Compunet is up and running - but at what cost to the user? Hat

Compunet is up and running - but at what cost to the user?

A first impression of Commodore's network system by John Cochrane - can you afford to join Compunet? Or can you afford not to?

COMMODORE'S new Compunet system is now on line, and the first users are finding their way around the service. Owners of the 64 can, for £100, get a Compunet modem and one year's subscription to allow them to make full use of the facilities. Added bonuses designed to get the ball rolling have included free software and free mail service within Compunet, competitions, and free facilities to leave messages and programs in the public user area. By the time that you read this however some of these offers will have ended. The free software includes Viewdata for Prestel. Commodore claims that their Compunet modem can be used to give full access to Prestel and Micronet, although you will have to pay additional subscription charges for these.


But what is Compunet and what does it do? Essentially it is a telephone-based communications system which allows a Commodore 64 to be used to talk to a central mainframe computer, and access some of the facilities of that computer. Those facilities presently consist of a store of software, both commercial and DIY, either free or on credit; information on a range of topics available as screens of text; blank screens on which you can leave messages for others; and private massaging. The system is a commercial one, that is, it is set up to make money and many of the services must be paid for. You are allocated a £50 credit limit when you register as a user, but the service could cost you many times this amount if you are not careful. Commodore has however tried to cater for many tastes and budgets by setting up a number of alternative services with different charge rates. Commercial software can be bought and immediately transferred to your own machine, although you may need to leave the Compunet modem attached to your machine in order to run the software once you have bought it. A section called The Jungle is a relatively low-cost service which can, to a limited degree, provide a bulletin board with messages and answers on any topic. There are educational services, and so on.

"The structure of Compunet is based on pages of text..."

The hardware for the 64 (hardware for other micros to follow) consists of a black box which plugs into the cartridge port and has a 3m cable ending in a series 600 telephone plug, so you must have one of the new-style phone sockets to use the modem.' If you want to use the modem for talking to another 64 then you will need a double socket or a special convertor so that you can use your ordinary phone at the same time. Inside the modem are two circuit boards, one to control the phone signals and to provide the auto-dial hardware, and the other holds the built-in ROM and hardware to communicate with the 64. In principle, it should be possible to use the modem as a general-purpose device, to talk to existing phone-in services. Additional software is required for this and you will be restricted to 1200 baud services.

The structure of Compunet is based on the idea of pages of text (called frames), much the same as those provided by Teletext. The frames are numbered and are used as directories to further information or to the other Compunet facilities. For example, Frame 1 gives you the main menu. It tells you that Frame 100 will tell you more about Compunet, 200 is for micros and software, 300 is the shopping centre, 400 is money matters, and so on. If you select Frame 100 then you are shown a further directory, Frame 110 for information on how to register on Compunet, 120 is a user guide, 140 information on the Compunet Courier service (sending messages) - you get the idea. Each directory gives you more information on a given topic until you reach a specialised frame which offers the final product. The final product may be a document of several frames which is transferred to your machine and held in memory, you can look at each frame as you wish and save the whole document to tape or disk for looking at later. Most of the help and guide information is available in this manner. Some of these documents may be only available at a price, in order to receive them you must be properly registered and must agree the price before seeing what it is that you are purchasing.


There are several forms of software available. Commercial software from Commodore and other software houses can be bought at special rates and home-grown software can be bought and sold. Again, you don't know what you are getting until you have paid for it. Compunet is trying to ensure that the software sold gives value for money by threatening to excommunicate anyone caught abusing the service, and by giving buyers a chance to vote on the software which has just been bought. These votes are added and displayed for all to see - high votes should mean that the software has proved popular with previous buyers. You can only vote if you buy the software and you have only one vote per software item. The problem here is that, at present, Compunet does not tell you how many people in total have bought the software. Thus you can not know what proportion of buyers have been pleased with their purchases. Perhaps the system will be changed though. Compunet is asking for suggestions for additional services and improvements to those existing.

Software is available under several headings, including educational and business software. Compunet is keen to build up both these potential links and is attempting to set up additional services to support such things as business information services, estate-agent facilities, and software for use in schools and beyond.


Another form of software available on Compunet, and this may become some people's main reason for getting the thing, is software which loads and runs immediately. There are two examples of how this works. When you first log in some software is automatically loaded into your machine to make sure that you can make full use of all the latest facilities. Thus, here should be little chance of your hardware going out of date. The second example is a program called MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), developed at the University of Essex. This is a sophisticated adventure-type program which takes the whole thing a stage further by allowing up to 32 people to access the thing at the same time. Not only do you have the opportunity to roam around a weird land, finding treasures, fighting beasts, flailing swords about the place, but you also stand a good chance of meeting another player.

All this happens while you are still connected through Compunet.

Other services provided by Compunet include public and private message sending, and classified advertising. The private message sending is achieved by letting you leave a message, in the form of your own home-made frames, with a named recipient. Only the person that you have named can read the message, just like sending a message through the post. Compunet even calls the process of naming the recipient (can be more than one if you want) "creating an envelope". Public messages can be left in a number of ways. If you have some comment to make or a problem you can set up a message and leave it for all to see. if you come back to the system some time later perhaps someone else will have read your message and replied. A special reduced-sized massaging service lets you enter personal adverts you know the kind of thing, "bicycle wanted in exchange for disk drive".

So, all in all, how does the service shape up and how much does it cost? Currently there is a strong commercial influence, which hopefully will become less noticeable as more users start to make their own contributions through bulletins and so on. Compunet has allowed for many types of user, with many types of requirement. After the first couple of sessions most users will probably find the sections which most interest them and stick to these. There are opportunities to request changes to, or additions to, facilities provided so the system should grow. One aspect which I personally do not like at all is the way that everything has been given a humorous name. The open area is called The Jungle. There is a sort of horizontal menu at the bottom of the screen which allows you to select your choice; this is known as a Duckshoot - it took me about four hours to work out what a Duckshoot was. This particular type of commercial razamataz does not help in getting to understand the system.


As regards costs, "complex" is the word which springs to mind. Most things cost something; software is simple in that the price is displayed before you buy. Connection charges vary with time of day, zero charge at night, £7.00 per hour during the day (plus £2.50 per hour any time if you want 1200/1200 comms.). Charges for leaving messages or programs are typically lp per frame (or per 1K program) per day. Program or message sales cost 40 to 50 per cent of the asking price. So try and work that lot out if you can - my only advice is to think before you commit yourself. It may become a good system, but Commodore intends to make money out of it, and we all know the level of turnover the company is used to.

Richard A. Bartle (
23rd April 1999: chjan85.htm