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What Is BBS? —

From: King Jables
To: Jason Scott
Subject: BBS

I know that you'll probably think think that I am a complete imbeceil for asking this,
but I keep seeing the abbreviation "BBS" on your website. What exactly was a "BBS",
and why should the advent of the internet have signalled it's demise? I mean, if people
liked them so much then surely all the retroists out there could have continued them
with legacy machines, right?  But seriously, what was a BBS and what did it do?

Yours perplexedly,
                          Jables.

Jables, I get mail like yours occasionally, and I do sometimes wonder how people find my e-mail but don’t find all the rest of the material explaining BBSes or explaining what the whole thing was about. I get enough that it’s likely not a hoax and I’ve definitely gotten mail from people who are barely as old as the textfiles.com site itself, wanting to know about this history. So let’s quickly cover it.

BBS in this case stands for “Bulletin Board System”, although at one point people would use the term “Bulletin Board Service” when they were trying to make money at it. This quickly got shortened to BBS, an acronym which has at this point been overtaken as referring to Baumgartner Brand Schiltach aluminum car rims. This is part of why it’s so hard to search for auctions on Ebay or general webpages about the subject: it’s all about the rims now. But once, it was about these old computer systems.

In its most fundamental form, the BBS was simply a computer connected via a modem to a phone line. On the computer was software that, when it detected that someone was calling the modem, would pick up, connect, and then provide the calling person with a menu. From this menu you could post and read messages from other users, send or receive files, or play games. 

First created in 1978 by Ward Christensen (software) and Randy Suess (hardware), this setup lasted with only basic changes up to nearly the present day.

Some people added more phone lines (and the ability of people on different lines to talk to each other), while others integrated their BBSes into other networks, like early Internet, or had their BBS pass around messages to other BBSes by calling them.

What happened to BBSes, especially as it looked like they’d be around in some form forever, was multi-threaded connection to the Internet, especially Trumpet Winsock, a program that allowed PPP (Point to Point Protocol) on Windows systems.  With the availability of this and other programs to provide PPP and SLIP access for home computers, where connections to the Internet at large gave a world of abilities to machines previously tethered to single BBSes (or no network connection at all), BBSes were essentially smashed against the rocks. (The first three months of 1995, I have found, broke the BBS “Industry” in two.) This was all replaced with Internet businesses, be they websites, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or software developers, all aimed for the new new thing. BBSes, especially in business, were a taboo subject, as they represented the old guard, the old failures.

BBSes had, of course, the ability to be connected to via the Internet, but the capacity and abilities of the World Wide Web (or HTTP protocol) are very shiny, very new, and the needed growth and new userbase that would replace the older userbase drifting away simply wasn’t there. BBSes started a long fade that continues.

Of course, there are still many BBS-like things, like web forums or comment sections or anything else where the people reading a site can contribute by posting, and these conversations, jests and jousts now replace what BBSes once were. They’re different, sometimes better, often worse. But that’s what happened to them.

That’s about the best I could put it. I made a documentary about the BBSes and keep a site full of old BBS relics, and I occasionally speak about the subject. I think the time when they ruled the earth was fantastic. I miss it sometimes.


Categorised as: computer history

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6 Comments

  1. kevin says:

    Trumpet Winsock never gets its propers. That was a game-changer for me and I was a die-hard BBSer. I remember it made an especially big dent when you could use Winsock with services like AOL and CompuServe. Wow. Signing on to CompuServe and running Mosaic blew my mind.

  2. Shannon Harris says:

    I miss the days of manually entering the full ATA string into the modem , then the strange noises it would make while I waited for it dial, and then that awkward anticipation as you waited to see if your favorite BBS was going to answer or deliver that dreaded busy signal.

  3. Flack says:

    Or, better yet — hearing a voice coming out of the modem’s speaker. “Hello? Hello?” Oops.

    When people ask me “What happened to BBSes?” I usually just reply with, “The Internet.” FTP is better than X-Modem. IRC is better than chatting with one person. Forums are better than BBS Message Boards. When I say “better” I am speaking from a technical perspective. The limitation of one person per phone line was a killer. Just imagine, King Jables, not being able to read this great blog because someone else was reading it. Imagine setting your browser to “redial” the website and not being able to do anything else with your computer while you were doing that!

    BBSes were super duper great because of the people involved. The Internet is good too, but definitely different.

  4. jas says:

    what i do when explaining to people what a bbs is [without using 2+ pages of text] is tell them that it’s a service like AOL, where people could share files and post messages and play games, and it was run on a person’s private system. And i say they were great and you would have loved them. :D

  5. jas says:

    now that i have some time i’d also like to comment on the fact that many people feel that the internet killed bbses.

    i dont feel this is so. operators of bbses rejected the internet instead of embracing it. they sneered at it like some step brother who got better grades and did better in sports.

    there are a lot of crappy forums out there. there are a lot of crappy websites put up by everyone and their grandmother. are these better than bbses? no. infact, back in the day [and today] bbses were linked together [if they so choose] by FTN. wasnt that hard and it allowed people to play games against eachother and post msgs to people all across the world.

    also i feel that the mentality of people really changed. you had to sort of warm up to bbses a bit, then you were hooked and really got into it.

    nowadays most people have a 1/2 second attention span and they are very viceral when on the internet. they want to take what they want and leave. they dont want to say anything to the other people on the site, they get their gratification and dont contribute normally.

    for quite some time now, maybe too little too late, bbses have been connected to the internet and they have some amazing technologies pushing them into today’ s age.

    hell, my bbs’ msg groups are connected to vbulletin. i can connect them to usenet or other bbs msg networks in a matter of minutes, just by editing 1 small text file.
    i can telnet or rlogin , use the web interface or visit it with a flash telnet applet [http://www.flashterm.com].

    if you people want to check out some of today’s bbses there are some on http://telnetbbsguide.com

    there’s a few good ones out there to find with some real cool people and rare files.

  6. jas says:

    “When people ask me “What happened to BBSes?” I usually just reply with, “The Internet.” FTP is better than X-Modem. IRC is better than chatting with one person. Forums are better than BBS Message Boards. When I say “better” I am speaking from a technical perspective. The limitation of one person per phone line was a killer. Just imagine, King Jables, not being able to read this great blog because someone else was reading it. Imagine setting your browser to “redial” the website and not being able to do anything else with your computer while you were doing that!

    BBSes were super duper great because of the people involved. The Internet is good too, but definitely different.”

    the bbses are still around, that’s what happened to them.
    and i’m not so sure forums are better than bbs msg nets :D

    anyways

    http://telnetbbsguide.com
    http://bbslist.bbses.info