooms or Internet access.
Pay BBSes such as The WELL and Echo NYC (now Internet forums rather than dial-up), ExecPC, PsudNetwork and MindVox (which folded in 1996) were admired for their tight-knit communities and quality discussion forums. However, many free BBSes also maintained close knit communities, and some even had annual or bi-annual events where users would travel great distances to meet face-to-face with their on-line friends. These events were especially popular with BBSes that offered chat rooms.
Some of the BBSes that provided access to illegal content faced opposition. On July 12, 1985, in conjunction with a credit card fraud investigation, the Middlesex County, New Jersey Sheriff’s department raided and seized The Private Sector BBS, which was the official BBS for grey hat hacker quarterly 2600 Magazine at the time. The notorious Rusty n Edie’s BBS, in Boardman, Ohio, was raided by the FBI in January 1993 for trading unlicensed software, and later sued by Playboy for copyright infringement in November 1997. In Flint, Michigan, a 21-year-old man was charged with distributing child pornography through his BBS in March 1996
Most early BBSes operated as individual systems. Information contained on that BBS never left the system, and users would only interact with the information and user community on that BBS alone. However, as BBSes became more widespread, there evolved a desire to connect systems together to share messages and files with distant systems and users. The largest such network was FidoNet.
As is it was prohibitively expensive for the hobbyist SysOp to have a dedicated connection to another system, FidoNet was developed as a store and forward network. Private email (Netmail), public message boards (Echomail) and eventually even file attachments on a FidoNet-capable BBS would be bundled into one or more archive files over a set time interval. These archive files were then compressed with ARC or ZIP and forwarded to (or polled by) another nearby node or hub via a dialup Xmodem session. Messages would be relayed around various FidoNet hubs until they were eventually delivered to their destination. The hierarchy of FidoNet BBS nodes, hubs, and zones was maintained in a routing table called a Nodelist. Some larger BBSes or regional FidoNet hubs would make several transfers per day, some even to multiple nodes or hubs, and as such, transfers usually occurred at night or early morning when toll rates were lowest. In Fido’s heyday, sending a Netmail message to a user on a distant FidoNet node, or participating in an Echomail discussion could take days, especially if any FidoNet nodes or hubs in the message’s route only made one transfer call per day.
FidoNet was platform-independent and would work with any BBS that was written to use it. BBSes that did not have integrated FidoNet capability could usually add it using an external FidoNet front-end mailer such as SEAdog, FrontDoor, BinkleyTerm, InterMail or D’Bridge, and a mail processor such as FastEcho or Squish. The front-end mailer would conduct the periodic FidoNet transfers, while the mail processor would usually run just before and just after the mailer ran. This program would scan for and pack up new outgoing messages, and then unpack, sort and “toss” the incoming messages into a BBS user’s local email box or into the BBS’s local message bases reserved for Echomail. As such, these mail processors were commonly called “scanner/tosser/packers.”
Many other BBS networks followed the example of FidoNet, using the same standards and the same software. These were called FidoNet Technology Networks (FTNs). They were usually smaller and targeted at selected audiences. Some networks used QWK doors, and others such as RelayNet (RIME) and WWIVnet used non-Fido software and standards.
Before commercial Internet access became common, these networks of BBSes provided regional and international e-mail and message bases. Some even provided gateways, such as UFGATE, by which members could send/receive e-mail to/from the Internet via UUCP, and many FidoNet discussion groups were shared via gateway to Usenet. Elaborate schemes allowed users to download binary files, search gopherspace, and interact with distant programs, all using plain text e-mail.
As the volume of FidoNet Mail increased and newsgroups from the early days of the Internet became available, satellite data downstream services became viable for larger systems. The satellite service provided access to FidoNet and Usenet newsgroups in large volumes at a reasonable fee. By connecting a small dish & receiver, a constant downstream of thousands of FidoNet and Usenet newsgroups could be received. The local BBS only needed to upload new outgoing messages via the modem network back to the satellite service. This method drastically reduced phone data transfers while dramatically increasing the number of message forums.
FidoNet is still in use today, though in a much smaller form, and many Echomail groups are still shared with Usenet via FidoNet to Usenet gateways. Widespread abuse of Usenet with spam and pornography has led to many of these FidoNet gateways to cease operation completely.
Shareware and Freeware
Much of the shareware movement was started via user distribution of software through BBSes. A notable example was Phil Katz’s PKARC (and later PKZIP, using the same “.zip” algorithm that WinZip and other popular archivers now use); also other concepts of software distribution like freeware, postcardware like JPEGview and donationware like Red Ryder for the Macintosh first appeared on BBS sites. Doom from id Software and nearly all Apogee Software games were distributed as shareware (Apogee is, in fact, credited for adding an order form to a shareware demo). The Internet has largely erased the distinction of shareware – most users now download the software directly from the developer’s website rather than receiving it from another BBS user ‘sharing’ it. Today shareware is commonly used to mean electronically distributed software from a small developer.
Many commercial BBS software companies that continue to support their old BBS software products switched to the shareware model or made it entirely free. Some companies were able to make the move to the Internet and provide commercial products with BBS capabilities.
