All About/Electronic Bulletin Boards
It's No Longer Just Techno-Hobbyists Who Meet by Modem
By Judith Berck
The New York Times
July 19, 1992
A communications explosion is under way across America, though about the only sound from it is the clacking of computer keyboards. People by the tens of thousands are plugging their telephone lines into their personal computers and using them to argue Presidential politics, discuss scuba diving in underwater caves with experts or view satellite pictures of Jupiter's moons.
Much of this, of course, has been available for years to techno-hobbyists and to people willing to pay fairly high connection fees to link up with Compuserve and other on-line information services. But as the sheer number of people with computers has surged, so has the variety of electronic meeting places known as computer bulletin boards.
"The roof has blown off the industry," said Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, the largest trade publication covering the bulletin board and on-line service industry. He is organizing the industry's largest trade convention, called the One BBS-Con, to be held Aug. 14 to 16 in Denver.
Mr. Rickard, who estimates the bulletin board industry at nearly $500 million, said there are nearly 60,000 public access bulletin boards in the United States, up from 3,500 five years ago. These boards, most devoted to exchanging information about hobbies and vocations, are open to anyone with a personal computer, a modem to transmit and receive data via a telephone line and a communications program to dial telephone numbers.
But the growth of boards operated by private companies like Seiko and Eastman Kodak has far outstripped growth of public ones, and they now surpass 120,000.
Why such growth? It certainly has helped that the prices of personal computers and high-speed modems have fallen drastically. But the real force seems to be that people are inherently curious and sociable.
10 Million Users
Lots of Information And Most Is Free
Industry experts estimate that about 10 million people are regular callers to public-access bulletin-board services, called BBS for short. They find the numbers in magazines like BBS Caller's Digest and Computer Shopper. A user anywhere on the globe can dial a board's phone number at his or her convenience, pick a topic of interest, read messages left by others and reply. The replies provoke or inspire more replies, all readable in sequence by others. Users can also trade private electronic messages, or E-mail. Many boards belong to far-flung international networks, like Internet, which passes messages between bulletin boards in dozens of countries, negating overseas telephone charges.
Besides reading and leaving messages, users call bulletin boards to pull games, word processing and graphics programs from their file libraries. These can be copied at little or no charge. Users can also transfer their own files to the library.
The bulletin boards' abilities to catalogue messages, and to send, receive and store electronic files, make them large repositories of knowledge, with as many potential sources of information as there are callers.
Just a Sideline
Often, Profit Isn't the Point
Many system operators, known as "sysops," (pronounced sigh-sops) start public bulletin boards as a creative hobby. A system with the computer hardware and software needed to work with a single telephone line costs about $3,000; most bulletin boards have one to eight lines. But in the last two years, to meet soaring demand, systems with 20, 40, even 60 or more lines have proliferated.
Kevin Behrens began the Aquila Bulletin Board in Chicago in 1988 as a hobby on a spare I.B.M.-compatible computer with a single line. "It just went nuts," Mr. Behrens said. "We got more and more calls, put up more phone lines and built it up. Now we have 25 lines and get over 2,500 calls a month."
The largest bulletin boards, like Exec-PC with 230 lines, offer so many services that they are becoming almost indistinguishable from the giant on-line information businesses like Compuserve and Prodigy.
Unlike their larger cousins, though, more than 80 percent of bulletin boards are nonprofit; a third charge nothing at all. To cover costs for more sophisticated systems, some operators charge annual fees, typically $15 to $60. Some boards make a profit by offering a mix of free and pay services. Tess Heder and her husband, Brian Miller, run the Channel 1 board in Cambridge, Mass., with 85 lines. It has achieved wide repute for its breadth of topics and file collection. It receives about 2,500 calls a day, earning more than $20,000 a month in subscription and access fees.
Not surprisingly, the four largest sellers of operating programs for both corporate and hobby bulletin boards have really taken off. The companies, all privately owned, are Gallacticomm Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Mustang Software Inc. in Bakersfield, Calif.; eSoft Inc. in Aurora, Colo., and the Clark Development Company in Murray, Utah.
"Doing nothing particularly differently, these companies have doubled in size in the past year," said Mr. Rickard. He estimated the market for their programs at more than $20 million annually.
Philip Becker, president of eSoft Inc., said sales were "growing so rapidly the numbers are obsolete almost as soon as you say them."
The biggest financial winners, though, are telephone companies, which effortlessly rake in more than $700 million a year from extra line installations and modem calls.
"They make out like bandits and don't even know it," said Mr. Becker of eSoft.
In fact, though, Ameritech Services, a phone company based in Illinois, includes a list of area bulletin boards in phone bills.
Managers Can Reach Workers in Seconds
Bulletin board software companies say that corporate sales now outnumber "hobby" sales three to one. Some are used by industry trade groups, like the National Dairy Board in Arlington, Va. Its board is used by regional organizations can for market research.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois uses a bulletin board to collect and process Medicaid claims and transfer them to the government. Doctors and other providers can dial in to transmit claims. Many businesses use bulletin boards as 24-hour customer service lines, where clients can get information, leave messages or place orders.
But the biggest growth has been by private corporations that want to give their managers and employees more access to company information, policy messages, or even minutes of meetings. Nikon Precision Inc., a semiconductor equipment company in Belmont, Calif., uses a bulletin board to transfer data and information between corporate headquarters, 12 satellite offices and employees at home.
"Purchases of group communications software is a huge trend," says Paul Johnson, vice president for Equity Research at the First Boston Corporation.
SOME ARE REALLY FOR THE BIRDS
Computer bulletin boards are almost perversely diverse, with topics ranging from birds and bees to the birds and the bees.
Trouble hand-feeding your cockatiel? Dial the Bird Info Network in Colesville, Md. Seeking the latest research on Dante's Divine Comedy? Dartmouth College's Dante Project can fill you in. Want to dig up your family's roots? Try the National Geneological BBS in Arlington, Va.sf /bb/
And, yes, there are many "adult only" bulletin boards. After sending in proof of age, callers can acquire files of nude images, arrange dates with other consenting adults, or have uncensored chats in the privacy of their computer screen's glow.
For computer-literate kids, there are boards that allow children to play games with each other.
Mostly, though, boards give out, receive and exchange information. The Weather Bank in Salt Lake City provides regional forecasts; Automobile Consumer Services in Cincinnati has the latest car prices. Dozens of boards are devoted to job, legal or tax information. The Federal Whistleblower's BBS, run by the House Government Operations Committee, lets callers leave anonymous tips on abuse in government.
Most boards foster freedom of expression, though many have an ideological
orientation. Town Hall in New York encourages conservative debate. The
Greenpeace Environet in San Francisco covers peace and environmental issues.
Then there is the Superdemocracy Foundation BBS in Davie, Fla. In this election year, it has what seems like the perfect idea: It wants to use electronic communications to filter out politicians as the middlemen between citizens and issues.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Michael and Kathy Sussell run Invention Factory Files, an on-line message and game service in New York. (Steve Hart for The New York Times)
Chart: "Who's Got What Where," lists a sampling of computer bulletin boards from around the country. (Source: Boardwatch Magazine)
Graph: "Keeping in Touch," tracks numbers of public access bulletin boards in U.S., 1987-1992 (1992, estimate) (Source: Boardwatch Magazine)
Judith Berck is a freelance writer in New York and Iowa City
Copyright 1992 The New York Times Company