Terminals revive art of letter-writing


April 13, 1992|By Robin Stacy | Robin Stacy,Knight-Ridder News Service VNB

In an earlier day, correspondence was king.

People conducted business, fell in love or discussed ideas, all by letter.

Then came the telegraph, and the letter's decline began. This new thing brought speed -- you could communicate your thoughts instantly. That your thoughts were no longer conveyed as a well-thought-out bit of prose was just an unfortunate consequence.

The telephone seemed to ring the letter's death knell.

But just as technology nearly brought the letter's demise, it's now providing its salvation.

Thanks to computers, good, old-fashioned correspondence is again finding its true flower. Millions of people, it seems, have something to say, and they say it daily via a range of computer connections.

Exchange of ideas is one of the big selling points of online services. Prodigy offers 30 messages a month for your $12.95, while CompuServe goes one better, with 60 messages a month for less money.

Easier to use, and to get access to, are computer bulletin boards, most of which are either free or charge a small fee. While almost all offer message exchange among users on the board, many are also connected to one or more of the national or international echomail networks.

The oldest and largest of these is FidoNet, a network of more than 11,000 BBSes exchanging messages arrayed across a wide range of topics, passed around the world via a bucket-brigade sort of organization.

Many of these topic areas, called conferences or echoes, are computer-related. Conferences exist for almost any widely used software, such as WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3; for different computer types; for particular pieces of computer hardware, such as modems, hard disks or CD-ROMs; and for different operating systems.

Most of the message traffic in the computer echoes is a mix of less-experienced participants asking questions of their better-versed peers and then bitter debates over the best answers to the questions. Some product announcements, complaints, plaudits and predictions also get thrown in.

A good number of want-ad-type echoes are full of offers to sell and

buy almost any kind of used computer equipment. FidoNet's general for-sale echo attracts a couple hundred new posts each day.

There are echoes for hobbies, from cooking to butterfly collecting to beer-making. There are echoes for different career fields, from medicine to writing.

Best of all, because of the way echomail is structured, there are no major costs to participate. Each system usually shares in a network's long-distance costs.

In FidoNet, the world is divided into single-continent zones, with each zone divided into regions, each region divided into nets, and each net consisting of nodes, or individual systems.

A number is given each of the zones, nets and nodes, so that every system has a unique address. Each Fido division -- zone, region, and net -- has one or more routing hubs, systems which collect messages from their division and pass them on to the next highest level. A message posted in an international echo on a given board would be sent to the net hub, usually a local call. That system would collect messages all day from other systems in its net (generally, all the systems within a local-calling area), and then, some time after midnight, when long-distance rates are lower, call the regional routing hub.

The regional hub would take the net's new messages and give it the new messages from the rest of FidoNet. The region would then pass its new messages to the zone and get others' new messages in return.

Special systems pass messages between the different zones and between the different network organizations.

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