A classic BBS had:
- A computer
- One or more modems
- One or more phone lines, with more allowing for increased concurrent users
- A BBS software package
- A sysop – system operator
- A user community
The BBS software usually provides:
- Menu Systems
- One or more message bases
- Uploading and downloading of message packets in QWK format using XMODEM, YMODEM or ZMODEM
- File areas
- SysOp side, live viewing of all caller activity
- Voting – opinion booths
- Statistics on message posters, top uploaders / downloaders
- Online games (usually single player or only a single active player at a given time)
- A doorway to third-party online games
- Usage auditing capabilities
- Multi-user chat (only possible on multi-line BBSes)
- Internet email (more common in later Internet-connected BBSes)
- Networked message boards
- Most modern BBSes allow telnet access over the Internet using a telnet server and a virtual FOSSIL driver.
- A “yell for SysOp” page caller side menu item that sounded an audible alarm to the SysOp. If chosen, the SysOp could then initiate a text-to-text chat with the caller.
- Primitive social networking features, such as leaving messages on a user’s profile
is a worldwide distributed discussion system available on computers. It was developed from the general-purpose Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) dial-up network architecture. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea in 1979, and it was established in 1980. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet resembles a bulletin board system (BBS) in many respects and is the precursor to Internet forums that became widely used. Discussions are threaded, as with web forums and BBSs, though posts are stored on the server sequentially.
A major difference between a BBS or web forum and Usenet is the absence of a central server and dedicated administrator. Usenet is distributed among a large, constantly changing conglomeration of news servers that store and forward messages to one another via “news feeds”. Individual users may read messages from and post messages to a local server, which may be operated by anyone.
Usenet is culturally and historically significant in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as “FAQ”, “flame”, sockpuppet, and “spam”. In the early 1990s, shortly before access to the Internet became commonly affordable, Usenet connections via Fidonet’s dial-up BBS networks made long-distance or worldwide discussions and other communication widespread, not needing a server, just (local) telephone service.
The name Usenet comes from the term “users network”. The first Usenet group was NET.general, which quickly became net.general. The first commercial spam on Usenet was from immigration attorneys Canter and Siegel advertising green card services.
Usenet was conceived in 1979 and publicly established in 1980, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University over a decade before the World Wide Web went online (and thus before the general public received access to the Internet), making it one of the oldest computer network communications systems still in widespread use. It was originally built on the “poor man’s ARPANET”, employing UUCP as its transport protocol to offer mail and file transfers, as well as announcements through the newly developed news software such as A News. The name “Usenet” emphasizes its creators’ hope that the USENIX organization would take an active role in its operation.
The articles that users post to Usenet are organized into topical categories known as newsgroups, which are themselves logically organized into hierarchies of subjects. For instance, sci.math and sci.physics are within the sci.* hierarchy. Or, talk.origins and talk.atheism are in the talk.* hierarchy. When a user subscribes to a newsgroup, the news client software keeps track of which articles that user has read.
In most newsgroups, the majority of the articles are responses to some other article. The set of articles that can be traced to one single non-reply article is called a thread. Most modern newsreaders display the articles arranged into threads and subthreads. For example, in the wine-making newsgroup; “rec.crafts.winemaking,” someone might start a thread called; “What’s the best yeast?” and that thread or conversation might grow into dozens of replies long, by perhaps six or eight different authors. Over several days, that conversation about different wine yeasts might branch into several sub-threads in a tree-like form.
When a user posts an article, it is initially only available on that user’s news server. Each news server talks to one or more other servers (its “newsfeeds”) and exchanges articles with them. In this fashion, the article is copied from server to server and should eventually reach every server in the network. The later peer-to-peer networks operate on a similar principle, but for Usenet it is normally the sender, rather than the receiver, who initiates transfers. Usenet was designed under conditions when networks were much slower and not always available. Many sites on the original Usenet network would connect only once or twice a day to batch-transfer messages in and out.This is largely because the POTS network was typically used for transfers, and phone charges were lower at night.
The format and transmission of Usenet articles is similar to that of Internet e-mail messages. The difference between the two is that Usenet articles can be read by any user whose news server carries the group to which the message was posted, as opposed to email messages, which have one or more specific recipients.
Today, Usenet has diminished in importance with respect to Internet forums, blogs, mailing lists and social media. Usenet differs from such media in several ways: Usenet requires no personal registration with the group concerned; information need not be stored on a remote server; archives are always available; and reading the messages does not require a mail or web client, but a news client. However, it is now possible to read and participate in Usenet newsgroups to a large degree using ordinary web browsers since most newsgroups are now copied to several web sites.The groups in alt.binaries are still widely used for data transfer.
Many Internet service providers, and many other Internet sites, operate news servers for their users to access. ISPs that do not operate their own servers directly will often offer their users an account from another provider that specifically operates newsfeeds. In early news implementations, the server and newsreader were a single program suite, running on the same system. Today, one uses separate newsreader client software, a program that resembles an email client but accesses Usenet servers instead.
