|The Micronet Story|
IT ALL started in the garden. Back in the dawn of history, in 1981 to be accurate, East Midlands Allied Press decided that it wanted to get into electronic publishing.
Electronic publishing is simply the presentation of information through some form of computer network. Ceefax and Oracle, the two television information systems, transmit information directly to television sets with the appropriate receivers. Those services are free, as long as you have the right equipment, but limited to pure information, with no opportunity for the user to interact with the system.
The other means of transmitting information is to use an existing network, such as the telephone system. British Telecom originally set up Prestel as a means of utilising spare capacity on the telephone network in the evening.
Prestel sold space on the network for businesses who wanted to set up in electronic publishing, and EMAP decided to use its experience in publishing magazines to provide specialist information to Prestel subscribers. There were, however, problems in setting up the service. Television sets which could receive Prestel were expensive, and you also had to pay a subscription fee and the price of the telephone call every time you used the service.
According to David Babsky, editor of Micronet 800, most of the early Prestel television sets were in travel agents' offices. Despite attempts to allow people to do their shopping on Prestel by ordering goods on credit cards, there were very few home users.
EMAP came into service with Telemap. "EMAP published a magazine called Garden Trade News, and decided to start by providing information for garden centre operators who needed to he kept in touch with manufacturers and suppliers. Unfortunately there were relatively few garden operators so it wasn't worth pursuing."
By 1982 EMAP was publishing computer magazines. It was decided to ditch the rather scarce garden centre operators and pursue home microcomputer owners as the ZX-81 was rapidly turning the field into a mass market.
"ZX-81 owners were self-motivated" says Babsky. "They had a keyboard, processing power, and a display in the form of the TV. All that was needed was a telephone connection and a means of presentation."
The black box which connects a home computer to the telephone system is called a modem. You can use a modem for talking to other computers with modems, as well as for accessing databases such as Micronet 800. A modem has two functions. It can send and receive information down the telephone lines and it can interpret the information it receives so that a computer can print it onto the screen. Prestel presents information in lines of 40 characters, but the ZX-81 and Spectrum only use 32 characters per line. The modem must therefore enable the computer to display the information in the Prestel 40-character mode.
The BBC Model B was a gift to the designers of Micronet, because the graphics mode 7 on the machine, the lowest resolution, was identical with the 40-column configuration of Prestel. Suddenly, the problems of producing a cheap modem disappeared. The resulting service was called Micronet 800, the 800 signifying that the service began on page 800 of Prestel. Micronet began operating on March 1, 1983 and since then has broadened to include special services for owners of the BBC Model B, Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Apple II and IIe.
|'Micronet is to the 80s what the Gütenberg Bible was to the Middle Ages'|
So what is Micronet, what does it offer, and how much does it cost? The first thing you need is a modem. If you own a Spectrum, then you want the Prism VTX 5000 or alternatively Interface One with any modem, as Interface One contains an RS232 socket to standardise the signals sent out by the Spectrum.
Micronet costs £52.00 a year to join, and once you have paid your subscription you will be given a code number and password. Together, those numbers allow you to access Micronet. It all sounds extremely simple, but in practice there can be problems. For a start your phone must have one of those fancy modern plug-in sockets, because you have to plug the phone into the modem instead of the wall. Secondly, if you are blessed with an exceptionally bad line, with lots of background noise, the central computer may fail to understand your code numbers.
The most popular facility, according to Babsky, is Mailbox. Electronic mail is simply the ability to send messages to other people on the network. It is extraordinary how addictive the idea becomes. Once you discount the cost of the subscription, it is usually cheaper than using the post, and gets round the problem of finding there is nobody on the other end of the phone when you call. You simply obtain the appropriate mailbox number from the list of members and leave your message.
When Micronet first started it budgeted for running the system, obtaining software and similar services. "The one thing we never realised was the enormous number of messages there would be between users," says Babsky. "We had to find people to route the messages, which meant other areas of growth took a back seat."
Mailbox is a definite advance on the usual Prestel/Ceefax style. The ability to send messages through the system is the core to an interactive database as opposed to a mere encyclopaedia of information. For the first fifteen months of operation Mailbox was only available to people who used the same central computer. Briefly, Prestel and Micronet use a number of computers all over the country, and users telephone the nearest one in order to obtain the cheapest price for the call. Even if you live in Edinburgh and the nearest computer is in Birmingham, an arrangement with British Telecom means you only have to pay at the same rates as a local call. Mailbox thus only operated between users grouped together on one computer.
That is changing. Last month Micronet extended Mailbox to cover a national network, so there is no limit to the number of people you can talk to as long as they are registered with the system.
"The big drawback is that although you can write to each other through Mailbox, or to Micronet itself through the response frames, until recently you couldn't broadcast to everyone over the system," explains Babsky.
Micronet has now altered that state of affairs by introducing Chatline, which allows you to write material directly into the system. Chatline is uncensored, but is carefully monitored, and any obscene or libellous messages are deleted. It only operates between 8 and 10 pm.
