Telecomputing and Your Epson Printer
You've spent 12 chapters learning about using your Atari computer with your Epson printer. You've learned how to use a word processor to prepare shopping lists, reports and business letters. You've seen how a database can help in preparing recipes and doing research. You've even used a spreadsheet to make working with numbers easier. A personal computer system can do many things to make your life easier and more productive.
Your Atari computer is a powerful machine, but it's limited. It only has only 64K of Random-Access Memory. Imagine its capabilities if you could tap into some of the multimillion-dollar computers around the world. Well, you can and many people do. We live in the Information Age where information is one of our most valuable commodities. Telecomputing is a way for every computer owner to have access to and exchange vast amounts of information over the telephone lines.
This is the Electronic Universe. It's composed of thousands of computers, big and small, connected by wires and satellites. Together they form a network of shared resources that spans the globe.
WHAT IS TELECOMPUTING?
Mention telecomputing to most people and they immediately envision a bespeckled teenager hunched over his computer in the middle of the night breaking into the Pentagon's computers. There's no denying this is a part of the electronic universe, but only a small part.
Members of the network come in all sizes, shapes and ages. Many of them tend to work at night, but only because the rates are cheaper. Some are computer engineers and businessmen, but others are housewives and students. They use the network for business, education, and just plain recreation.
You can join this group of computer enthusiasts for less than a hundred dollars. Imagine using your computer system to pay your monthly bills, read the latest news developments, access up-to-the-minute stock quotes, make plane reservations, purchase a dishwasher, swap programs with another computer owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or even ask questions of Atari Inc. about your Atari computer. All of these services are available when you hook your Atari computer system to the electronic network.
WHAT'S OUT THERE?
It's estimated there are more than 1500 electronic databases operating today carrying information on every conceivable subject. The choice of systems to which you can connect range from the financial database run on a large mainframe computers by a multimillion-dollar company to the electronic bulletin board operated by the school teacher on his Atari computer in the back bedroom. If there's an interest, chances are there's an electronic database somewhere catering to that interest.
Big or little, these systems can be roughly divided into groups. These groups are by no means complete but they are a way to breakdown the field.
1) The Electronic Utilities
2) Computer Bulletin Board Systems
3) Specialized Business and News Databases
4) Reference Databases
5) Electronic Shopping
There are three databases that presently fit the description of "Electronic Utilities." These are The Source, CompuServe, and Dow Jones News/Retrieval. They fit the title because of the wide selection of information and services that they provide for the public. Each contains comprehensive information on a wide selection of topics as well as providing services like banking, shopping, interactive gameplaying, conferencing and the like.
Electronic utilities are subscription services. They charge a fee for signing on to the system (called "connect time"). Once on the system, there are many opportunities available at no additional cost but some of the services cost an additional fee over and above the connect time charge.
"Free" time (usually an hour) and a free initial subscription to these utilities is often packaged with computer products. This is a good inducement to sign onto the system and just enough time to get you hooked into using their utility.
Computer Bulletin Board Systems (CBBS) are at the other end of the spectrum from the utilities. They are often run on home computers by individuals who label themselves SYSOPs (SYStem OPeratorS). CBBSs are not as polished as the utilities but the best thing about them is they're FREE.
These electronic bulletin boards were originally designed as systems for leaving messages like the boards in front of supermarkets. Many now offer various types of information on isolated areas of interest, i.e., coins, science fiction, adventure gaming, or specific computer hardware. They provide articles, tutorials, rumors, and public domain software pertaining to their topic.
CBBSs are good for cutting your telecomputing teeth when you're first learning about using your computer on the telephone lines. These free boards allow you to familiarize yourself with your equipment before signing onto an electronic utility where you have to pay for the time you spend making mistakes.
If you're interested in finding a bulletin board near you, call the Novation board at (818) 881-6880 using your computer. When you see the prompt type CAT. This board will provide a list of CBBSs all over the continental United States as well as some tutorials on telecomputing.
Specialized Business and News Databases include databases like the New York Times Information Service and NewsNet. The New York Times Information Service provides the complete New York Times newspaper on-line along with abstracts of other publications. NewsNet provides electronic versions of almost 200 industry and professional publications.
Reference Databases provide topic-specific searches of professional or scientific literature. These systems, ORBIT, DIALOG, and BRS will search 175 databases for information pertaining to medicine, law, education and, yes, even computers.