Not all ISPs run news servers. A news server is one of the most difficult Internet services to administer because of the large amount of data involved, small customer base (compared to mainstream Internet service), and a disproportionately high volume of customer support incidents (frequently complaining of missing news articles). Some ISPs outsource news operations to specialist sites, which will usually appear to a user as though the ISP itself runs the server. Many of these sites carry a restricted newsfeed, with a limited number of newsgroups. Commonly omitted from such a newsfeed are foreign-language newsgroups and the alt.binaries hierarchy which largely carries software, music, videos and images, and accounts for over 99 percent of article data.
There are also Usenet providers that offer a full unrestricted service to users whose ISPs do not carry news, or that carry a restricted feed.
Newsgroup experiments first occurred in 1979. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis of Duke University came up with the idea as a replacement for a local announcement program, and established a link with nearby University of North Carolina using Bourne shell scripts written by Steve Bellovin. The public release of news was in the form of conventional compiled software, written by Steve Daniel and Truscott.In 1980, Usenet was connected to ARPANET through UC Berkeley which had connections to both Usenet and ARPANET. Mark Horton, the graduate student who set up the connection, began “feeding mailing lists from the ARPANET into Usenet” with the “fa” (“From ARPANET”) identifier.Usenet gained 50 member sites in its first year, including Reed College, University of Oklahoma, and Bell Labs,and the number of people using the network increased dramatically; however, it was still a while longer before Usenet users could contribute to ARPANET.
UUCP networks spread quickly due to the lower costs involved, and the ability to use existing leased lines, X.25 links or even ARPANET connections. By 1983, thousands of people participated from more than 500 hosts, mostly universities and Bell Labs sites but also a growing number of Unix-related companies; the number of hosts nearly doubled to 940 in 1984. More than 100 newsgroups existed, more than 20 devoted to Unix and other computer-related topics, and at least a third to recreation.As the mesh of UUCP hosts rapidly expanded, it became desirable to distinguish the Usenet subset from the overall network. A vote was taken at the 1982 USENIX conference to choose a new name. The name Usenet was retained, but it was established that it only applied to news.The name UUCPNET became the common name for the overall network.
In addition to UUCP, early Usenet traffic was also exchanged with Fidonet and other dial-up BBS networks. By the mid-1990s there were almost 40,000 FidoNet systems in operation, and it was possible to communicate with millions of users around the world, with only local telephone service. Widespread use of Usenet by the BBS community was facilitated by the introduction of UUCP feeds made possible by MS-DOS implementations of UUCP, such as UFGATE (UUCP to FidoNet Gateway), FSUUCP and UUPC. In 1986, RFC 977 provided the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) specification for distribution of Usenet articles over TCP/IP as a more flexible alternative to informal Internet transfers of UUCP traffic. Since the Internet boom of the 1990s, almost all Usenet distribution is over NNTP.
Early versions of Usenet used Duke’s A News software, designed for one or two articles a day. Matt Glickman and Horton at Berkeley produced an improved version called B News that could handle the rising traffic (about 50 articles a day as of late 1983).With a message format that offered compatibility with Internet mail and improved performance, it became the dominant server software. C News, developed by Geoff Collyer and Henry Spencer at the University of Toronto, was comparable to B News in features but offered considerably faster processing. In the early 1990s, InterNetNews by Rich Salz was developed to take advantage of the continuous message flow made possible by NNTP versus the batched store-and-forward design of UUCP. Since that time INN development has continued, and other news server software has also been developed
Newsgroups are typically accessed with newsreaders: applications that allow users to read and reply to postings in newsgroups. These applications act as clients to one or more news servers. Historically, Usenet was associated with the Unix operating system developed at AT&T, but newsreaders are now available for all major operating systems. Modern mail clients or “communication suites” commonly also have an integrated newsreader. Often, however, these integrated clients are of low quality, compared to standalone newsreaders, and incorrectly implement Usenet protocols, standards and conventions. Many of these integrated clients, for example the one in Microsoft’s Outlook Express, are disliked by purists because of their misbehavior.
With the rise of the World Wide Web (WWW), web front-ends (web2news) have become more common. Web front ends have lowered the technical entry barrier requirements to that of one application and no Usenet NNTP server account. There are numerous websites now offering web based gateways to Usenet groups, although some people have begun filtering messages made by some of the web interfaces for one reason or another.Google Groups is one such web based front end and some web browsers can access Google Groups via news: protocol links directly.
Moderated and Unmoderated Newsgroups
A minority of newsgroups are moderated, meaning that messages submitted by readers are not distributed directly to Usenet, but instead are emailed to the moderators of the newsgroup for approval. The moderator is to receive submitted articles, review them, and inject approved articles so that they can be properly propagated worldwide. Articles approved by a moderator must bear the Approved: header line. Moderators ensure that the messages that readers see in the newsgroup conform to the charter of the newsgroup, though they are not required to follow any such rules or guidelines.Typically, moderators are appointed in the proposal for the newsgroup, and changes of moderators follow a succession plan.
Historically, a mod.* hierarchy existed before Usenet reorganization.Now, moderated newsgroups may appear in any hierarchy, typically with .moderated added to the group name.
Usenet newsgroups in the Big-8 hierarchy are created by proposals called a Request for Discussion, or RFD. The RFD is required to have the following information: newsgroup name, checkgroups file entry, and moderated or unmoderated status. If the group is to be moderated, then at least one moderator with a valid email address must be provided. Other information which is beneficial but not required includes: a charter, a rationale, and a moderation policy if the group is to be moderated.Discussion of the new newsgroup proposal follows, and is finished with the members of the Big-8 Management Board making the decision, by vote, to either approve or disapprove the new newsgroup.
Unmoderated newsgroups form the majority of Usenet newsgroups, and messages submitted by readers for unmoderated newsgroups are immediately propagated for everyone to see. Minimal editorial content filtering vs propagation speed form one crux of the Usenet community. One little cited defense of propagation is canceling a propagated message, but few Usenet users use this command and some news readers do not offer cancellation commands, in part because article storage expires in relatively short order anyway. Almost all unmoderated Usenet groups have become collections of spam
Usenet is a set of protocols for generating, storing and retrieving news “articles” (which resemble Internet mail messages) and for exchanging them among a readership which is potentially widely distributed. These protocols most commonly use a flooding algorithm which propagates copies throughout a network of participating servers. Whenever a message reaches a server, that server forwards the message to all its network neighbors that haven’t yet seen the article. Only one copy of a message is stored per server, and each server makes it available on demand to the (typically local) readers able to access that server. The collection of Usenet servers has thus a certain peer-to-peer character in that they share resources by exchanging them, the granularity of exchange however is on a different scale than a modern peer-to-peer system and this characteristic excludes the actual users of the system who connect to the news servers with a typical client-server application, much like an email reader.
RFC 850 was the first formal specification of the messages exchanged by Usenet servers. It was superseded by RFC 1036 and subsequently by RFC 5536 and RFC 5537.
In cases where unsuitable content has been posted, Usenet has support for automated removal of a posting from the whole network by creating a cancel message, although due to a lack of authentication and resultant abuse, this capability is frequently disabled. Copyright holders may still request the manual deletion of infringing material using the provisions of World Intellectual Property Organization treaty implementations, such as the United States Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, but this would require giving notice to each individual news server administrator.
On the Internet, Usenet is transported via the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) on TCP Port 119 for standard, unprotected connections and on TCP port 563 for SSL encrypted connections.
The major set of worldwide newsgroups is contained within nine hierarchies, eight of which are operated under consensual guidelines that govern their administration and naming. The current Big Eight are:
comp.* – computer-related discussions (comp.software, comp.sys.amiga)
humanities.* – fine arts, literature, and philosophy (humanities.classics, humanities.design.misc)
misc.* – miscellaneous topics (misc.education, misc.forsale, misc.kids)
news.* – discussions and announcements about news (meaning Usenet, not current events) (news.groups, news.admin)
rec.* – recreation and entertainment (rec.music, rec.arts.movies)
sci.* – science related discussions (sci.psychology, sci.research)
soc.* – social discussions (soc.college.org, soc.culture.african)
talk.* – talk about various controversial topics (talk.religion, talk.politics, talk.origins)
See also the Great Renaming.
The alt.* hierarchy is not subject to the procedures controlling groups in the Big Eight, and it is as a result less organized. Groups in the alt.* hierarchy tend to be more specialized or specific—for example, there might be a newsgroup under the Big Eight which contains discussions about children’s books, but a group in the alt hierarchy may be dedicated to one specific author of children’s books. Binaries are posted in alt.binaries.*, making it the largest of all the hierarchies.
Many other hierarchies of newsgroups are distributed alongside these. Regional and language-specific hierarchies such as japan., malta. and ne.* serve specific countries and regions such as Japan, Malta and New England. Companies and projects administer their own hierarchies to discuss their products and offer community technical support, such as the historical gnu.* hierarchy from the Free Software Foundation. Microsoft closed its newsserver in June 2010, providing support for its products over forums now. Some users prefer to use the term “Usenet” to refer only to the Big Eight hierarchies; others include alt.* as well. The more general term “netnews” incorporates the entire medium, including private organizational news systems.
Informal sub-hierarchy conventions also exist. *.answers are typically moderated cross-post groups for FAQs. An FAQ would be posted within one group and a cross post to the *.answers group at the head of the hierarchy seen by some as a refining of information in that news group. Some subgroups are recursive—to the point of some silliness in alt.*
Usenet was originally created to distribute text content encoded in the 7-bit ASCII character set. With the help of programs that encode 8-bit values into ASCII, it became practical to distribute binary files as content. Binary posts, due to their size and often-dubious copyright status, were in time restricted to specific newsgroups, making it easier for administrators to allow or disallow the traffic.
The oldest widely used encoding method for binary content is uuencode, from the Unix UUCP package. In the late 1980s, Usenet articles were often limited to 60,000 characters, and larger hard limits exist today. Files are therefore commonly split into sections that require reassembly by the reader.
With the header extensions and the Base64 and Quoted-Printable MIME encodings, there was a new generation of binary transport. In practice, MIME has seen increased adoption in text messages, but it is avoided for most binary attachments. Some operating systems with metadata attached to files use specialized encoding formats. For Mac OS, both BinHex and special MIME types are used. Other lesser known encoding systems that may have been used at one time were BTOA, XX encoding, BOO, and USR encoding.