The Mailbox system is not controlled at all, and there has been a little trouble at times. But Babsky insists that the system allows for much more effective sanctions than with the telephone or postal services. Any messages which offend, shock, or annoy can easily be traced back to the offender as the names are automatically logged. "We have had only two cases out of 10,000 users where we have had to take action" says Babsky. "One was a man posing as a maintenance engineer who obtained people's ID numbers and used them to send messages to others. The second was a boy who was sending rude messages."
Another service is Contact, which includes sections for those seeking advice about their computers, an adventure helpline, and even a 'lonely hearts' section. Requests such as 'Lonely guy seeks sexy BBC owner, how about a drink sometime?' add a whole new dimension to romance. Love me, love my computer tends to be the plaintive cry of the socially bored hacker. Could you love a man with a Jupiter Ace?
Apart from message sending, Micronet also contains an up-to-the-minute news service. Micronet's news editor, Sid Smith says, "It's akin to broadcasting, except that the difference in technology means you always get information whenever you want. We got news, specifications, interviews and reactions to the QL within two hours of it being launched. We had the first programs for the machine, and the first real hands-on review." Smith is clearly pleased with that particular story, as he has a framed photograph of himself interviewing Sir Clive above his desk.
"We produce a minimum of three new stories a day" he says. "It's very exciting. The pressure is far greater than on magazines. You are telling people things they don't already know."
However, the core of Micronet is not the news service - even Sid Smith agrees with that. "We don't think readers want a quick information fix," he says. Babsky is quite clear on the point. Headlines, even for news stories, are deliberately obscure, sometimes to the point of being meaningless. "The object is to provide entertainment and enjoyment rather than an encyclopaedia. We want to make things intriguing. None of the headlines tell you what the subject is about."
Although Babsky's policy is that you should never be more than three steps away from the information or facility you require, the combination of obscure headlines and the general problem of learning how to operate a 'menu-driven' system efficiently can cause problems for newcomers to the system.
It is possible - indeed, easy - to get hopelessly lost within the 40,000 frames of Micronet. "People do complain" Babsky admits. "They are obviously very aware of the money factor. But they say it's still great."
Nevertheless, using Micronet may be cheaper than you think. As long as you are talking to the nearest Prestel computer, you only pay local charges. If you telephone after 6pm then you are spending about 40p an hour. Using the system during office hours is obviously more expensive, but not cripplingly so. An average of an hour a day would cost you £4 a week including the subscription fee.
But it is not the service as it stands at present which is of the greatest interest. Rather, it is what may be made of it in the future. According to Ian Rock, the Marketing Manager of Micronet, there is a general drift away from the light-hearted - some would say silly - aspects of Micronet towards more serious applications.
The advent of a modem for the QL, to be produced by OE Ltd, with luck in time for Christmas, will increase the number of home professional users on Micronet. Micronet is responding with a QL database, including a user magazine and free software. A business service recently available to Micronet subscribers is Computergram, a newsletter published by APT Data Services. Within hours of APT receiving news, it is broadcast on Micronet. The information is worldwide, and covers the upper echelons of the computer market, the financial and competitive shenanigans of such names as DEC, Hewlett Packard, and IBM. "If a story breaks in California, it can be on Micronet three hours later" says Rock. Those Sinclair User readers with a substantial stake in IBM had better tune in fast.
The comparative cheapness of Micronet 800 as an interactive database makes it an attractive means of creating an electronic network for clubs and other organisations who cannot afford either the hardware or the subscriptions to large, business orientated systems. For instance, the Labour Party is now operating a private information database on Micronet as an experiment. The party hopes to provide constituency parties with information and news on action groups and other developments of interest to branches.
Prestel itself will start a service aimed at secondary schools next spring, School Link. Micronet is to attack the home market from November with Head Start. "It will provide programs and notes for the 5-12 age group and their parents" says Ian Rock. "Simple ABC stuff first, but will gradually increase the range to O Level. David Babsky has some Shakespeare programs he's very keen on."
Sid Smith feels electronic publishing is science fiction made fact. "There is a real problem of people who have a Spectrum just sitting on the sideboard. It's a cul-de-sac. To link up yours to thousands is remarkable. You are no longer limited to a Z80 based entity."
David Babsky is in no doubt about the revolutionary potential of electronic publishing. "The thing that inspired me most was looking at the Gütenberg Bible, the first book to be printed using moveable type. Micronet is to communication in the 80s what that Bible was to the Middle Ages."
If Micronet is Babsky's Bible, the service certainly inspires great loyalty among its subscribers as well as considerable vitriol from those who complain. The messageboards of Micronet are packed with electronic insults aimed at the way Micronet is run. But according to Ian Rock, there has only been a 5 per cent cancellation rate of subscriptions, which contrasts with around 25 per cent for more conventional publications. That would seem to indicate that Micronet subscribers, whatever the faults of the system, are sufficiently anxious to be part of a new age of communication technology to forgive the present system its growing pains.