Those born in the Internet age may never know the struggles and joys of the pre-internet online world. While the Internet wasn’t widely accessible to the public until the mid 1990s, there were plenty of online alternatives. There were of course the big, centralized services like CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. but local BBSes were always more fun to me (and usually free). To access this world, you basically needed three things. First, a computer of some sort. It didn’t have to be a top of the line “PC”, any 8-bit computer like the Commodore 64 would do as well. Second, you needed a modem. The faster the better but what was available and affordable changed often in those days. Finally, you needed terminal software which was a program to control the modem, accept input and display output from the remote system. It could be thought of as a pre-cursor to the web browser.
There were many communications programs to chose from. By the late 1980s, you could get pretty good ones for free but that wasn’t always the case. This particular selection, Intellicom for the Atari ST, would set you back about $70. There were certain things you needed to look for in a terminal program. You would want it to support your modem of course, and then ANSI graphics support was necessary for the best display from BBSes, and you would want support for the most popular download protocols. By the late 1980s or early 1990s this was ZModem but before that XModem was king. These were what let you download files from the BBS. This ad is from 1986 so I don’t think ZModem was around yet or at least not commonly used however Intellicom supports XModem so that would have been fine at the time. I never had an Atari ST so I’m not sure what the alternatives were in 1986.
Up until the early 1990s, BBSes were very common. Even in a relatively small town you could probably find a dozen or so. They may be dedicated to certain topics or computer types or more general. A BBS was comparable to a website today. A website may offer files to download, a discussion forum, live chat, and even games. A BBS provided exactly the same things. It’s just that typically a BBS could usually only accept one caller at a time (or occasionally 2 and more rarely 3 or 4). But that was okay, if the line was busy on one, just dial another. Later on, BBSes stopped being primarily a dial-up affair and expanded to support telnet via the Internet. They are still out there and you should definitely give one a try. You’ll still need terminal software but now it comes in the form of a telnet client. Anybody up for some L.O.R.D.?