ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Software’s Quiet Success —

One of my most successful side projects has been

When doing research for the BBS Documentary, I wanted some idea of what I was dealing with. I had, buried in different places, the software and mentions of various packages that had lived and died, but I wanted something comprehensive, something that I could tell, at a glance, what types of software had come out for what platforms.

The resultant site is a combination of bourne shell scripts and endless acquisition and donation. I have gathered hundreds of packages and people have sent me hundreds more. This was hugely valuable during the documentary because it gave me ideas of people to contact and also provided a reference collection when people would refer to something I’d never heard of.

The site sits at over 800 packages at the moment, ranging from full-blown commercial productions to one-off shareware blurps that made a single appearance and then disappeared forever. Writing BBS Software was a natrual outgrowth for someone who used BBSes; why not try it yourself, assuming you could get the communication routines right?

I wrote my own, but it’s not on there. My rule, so things wouldn’t get crazy, was to only include packages that were distributed – custom one-off collections that had no software you could ever reach weren’t to be included. If someone had the package of the software a custom BBS used, I’ll take it, but this is almost never the case and it’s usually impossible to track that stuff down at this late stage.

In an ideal world, you have entries like the one for PBBS for the Model 100. The authors, a short paragraph, and the software. The actual program for the software is particularly enlightening in this case, as the Model 100 had almost no space and storage; note how there’s no spaces between the commands, to get back those precious characters! The system could store SIXTEEN MESSAGES. SIXTEEN. I am reminded of the pocket fox, an animal that lived for fifteen minutes in the 16th century.

More occasionally, the entries are patchy, like the one for VBBS. And some are heavy on the description, with little software to show for it, like Stonehenge. Others have almost nothing at all.

A small band of determined folks are out there, acquiring rare copies, processing them, and sending them to me. That includes Bo Zimmerman, Mark Firestone and Lance Lyon. I’m very grateful for those contributions.

The larger issue, of course, is that there is only one guy who can make changes to the site; me. Because of this situation, updates are slow, coming in refined bursts over the years. With this site almost 6 years old, it has a lot of things in it but could have a ton more. It is a classic example of what I’d hoped I’d be able to get from Wikipedia; a place where I’d be able to mirror and refine work from a whole host of contributing folks, and then put them into my site. But it’s hardly worked out that way, with Wikipedia deleting articles on specific programs left and right, due to being non-notable or otherwise someone having a bad day at just the right time for a program’s information to be lost forever. It got me on the golden road to not editing Wikipedia.

That said, I certainly collaborate with regards to this site: people send me information, or programs, or link me to other locations, and the site gets those changes added. I also, when time is long and I’m enjoying some nice music, go through the directories and do better jobs of describing items, adding pieces, pulling documentation out of archives to put up separately. (I find people often just want to read the docs and get the idea and move on.) It’s just that even so, how I put the stuff down is how it looks when I come back months later. A shame, but I do my best.

The syndrome between all my sites is “piled together syndrome”, where even a cursory inspection by a driven individual will show that the site has no collection of files for whosis, while will have a bunch of versions of whosis in various directories. They’re piled together on the same general set of sites but they’re not acknowledged as being so. In one way this works out great because people get to be the hero and point them out to me and feel good about it. But on the other hand, it’s a shame that I can’t just make stuff “just find it”. Doesn’t work that way; likely never will for this set of data.

I don’t know how much others get out of this site, how much this site is found and used. I can see hits but they could be false ones. Someone who used a BBS or heard a version had some feature or otherwise wanted to know what a given technology person was doing before he got all the accolades for current work… well, if that’s what they’re trying to find, it’s there. That’s the success I speak of.

It’s at one gigabyte of BBS programs. Anyone who says the BBS days lacked variety compared to today are on crack. Those were some good times. And when I have time myself, I improve my collection of those moments.

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