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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bulletin Board System

Bulletin Board System, or BBS, is a computer system running software that allows users to connect and log in to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users, either through electronic mail or in public message boards. Many BBSes also offer on-line games, in which users can compete with each other, and BBSes with multiple phone lines often provide chat rooms, allowing users to interact with each other.
Although a BBS is typically an acronym for Bulletin Board System, it is sometimes also referred to as a Bulletin Board Service.
Originally BBSes were accessed only over a phone line using a modem, but by the early 1990s some BBSes allowed access via a Telnet, packet switched network, or packet radio connection.
Ward Christensen coined the term "Bulletin Board System" as a reference to the traditional cork-and-pin bulletin board often found in entrances of supermarkets, schools, libraries or other public areas where people can post messages, advertisements, or community news. By "computerizing" this method of communications, the name of the system was born: CBBS - Computerized Bulletin Board System. See History.
During their heyday from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, most BBSes were run as a hobby free of charge by the system operator (or "SysOp"), while other BBSes charged their users a subscription fee for access, or were operated by a business as a means of supporting their customers. Bulletin Board Systems were in many ways a precursor to the modern form of the World Wide Web and other aspects of the Internet.
Early BBSes were often a local phenomenon, as one had to dial into a BBS with a phone line and would have to pay additional long distance charges for a BBS out of the local calling area. Thus, many users of a given BBS usually lived in the same area, and activities such as BBS Meets or Get Togethers, where many users of the board would gather and meet face to face, were common.
As the use of the Internet became more widespread in the mid to late 1990s, traditional BBSes rapidly faded in popularity. Today, Internet forums occupy much of the same social and technological space as BBSes did, and the term BBS is often used to refer to any online forum or message board.

Ward Christensen and the computer that ran the
 first public Bulletin Board System, CBBS

Although BBSing survives only as a niche hobby in most parts of the world, it is still an extremely popular form of communication for Taiwanese youth (see PTT Bulletin Board System). Most BBSes are now accessible over telnet and typically offer free email accounts, FTP services, IRC and all of the protocols commonly used on the Internet.


A notable precursor to the public Bulletin Board System was Community Memory, started in August, 1973 in Berkeley, California, using hardwired terminals located in neighborhoods.
The first public dial-up Bulletin Board System was developed by Ward Christensen. According to an early interview, while he was snowed in during the Great Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago, Christensen along with fellow hobbyist Randy Suess, began preliminary work on the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. CBBS went online on February 16, 1978 in Chicago, Illinois.
With the original 110 and 300 baud modems of the late 1970s, BBSes were particularly slow, but speed improved with the introduction of 1200 bit/s modems in the early 1980s, and this led to a substantial increase in popularity.
Nevertheless, that first CBBS system, which kept caller numbers, successfully connected to two hundred and fifty thousand callers, before it was finally retired.

Most of the information was displayed using ordinary ASCII text or ANSI art, though some BBSes experimented with higher resolution visual formats such as the innovative but obscure Remote Imaging Protocol. Such use of graphics taxed available channel capacity, which in turn propelled demand for faster modems.
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 USA, a major monthly magazine, Computer Shopper, carried a list of BBSes along with a brief abstract of each of their offerings.
According to the FidoNet Nodelist, BBSes reached their peak usage around 1996, which was the same period that the World Wide Web suddenly 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 ExecPC BBS, became actual Internet Service Providers.
The website textfiles.com serves as an archive that documents the history of the BBS. 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.
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.

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 BBSs with multiple phone lines using specialized hardware, multitasking software, or a LAN connecting multiple computers, could host multiple simultaneous users.
The first BBSs used homebrew software[nb 1], quite often written or customized by the SysOps themselves, running on early S-100 microcomputer systems such as the Altair, IMSAI 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, 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. There were many successful commercial BBS programs developed for DOS, such as PCBoard BBS, RemoteAccess BBS, and Wildcat! BBS. Some popular freeware BBS programs for MS-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.
During the mid-1980s, many sysops opted for the less expensive, ubiquitous Commodore 64 (introduced in 1982), which was popular among software pirate groups. 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 models 500, 1200, and 2000 (using external hard drives), and the Amiga 3000 and Amiga 4000 (which had built-in hard drives). Popular BBS software for the Amiga were ABBS, Amiexpress, StormforceBBS, Infinity and Tempest.
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. (Around 1990, OS/2 came out with "preemptive multitasking" of DOS, an alternative to DESQview for multi-node BBS.) In the late 1980s, a handful of BBS developers implemented multitasking communications routines which, although run under MS-DOS, allowed multiple phone lines and multiple users to connect to the same physical BBS computer. These included Galacticomm's MajorBBS (later WorldGroup), eSoft TBBS, and Falken.
By 1995, many of the DOS-based BBSes had begun switching to modern multitasking operating systems, such as OS/2, Windows 95, and Linux. These operating systems also provided built-in TCP/IP networking, which allowed most of the remaining BBSes to evolve and include Internet hosting capabilities. Recent BBS software, such as Synchronet, EleBBS, DOC or Wildcat! BBS provide access using the Telnet protocol rather than dialup, or by using legacy MS-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 interface (no text interface was available), 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 number of companies wanted to license the COCONET GUI but Coconut Computing chose not to, and as a result, 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. A similar 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 BBS's 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 colour 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.
Amiga program Skyline BBS was the first in 1987 featuring a script markup language communication protocol called Skypix which was capable to give 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 early BBSes were frequently run by computer hobbyists, they were typically technical in nature with user communities revolving around hardware and software discussions. Many SysOps were transplants of the amateur radio community and thus amateur and packet radio were often popular topics.
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, etc.) 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 BBS 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 BBS copied each file individually to their hard drive. Some systems used a CD ROM drive to make the files available. Advanced BBS used Multiple CD ROM disk 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 pirated 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.

Access group editor in a developer build of OpenTG BBS
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 special 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, and MindVox (which folded in 1996) were admired for their tightly-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 did wind up in trouble. On July 12, 1985, in conjunction with a credit card fraud investigation, the Middlesex County, NJ 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 software piracy, and in November 1997 sued by Playboy for copyright infringement. 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 stand-alone islands. 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 electronic mail (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 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 electronic mailbox 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 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

Main article: shareware
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 many Apogee games were distributed as shareware. The Internet has largely erased the distinction of shareware - most users now download the software directly from the developer's web site rather than receiving it from another BBS user 'sharing' it. Today shareware is commonly used to mean electronically-distributed software from a small developer.
In July, 2000 YaBB, "Yet Another Bulletin Board", was written in Perl by Zef Hemel, Christian Land, Jeff Lewis, and Matt Mechamand and released as open source freeware. Later YaBB was converted by Jeff Lewis to PHP and MySQL and released in the Fall of 2001 as YaBB SE. As a derivative of YaBB, YaBB SE was also licensed under an open source license.
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
A BBS software package
A sysop - system operator
A user community
The BBS software usually provides:
Menu Systems
One or more message bases
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" (The original chat, before multi-line systems) 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; similar to what commercial websites have used to sell and support products.

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