Electronic Shopping is best thought of as on-line catalog shopping. Comp-U-Store is a service that provides discount shopping in the comfort of your own computer room. It can be contacted directly as well as through all three of the information utilities.
The variety of services available through your computer is simply overwhelming and it's safe to say this field is still in its infancy. The question burning in your mind must be "How can I get involved?" That's a good question. Let's see what you need to get started.
WHAT DO I NEED FOR TELECOMPUTING?
Outfitting your Atari computer for telecomputing is amazingly simple. In addition to your computer system, you only need three things - a modem, a communications software package, and a telephone line.
COMMUNICATING THROUGH YOUR COMPUTER
Your computer is communicating all of the time. It sends messages to the monitor, the disk drive, and your Epson printer. This communication is achieved through a flow of electricity. Your computer uses sequences of turning on and turning off electricity to represent letters and characters much in the same fashion as Morse Code uses dots and dashes.
Each of the on or off signals is called a "bit." It takes eight of these signals, or bits, to represent a character that you might see on the screen or print through your printer. Flowing electricity doesn't make noise, but if you could hear bits as they passed by you would hear a series of clicks and pauses.
Telephone lines are designed to carry sound. Before a computer can send messages over telephone lines, the bits must first be transformed into sound. This is called "Modulation." When a computer receives modulated signals over the wires, it must "Demodulate" the signals back into electrical impulses so that it can understand the message.
Modem stands for "MOdulation - DEModulation." It modulates the signals into sound for transmission and demodulates sound transmissions back into an electrical so they may be used by the computer. The modem is your passport to telecomputing.
WHAT'S IN A MODEM?
Modems can be divided into two categories: "acoustic couplers" and "direct-connect." These categories refer to the manner in which the modem is connected to the telephone lines. An acoustic coupler modem has a set of rubber cups which fit the receiver of a telephone. The modulated sound is exchanged through the telephone receiver in much the same way as we use the receiver to exchange language. The transmission is done through the mouthpiece and the "listening" is done through the earpiece. A direct-connect modem, on the other hand, connects directly to the telephone jack through the use of a modular telephone cord. It bypasses potential problems with the phone equipment and eliminates the possibility of outside sound interference. This direct line into the information stream has made the direct-connect modem very popular.
The acoustic coupler modem used to be less expensive, but that's no longer the case. The acoustic coupler does provide one advantage, however, and that is its mobility. Because of its design, it can be used almost anywhere on any phone.
Modems have differences in speed as well as means of connection. Data transfer over a modem is measured in "baud rate." Although it is not exactly correct, the generally accepted definition of baud is "bit per second."
I have already explained that there are eight bits for every character or byte. The process of transmitting information requires that an additional bit or two (depending upon the system) be added to each set of eight bits to compose a character. This means that a transmitted character is approximately 10 bits long.
Modems for microcomputers generally function at 300 and/or 1200 baud. This can be translated into about 30 to 120 characters per second. Recently 2400 baud modems have been released for micros but not many of the information utilities or services are supporting that speed yet.
What speed is right for you? 300 baud is the most popular. If you plan to keyboard most of your communications over the telephone lines then it will be more than enough. If you plan to use your modem for sending large amounts of information like book chapters or prewritten programs then you should invest in 1200. Database charges for 1200 baud are typically double what they charge for 300 baud but you're transmitting four times as much information.
Communicating through a modem is generally a give-and-take proposition. This means that it originates information some of the time and answers (receives) the rest of the time. Some modems only work in the originate mode, but this is more the exception than the rule. When you are selecting a modem, make sure it has both the originate and answer modes.
Some modems can both originate and answer simultaneously while others can only do one at a time. These forms of communication are called full-duplex and half-duplex communication respectively. You will have the greatest versatility if you choose a modem with full-duplex capabilities.
Other features that you might look for in a modem are indicator lights to inform you about what's happening; a speaker so that you can listen to the action as it dials and connects; self-testing diagnostics; and even the "auto-answer" and "auto-dial" capabilities to make your system easier to use.
There is a wide range of modems on the market expressly for the Atari computer. These include the Atari 1030 and XM 301 by Atari, the HabaModem by Haba Systems, and the MPP1000E Modem by Microbits, to name just a few. They range in price from about $50 to $250 depending upon their capabilities.