In an attempt to reduce file transfer times, an informal file encoding known as yEnc was introduced in 2001. It achieves about a 30% reduction in data transferred by assuming that most 8-bit characters can safely be transferred across the network without first encoding into the 7-bit ASCII space. The most common method of uploading large binary posts to Usenet is to convert the files into RAR archives and create Parchive files for them. Parity files are used to recreate missing data when not every part of the files reaches a server.
Binary Retention Time
Each news server allocates a certain amount of storage space for content in each newsgroup. When this storage has been filled, each time a new post arrives, old posts are deleted to make room for the new content. If the network bandwidth available to a server is high but the storage allocation is small, it is possible for a huge flood of incoming content to overflow the allocation and push out everything that was in the group before it. The average length of time that posts are able to stay on the server before being deleted is commonly called the retention time.
Binary newsgroups are only able to function reliably if there is sufficient storage allocated to handle the amount of articles being added. Without sufficient retention time, a reader will be unable to download all parts of the binary before it is flushed out of the group’s storage allocation. This was at one time how posting undesired content was countered; the newsgroup would be flooded with random garbage data posts, of sufficient quantity to push out all the content to be suppressed. This has been compensated by service providers allocating enough storage to retain everything posted each day, including spam floods, without deleting anything.
Modern Usenet news servers have enough capacity to archive years of binary content even when flooded with new data at the maximum daily speed available.
In part because of such long retention times, as well as growing Internet upload speeds, Usenet is also used by individual users to store backup data.While commercial providers offer easier to use online backup services, storing data on Usenet is free of charge (although access to Usenet itself may not be). The method requires the uploader to cede control over the distribution of the data; the files are automatically disseminated to all Usenet providers exchanging data for the news group it is posted to. In general the user must manually select, prepare and upload the data. The data is typically encrypted because it is available to anyone to download the backup files. After the files are uploaded, having multiple copies spread to different geographical regions around the world on different news servers decreases the chances of data loss.
Major Usenet service providers have a retention time of more than 12 years.This results in more than 60 petabytes (60000 terabytes) of storage. When using Usenet for data storage, providers that offer longer retention time are preferred to ensure the data will survive for longer periods of time compared to services with lower retention time.
While binary newsgroups can be used to distribute completely legal user-created works, open-source software, and public domain material, some binary groups are used to illegally distribute commercial software, copyrighted media, and pornographic material.
ISP-operated Usenet servers frequently block access to all alt.binaries.* groups to both reduce network traffic and to avoid related legal issues. Commercial Usenet service providers claim to operate as a telecommunications service, and assert that they are not responsible for the user-posted binary content transferred via their equipment. In the United States, Usenet providers can qualify for protection under the DMCA Safe Harbor regulations, provided that they establish a mechanism to comply with and respond to takedown notices from copyright holders.
Removal of copyrighted content from the entire Usenet network is a nearly impossible task, due to the rapid propagation between servers and the retention done by each server. Petitioning a Usenet provider for removal only removes it from that one server’s retention cache, but not any others. It is possible for a special post cancellation message to be distributed to remove it from all servers, but many providers ignore cancel messages by standard policy, because they can be easily falsified and submitted by anyone. For a takedown petition to be most effective across the whole network, it would have to be issued to the origin server to which the content has been posted, before it has been propagated to other servers. Removal of the content at this early stage would prevent further propagation, but with modern high speed links, content can be propagated as fast as it arrives, allowing no time for content review and takedown issuance by copyright holders.
Establishing the identity of the person posting illegal content is equally difficult due to the trust-based design of the network. Like SMTP email, servers generally assume the header and origin information in a post is true and accurate. However, as in SMTP email, Usenet post headers are easily falsified so as to obscure the true identity and location of the message source.In this manner, Usenet is significantly different from modern P2P services; most P2P users distributing content are typically immediately identifiable to all other users by their network address, but the origin information for a Usenet posting can be completely obscured and unobtainable once it has propagated past the original server.
Also unlike modern P2P services, the identity of the downloaders is hidden from view. On P2P services a downloader is identifiable to all others by their network address. On Usenet, the downloader connects directly to a server, and only the server knows the address of who is connecting to it. Some Usenet providers do keep usage logs, but not all make this logged information casually available to outside parties such as the Recording Industry Association of America.The existence of anonymising gateways to USENET also complicates the tracing of a postings true origin.
Minitel / Ibertext
Officially TELETEL the name Minitel is abbreviated from the French title of Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique (Interactive medium for digitized information by telephone).
The Minitel was a videotex online service accessible through telephone lines, and was the world’s most successful online service prior to the World Wide Web. It was invented in Cesson-Sévigné, near Rennes in Brittany, France.
The service was rolled out experimentally on 15 July 1980 in Saint-Malo, France, and from autumn 1980 in other areas, and introduced commercially throughout France in 1982 by the PTT (Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones; divided since 1991 between France Télécom and La Poste).From its early days, users could make online purchases, make train reservations, check stock prices, search the telephone directory, have a mail box, and chat in a similar way to what is now made possible by the World Wide Web.
In February 2009, France Télécom indicated the Minitel network still had 10 million monthly connections. France Télécom retired the service on 30 June 2012.
