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Computer bulletin board systems were the precursors to the Internet, although many of them are still in operation. A computer bulletin board system (BBS) is a computer that uses a special program, known as BBS software, to allow other computers to connect to the system.

Traditionally, users would connect to the BBS over a standard telephone line, using a modem, although contemporary BBS systems are more often accessed via Telnet.

A BBS acts as a server, while the computers accessing the BBS are the clients. More than a decade before the World Wide Web was created, people were logging into computer bulletin board systems, and before long BBS services were hosting local and international forums, live chat, email, games, a marketplace, and most of what people find on the Internet today.

From around 1984 to the late 1990s, I was the Sysop of a BBS service known as Newberry BBS. Situated in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the BBS used two dedicated computers and could accept up to four remote callers at a time.

Newberry BBS featured a local forum that remained on my computers and was available only to local callers, as well as a regional forum that was carried by bulletin board systems throughout the Rio Grande Valley, and a few national and international forums that allowed my callers to carry on conversations with people all over the world.

Callers to my BBS could play single-player or multi-player games or chat with me or with anyone who was connected to my BBS at the time. They could also send and receive email, and participate in forum discussions, and my computer would store their email and forum posts. Four times a day, my BBS would automatically connect to a regional hub BBS, sending any email and posts that my local callers may have made to the regional network.

Since my international hub was in Dallas, which was a long-distance call, the BBS was set to connect with the international hub at 2:00 am, when a free telephone line was likely to be available, and when the rates were lower. When my BBS had received a great deal of activity, I would often force additional call-outs during the day or evening, when the LD rates were higher and, subsequentially, my monthly telephone bill ranged from $300 to $500 per month. Thus, although I charged for memberships, my revenue was less than my expenses and the BBS was a hobby and not a business. I already had a job, and this was a great hobby.

The first BBS was created in Chicago by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in 1978, using software that they developed from scratch. Computer bulletin board systems received their name from the fact that this early BBS offered only the ability to read and leave messages, known as bulletins.

By the early 1980s, several BBS software packages were available, some free, some commercial. Still, bulletin board systems were limited by the speed at which callers could connect, as well as the cost to callers. 1200 baud modems were available, but expensive.

Each caller had to have a modem, and the BBS required one modem for each incoming line. Newberry BBS began with one computer and two lines, each using a 2400 baud modem. Shortly after going online, 9600 baud modems became available, so I replaced the slower modems with the faster ones, bought a second computer and used the older modems in my attempt to add two additional lines.

In 1990, I replaced the 2400 modems with 14.4k AT&T modems, and I had a four-line BBS, although I must admit that I needed help integrating the two computers into the system. Although I later bought two Hayes 28.8k modems, then two US Robotics 56k modems, my best BBS connections were from the AT&T modems and, although Hayes was the de facto standard, my users often had trouble connecting the Hayes modems. By the end of my run as a BBS Sysop, I was using the Hayes modems on a third computer that I used to connect other BBS's and running the BBS on the two AT&T modems and the US Robotics modems.

As for an operating system, during the early years, my BBS ran on DOS with a multitasking operating environment known as DESQview. When Windows 1.0 came out, I switched to a Windows-based BBS software and experienced more than a year of constant crashes. I feared to leave the house because my BBS would be down when I returned. I was about to revert to DOS/DESQview when PCBoard, the BBS software I was using at the time, came out with an OS/2 version, and I couldn't have asked for a smoother operation.

The introduction of inexpensive dialup Internet service and the development of the web browser led to the demise of most BBS services, crashing the market in the mid-1990s. Most BBSes disconnected, and BBS Sysops became webmasters.

However, there are surviving bulletin board systems, and even some new ones that have come online. Most contemporary BBSes are accessible over Telnet, packet-switched networks, or packet radio connections.


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