The modem is a piece of hardware for telecomputing, but it requires software to make it usable. Communications software has the ability to turn your computer into a terminal. It will ensure that your system is communicating through ASCII and that the information is flowing through the RS-232 serial port. It will also allow you to modify the communications parameters like baud rate, parity sense, word length, number of stop bits and so on. It's not necessary that you understand what these things are beyond the fact that they are variable settings that will allow your modem to communicate with other systems.
There are three areas that must be considered when selecting a communications package.
1) Uploading and Downloading capability
2) Ease in setting, changing and using parameters
3) Bells and Whistles.
The terms "Uploading" and "Downloading" deal with the transmission of information. Uploading a file onto another system means that you are taking the contents of a file from a disk on your computer and transmitting it over the lines to another computer. Downloading is the opposite process where a file from another computer is sent to your computer where you can use it, read it, print it or store it on one of your disks.
This feature will allow you to prepare a document while you're off-line and then send it into the communications stream directly from its storage file without having to retype it. Such a capability will save you time as well as money when you're connected with a database that charges you by the minute of connect time.
Downloading usually involves your accepting information into a buffer and then saving the contents of that buffer into a file on disk. Think of a buffer as a holding tank where information can be stored momentarily. A buffer which holds about 48,000 characters will accommodate roughly 16 full-pages of text (50 60-space lines to a page).
Setting parameters with your communications software is another important consideration. Parameters refer to the format or protocal with which information is exchanged over the phone lines. They include the baud rate, duplex mode, parity and the like. You should be able to change these settings quickly and easily with the touch of a key. Sometimes when you're roaming around within a database you may end up in an area which requires you to change protocal to download information and it would be most inconvenient to have to disconnect your system and call back later with your new settings.
The bells and whistles include the "extras" that make life a little easier. One of my favorites is autodial. This feature allows you to save a quantity of phone numbers (I've seen as many as 32) and have your software dial a number at the touch of a key. This is especially helpful when using 22-character phone numbers that include special access numbers and codes for using alternative long distance services.
Another preferable feature is found in the HomeTerm software in the HomePak package by Batteries Included. It is a Text Window. This is an out-going buffer which will allow you to enter up to 120 characters before transmitting. This is especially handy if you're conferencing with a number of other users on CompuServe and want to compose your messages unhampered by the scrolling conversation before sending it as a single unit.
Using macros is one way to save your keyboarding fingers. A macro is a set of characters or commands that can be generated by a single keystroke. This is handy for entering your password, ID code, or set of commands used frequently for entering a favorite part of a database. Many communications packages will allow you to define up to 20 keys with macros.
An automatic buffer-dump makes life much easier. This feature will automatically save the contents of your buffer to disk when it gets full. Without this feature, you must break from the program momentarily to manually save the buffer to disk. With the slow speed of the disk drives on the Atari computer this break can take as long as three minutes. At $12.00 an hour that's 60 cents worth of connect time on a commercial database.
Selecting a good communications package is important. Most modems are sold with a package written especially for them, but that doesn't mean you're limited to using only that package. Look around. There are some public domain packages in the libraries on CompuServe and the Source. Download a couple of these and see how they work. Maybe you'll like them better than what you're presently using.
The last part of the telecomputing trilogy is the lifestream of the system itself, the telephone lines. The quality of these lines determines the quality of the transmission between computers.
Although many companies install dedicated telephone lines for computer transmission, it usually isn't necessary for use with microcomputers. You can just tap into your home line with a direct connect modem without any problem.
If you happen to live in an area where the telephone lines carry a great deal of interference you might find some problems transmitting at the higher baud rates. You shouldn't have any problem with 300 or even at 1200, but trying to transmit at 2400 baud and higher may induce an undesirable level of errors. There's really nothing you can do about this until the telephone company cleans up its act.
FROM TELEPHONE LINES TO YOUR EPSON PRINTER
We haven't discussed much about your Epson printer's part in this electronic universe. The actual set-up and use of your Epson printer is the same whether its information is coming from a diskette in your drive or from another computer clear across the country.
In telecommunications, your Epson printer can be used in two ways. The first is to print data straight from the buffer. This means that your Atari computer has captured information from another computer in a part of its memory and you can make a printed copy of that information directly from the computer. The second way is to print from a file on diskette. The information in this file was originally captured in the buffer and then downloaded into a file on diskette. Once loaded onto diskette, the information is safe and can be printed at your leisure.
This second method is preferable unless there is a reason for you to have a printed copy of information while you're on-line. The reason for this choice is time. Your Epson printer can print between 80 and 200 characters per second while your disk drive can save information many times faster than that. The key to remember when living in the electronic universe is that time is money. Whether its time-connect charges or just long-distance telephone bills, the longer you spend on-line, the more expensive it will be.