In 1978, Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones, the French PTT organisation, began designing the Minitel network. By distributing terminals that could access a nationwide electronic directory of telephone and address information, it hoped to increase use of the country’s 23 million phone lines, and reduce the costs of printing printed phone books and employing directory assistance personnel.Millions of terminals were given for free (officially loans, and property of the PTT) to telephone subscribers. The telephone company emphasized ease of use; one observer wrote that “the Minitel terminal requires slightly more training than a toaster to operate”. By offering a popular service on simple, free equipment, Minitel achieved high market penetration and avoided the chicken and the egg problem that prevented widespread adoption of such a system in the United States. In exchange for the terminal, Minitel owners would only be given the yellow pages (classified commercial listings, with advertisements). The white pages were accessible for free on Minitel, and they could be searched much faster than flipping through a paper directory. According to the PTT, during the first eight years of nationwide operation 8 billion francs was spent on purchasing terminals, a profit of 3,5 billion francs was made after deduction of payments passed on to information providers such as newspapers, and an average of 500 million francs annually was saved by printing fewer phone books.
A trial with just 55 residential and business telephone customers using experimental terminals began in Saint-Malo on 15 July 1980, two days after 13 July presentation by Minitel to President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.This expanded to 2,500 customers in other regions in autumn 1980. Starting in May 1981, 4,000 experimental terminals with a different design were distributed in Ille-et-Vilaine, and commercial service using Minitel terminals began in 1982.
By early 1986 1.4 million terminals were connected to Minitel, with plans to distribute another million by the end of the year. To reduce opposition from newspapers worried about competition from an electronic network, they were allowed to establish the first consumer services on Minitel. Libération offered 24-hour online news, such as results from events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that occurred overnight in France.Providers advertised their own services in their own publications, which helped market the overall Minitel network.Others founded newspapers solely to create Minitel services.
By 1988 three million terminals were installed, with 100,000 new units installed monthly. The telephone directory received 23 million calls monthly, with 40,000 updates daily. About 6,000 other services were available, with 250 added monthly. France Télécom estimated that almost 9 million terminals—including web-enabled personal computers (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux)—had access to the network at the end of 1999, and that it was used by 25 million people (of a total population of 60 million). Developed by 10,000 companies, in 1996, almost 26,000 different services were available.
The telephone company only provided the white pages, otherwise building infrastructure for others to provide services. Minitel allowed access to various categories:
- phone directory (free)
- mail-order retail companies
- airline or train ticket purchases
- information services
- message boards
- online dating services
- computer games
The development of Minitel spawned the creation of many start-up companies in a manner similar to the later dot-com bubble of World Wide Web-related companies. Similarly, many of those small companies floundered because of an overcrowded market or bad business practices (lack of infrastructure for online retailers).
By 1985 games and electronic messaging were 42% of Minitel traffic and messaging was 17% of traffic in 1988. Messageries roses (“pink messages”, adult chat services hosted by operators pretending to be receptive women) were unexpectedly very popular, embarrassing government officials who preferred to discuss growing business usage of messaging. Widespread street advertising marketed services such as “3615 Sextel”, “Jane”, “kiss”, “3615 penthouse”, and “men”.They and other pornographic sites were also criticized for their possible access by minors. The government chose not to enact coercive measures, however, stating that the regulation of the online activities of children was up to parents, not the government. The government did, however, levy a tax on pornographic online services.
- Credit card for purchases
- Telephone bill for surfing time: rates depend on the sites visited
Users first subscribed to individual services, but traffic grew quickly after the telephone company offered a “kiosk” model (named after newsagent’s shops). Minitel and voice charges appeared combined on the monthly telephone bill, with no breakout of fees. Service providers received two-thirds of the $10 an hour that customers typically paid as of 1988. As the telephone company handled bill collection, and users who did not pay bills lost telephone service, the customer acquisition cost for service providers was low. The single bill encouraged impulse shopping, in which users intending to use one service found and used others while browsing. As users’ identities and services were anonymous, Minitel use was high at work where companies paid for telephone service.
In 1985 France Télécom earned 620 million francs (approximately $70 million) from Minitel. 2,000 private companies earned 289 million francs (about $35 million) during the year; Libération earned 2.5 million francs (about $300,000) from the service in September.In the late 1990s, Minitel connections were stable at 100 million a month plus 150 million online directory inquiries, in spite of growing use of the World Wide Web.
In 1998, Minitel generated €832 million ($1,121 million) of revenue, of which €521 million was channelled by France Télécom to service providers.
Minitel sales in the late 1990s accounted for almost 15% of sales at La Redoute and 3 Suisses, France’s biggest mail order companies. In 2005, the most popular Minitel application was Teleroute, the online real-time freight exchange, which accounted for nearly 8% of Minitel usage.
In December 1985 Minitel users made more than 22 million calls, up 400% in one year. In 1994 they made 1,913 million Minitel calls, used the system for 110 million hours, and spent 6.6 billion francs. In 2005, there were 351 million calls for 18.5 million hours of connection, generating €206 million of revenue, of which €145 million were redistributed to 2,000 service providers (these numbers were declining at around 30% per year). There were still six million terminals owned by France Télécom, which had been left with their users in order to avoid recycling problems. The main uses were banking and financial services, which benefit from Minitel’s security features, and access to professional databases. France Télécom mentions, as an example of usage, that 12 million updates to personal “carte vitale” health-care cards were made through Minitel.
In 2007, revenue was well over $100 million.
In 2010, €30 million in revenues with 85% of those revenues going to service providers.
The most popular service of the Minitel was the “Annuaire Electronique”; in 1985 about half of the calls on the network were to it.In May of that year a white pages directory for all 24 million telephone subscribers nationwide became available.It was accessible through the phone number 11; on 18 October 1996 (new French numbering system adopted), the access to the phone directory changed to 3611. Companies could add up to 3 lines of complementary information and a “prehistoric” website. Ads to the Minitel phone directory were sold by ODA (Office d’Annonces), today Solocal / Pages Jaunes Groupe in Sèvres France. In 1991, the “Minitel Website” for the Paris Sony Stores contained already over 100 pages. Today the 3611 Minitel Directory is replaced by the online white or yellow pages.
On 11 February 2009, France Télécom and PagesJaunes announced that they were to cancel plans to end the Minitel service in March 2009. Its directory assistance service was still being accessed over a million times a month. This was before France Télécom retired the service on 30 June 2012, on account of operational cost and fewer customers due to lack of interest.
Minitel used computer terminals consisting of a text-only monochrome screen, a keyboard and a modem, packaged into a single tabletop unit. Minitel terminals could display rudimentary graphics using a set of predefined block graphics characters. Color units were later available for a fee, but remained seldom-used. Aftermarket printers were available.
Minitel used the existing Transpac network, but its popularity caused problems for the network’s commercial users. After a severe disruption in June 1985, France Télécom separated business traffic from Télétel, dedicated to the Minitel service. When connecting, the Minitel’s integrated modem generally dialed a short code number connecting to a PAVI (Point d’Accès VIdéotexte, “videotext access point”) from the subscriber’s analog telephone line. The PAVI in turn connected digitally via Transpac to the destination servers of the appropriate company or administration.
In France the most common dial number was “3615”, while “3617” was used by more expensive services. Minitel services names were often prefixed with this number to identify them as such. Billboard ads at the time often consisted of nothing more than an image, a company name, and a “3615” number; the fact that a Minitel service was being advertised was then clear by implication, similarly to the use of “.com” for later web services.
Minitel used a half-duplex asymmetric data transmission via its modem. It downlinked at 1200 bit/s (9 KB/min) and uplinked at 75 bit/s (0.6 KB/min). This allowed fast downloads, for the time. The system, which came to be known as “1275” was more correctly known as V.23. This system had been developed for general-purpose data communications, but was most commonly used for Minitel and equivalent services around the world.
Technically, Minitel refers to the terminals, while the network is known as Télétel.
Minitel terminals use the AZERTY keyboard most commonly used in France (as opposed to the QWERTY keyboard more common in the English-speaking world).
Minitel and The Internet
The extent to which Minitel enhanced or hindered the development of the Internet in France is widely debated. On the one hand, it included more than a thousand services, some of which predicted common applications on the modern Internet.For example, in 1986, French university students coordinated a national strike using Minitel, demonstrating an early use of digital communication devices for participatory technopolitical ends. Alternatively, the French government’s attachment to the natively developed Minitel may have slowed the adoption of the Internet in France; in the 1990s there was a peak of nine million terminals and there were still 810,000 terminals in the country in 2012. In the short term, some resources at France Telecom (now Orange) were dedicated to the development of Minitel that might have otherwise been focused on Internet development. However, France Telecom’s focus on Minitel had little or no long-term effect on adoption or development of internet- and web-based companies in France; France ranks roughly equal to the US and Germany in the current penetration of high-speed internet in households.
Minitel in Other Countries
- Belgium: Minitel was launched by Belgacom and delivered services led by Teleroute. Although it was used by businesses, it was rarely used by the public. The main reason was that the terminals were not offered for free as in France and that usage of the service was expensive (50 Euro cents a minute).
- Brazil: Telebrás had a teletext service called “Videotexto” or “VTX” during the 1980s and 1990s with services provided by local telephone companies such as Telesp (now part of Telefônica Vivo). Services included chats, games, telephone list search, and electronic banking, among others. The Minitel protocol is still used by some cable TV companies to provide general information to their customers.
- Canada: Bell Canada experimented with a Minitel-like system known as Alex with terminals called AlexTel. The system was conceptually similar to Minitel, but used the Canadian NAPLPS protocols and North American Bell System RJ-11 standard telephone connectors. Originally launched experimentally in the Montreal area, Alex was then launched in most areas served by Bell Canada (primarily Ontario and Quebec) with offers of a free trial period and terminal. The principal information offering was the telephone directory. Although branded as a “bilingual” (English and French Canadian) service, the majority of other services offered were the experimental ones originally offered in Quebec and completely Francophone. Retention rates were reportedly close to zero. The service closed down shortly after exiting the experimental stage. Telidon was an earlier Canadian text and graphics service using the same technological underpinnings.
- Finland: In 1986, PTL-Tele, then Sonera (now part of Telia Company) launched the on-line service called TeleSampo. TeleSampo included not only videotex services, but also many other Ascii-based Value Added Services (VAS). Roughly at the same time, HPY HTF (now Elisa) launched a videotex service called Infotel (fi). TeleSampo service was switched off in 2004.
- Germany: “Bildschirmtext” (BTX) that existed between 1983 and 2001 is almost as old as Minitel and technically very similar, but it was largely unsuccessful because consumers had to buy expensive decoders to use it. The German postal service held a monopoly on the decoders that prevented competition and lower prices. Few people bought the boxes, so there was little incentive for companies to post content, which in turn did nothing to further box sales. When the monopoly was loosened, it was too late because PC-based online services had started to appear.
- Ireland: Minitel was introduced to Ireland by Eir (then called Telecom Éireann) in 1988. The system was based on the French model and Irish services were even accessible from France via the code “36 19 Irlande”. A number of major Irish businesses came together to offer a range of online services, including directory information, shopping, banking, hotel reservations, airline reservations, news, weather and information services. The system was also the first platform in Ireland to offer users access to e-mail outside of a corporate setting. Despite being cutting edge for its time, the system failed to capture a large market and was ultimately withdrawn due to lack of commercial interest. The rise of the internet and other global online services in the early to mid-1990s played a major factor in the death of Irish Minitel. Minitel Ireland’s terminals were technically identical to their French counterparts, except that they had a Qwerty keyboard and an RJ-11 telephone jack which is the standard telephone connector in Ireland. Terminals could be rented for 5.00 Irish pounds (6.35 euros) per month or purchased for 250.00 Irish pounds (317.43 euros) in 1992.
- Italy: In 1985 the national telephone operator SIP – Società italiana per l’esercizio telefonico (now known as Telecom Italia) launched the Videotel (it) service. The system use was charged on a per-page basis. Due to the excessive cost of the hardware and the expensive services, diffusion was very low, leading to the diffusion of a FidoNet-oriented movement. The service was shut down in 1994.
- Netherlands: The then state-owned phone company PTT (now KPN) operated two platforms: Viditel (nl) and Videotex Nederland (nl). The main difference was that Viditel used one big central host where Videotex NL used a central access system responsible for realizing the correct connection to the required host: owned and managed by others. Viditel was introduced on 7 August 1980, and required a Vidimodem as well as a compatible home computer (one such example was the Philips P2000T which had a built-in Teletext chip) or a television set which could support Teletext; the required equipment itself would cost anywhere between 3000 and 5000 Dutch guilders overall. Viditel was shut down in September 1989 due to high operating costs and was succeeded by the cheaper and more widely used Videotex Nederland. The Videotex NL services offered access via several premium rate numbers and the information/service provider could choose the costs for accessing his service. Depending on the number used, the tariff could vary from 0–1 guilders (0.00–0.45 euro) per minute. Some private networks such as Travelnet (for travel-agencies) and RDWNet for automotive industry, used the same platform as Videotex NL but used dedicated dial-in phone numbers, dedicated access-hardware and also used authentication. Although the protocol used in France for Minitel was slightly different than the international standard you could use the ‘international’ terminal (or PC’s with the correct terminal-emulation software) to access the French services. It was possible to connect to most French Minitel services via the Dutch Videotex NL network, but the price per minute was considerably higher: most French Minitel services were reachable via the dial-in number 06-7900 which had a tariff of 1 guilder/minute (approx. €0,45/minute). Videotex Nederland was eventually shut down in 1997, and the parent company behind Videotex Nederland was subsequently renamed as Planet Media Group.
- Singapore: Singapore Teleview was first trialled by the Telecom Authority of Singapore (now Singtel) beginning in 1987, and was formally launched in 1991. The Teleview system, while similar in concept to the Minitel and Prestel, was unique in that it was able to display photographic images instead of graphical images used by Minitel and Prestel. Teleview was eventually rendered obsolete by SLIP/PPP-based modem Internet connections in the late-1990s.
- South Africa: Videotex was introduced by Telkom in 1986 and named Beltel. The Minitel was introduced later to popularise the service.
- Spain: Videotex was introduced by Telefónica in 1990 and named Ibertex. The Ibertex was based on the French model but used the German Bildschirmtext CEPT-1 profile.
- Sweden: Swedish state-owned telephone company Televerket (now Telia Company) introduced a similar service, called Teleguide (sv), in 1991. Teleguide was shut down in 1993 due to a contract dispute between Televerket and the vendors IBM and Esselte.
- United Kingdom: The Prestel system was similar in concept to Minitel, using dedicated terminals or software on personal computers to access the network.
- United States: In 1991, France Télécom launched a Minitel service called “101 Online” in San Francisco; this venture was not successful.In the early 1990s US West (subsequently Qwest and now CenturyLink) launched a Minitel service in the Minneapolis and Omaha markets called “CommunityLink”. This joint venture of US West and France Télécom provided Minitel content to IBM PC, Commodore 64 and Apple II owners using a Minitel-emulating software application over a dialup modem. Many of the individual services were the same as or similar to those offered by France Télécom to the French market; in fact, some chat services linked up with France Télécom’s network in France. The service was fairly short-lived as competing offerings from providers like AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe provided more services targeted at American users for a lower price. Many of US West’s Minitel offerings were charged à la carte or hourly while competitors offered monthly all-inclusive pricing.