Another advantage to saving the copy to diskette is that you can load the text into a word processor and keep only the parts you want. There are so many file identification lines and "Press <CR> for more" messages that get caught in a session, that it makes more sense to eliminate these before printing.
WHAT'S A SIG?
A SIG is a Special Interest Group. Databases like CompuServe and The Source have hundreds of SIGs with interests ranging from aviation to travel, Atari computers to Zenith computers, and a wide variety of interests that will tickle anyone's fancy.
Each SIG has at least ten departments. These departments include electronic bulletin boards where you can read bulletins, access programs, leave and receive messages, even conference with other SIG members from all over the world. These options are similar in all of the SIGs, but it's how the SIG uses them that makes the difference between a good SIG and a bad one.
Since you're reading this book, I thought you'd be interested in some SIGs on CompuServe which deal specifically with Epson and Atari. There are two SIGs for Atari and one for Epson.
The two Atari SIGs include SIGATARI and ANTIC. SIGATARI is an interest group sponsored by Atari Inc. It allows you read announcements directly from the manufacturer as well as receive help from their technical people through the Atari Hotline. The ANTIC SIG is run by the publishers of Antic magazine. They provide the Atari Resource that is not tainted by the special interests of the company.
There is also a SIG in the form of an electronic magazine, EpsOnLine. Its sign-on from the main CompuServe Menu is GO EPSON. It is an extremely well-run SIG which possesses many of the same sections as the other SIGs, only it's directed specifically at Epson printers and computers.
All of these sections have data libraries. These libraries have public domain files which contain text and/or programs for the Atari machines which can be downloaded onto your system. Once you have saved these programs on diskette, you may use, modify or destroy them on your computer at will.
Another section common to all of these groups is the Conference Mode. This is where Atari users can meet together to exchange ideas, tips, rumors and just "shoot the bull." You can't fully achieve an understanding of the electronic universe's expanse until you sit in your office in Los Angeles and find that the person you've been swapping stories with for the last half-hour is in Atlanta. This is what futurists mean when they speak of computers making the world smaller.
This Conference Mode is my favorite part of these on-line services. In addition to the comradery that can be built in conversations with others in this section, it's like having a 24-hour helpline for computer problems.
I have been saved a number of times while writing this book. Typically, my greatest technical problems arise at around 11 pm. I'll be at a point where I can't continue until my question has been answered, but there's no one around to ask. My answer comes when I fire-up my modem and sign onto CompuServe. Entering SIGATARI, or EpsOnLine, I usually find a couple of knowledgable users conferencing or a friendly SYSOP (SYStem OPerator) who can help me in my dilemma.
The SIGs in electronic utilities are probably the areas of most interest to the individual user, but there are many valuable applications for the computerized businessperson.
DOING BUSINESS THROUGH TELECOMPUTING
The business possibilities for telecomputing are almost endless. As a resource, information utilities like Dow Jones News/Retrieval Service can provide you with the up-to-the-minute news about stocks, bonds and commodities. It puts the information you need at your fingertips.
Telecomputing also opens new vistas in communication for businesses. It provides a low-cost channel for sending information anywhere in the world. Instead of relying upon the postal mail service or a courier service, companies can send information directly over the phone or store it in an information depot on one of the information utilities where it can later be retrieved by the recipient.
As I have already discussed, telecomputing can provide a direct line to companies for customer support. Any time of the night or day a customer can leave a message or question for a customer support person. The next day the company person can retrieve that message and answer it. The help is almost immediate.
The opportunities telecomputing is bringing to business are just now beginning to be explored. Computer banking and computer shopping are realities which are already being offered. Some universities are now offering on-line classes which allow you to earn a degree without ever stepping on campus. Plugging your computer into a telephone line will bring you in touch with centers of information which were previously inaccessible.
You've investigated a wide variety of applications for your Epson printer and Atari computer. It is only the beginning. As you become more involved in the world of computing you will marvel at the possibilities. The biggest limitation to your computer's capabilities is a human's ability to tell it what to do.
Most importantly, as you grow-so will your computer system. You'll upgrade your system to more powerful computers and your Epson printer will be right there with you. As you change computers you're Epson printer will still be able to work as your fast and efficient Fingerprint in the world of printing.
Your Epson printer is an investment that will go far into the future.
Return to Table of Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter