Exploring the electronic jungle
By JANE FIRBANK
It started with a very simple idea. Most electronic publishing may use 20th century technology, but still relies on 19th century assumptions - that the viewers should passively read whatever the publishers think is good for them.
But it is entirely possible, now, for people to be their own publishers. And this is exactly what Compunet allows. Subscribers can put their own material into the systemís "jungle" areas. They are free to do anything from starting a magazine or an interest area to selling their programs or expertise.
This process is aided by a unique feature of Compunet. It does not, as other viewdata systems do, treat the micro as a dumb terminal. Instead it uses the intelligence of the 64 and the modem also contains a powerful text and low-res graphics editor, with save and print features which make it almost a mini-operating system in itself.
So it is strikingly easy to prepare attractive pages for unloading on to the system, and no computing knowledge or control codes are needed.
The results, as you'd expect, are astonishingly diverse. There are solid, helpful areas on various aspects of computing for business, profit or entertainment, complete with helplines and a host of utilities, mostly free. There are informative special interest databases on subjects ranging from amateur radio to railways to photography. There are columnists, dungeon masters, artists, musicians, eccentrics and experts of all sorts ...
What makes the productions of the various Jungle contributors unique is Compunet's interactiveness. One person starts an area; others with relevant information contribute. Those reading it can vote, thereby giving an approval rating on each item for all to see.
Interested users can communicate with the contributors either by putting a comment directly on to the system next to the item they want to discuss or add something to, or by electronic mailbox (free to all members) or by chatting on the system's advanced real-time chat service, Party-Line.
Party-Line arose from Compunet's experience with MUD, the multi-user dungeon game first created at Essex University. MUD has been available on Compunet since 1984 - long enough to have evolved its own wizards and mythology, and for a variety of MUD-related areas to have grown in the Jungle - everything from tips and maps and gossip columns to Mugg, a shadowy organisation through which hard done by Mudders can take out a "contract" on the player who's annoyed them.
In MUD (£1.75 per hour and no joining charge) of course, players can chat with each other in real time, and it soon became apparent that quite often players were going into it for just that reason.
Party-Line was the result. It's a CB-type chatline like those which are so successful on US databases like Compuserve. You type your comment and it is on the screens of others in the same conversation almost immediately.
Since matters would get wildly out of control with too many people in a conversation, Party-Line has a "rooms" facility. Any user can create his own room by typing *enter THE BAR or CLUB 128 or whatever he wants to title it.
People in another room can be called and users can switch from room to room with a *enter command. Each room can hold up to eight people and there can be eight rooms in all.
Through a specially written scrolling, windowing terminal, users can review up to 25k of the conversation, save it or print it out. The point of this facility is that Party-Line is often used for much more than idle chat. At £1.00 per hour it's probably the cheapest way around of conducting a conference or purposeful discussion between a group of people who may well live at opposite ends of the country.
Party-Line naturally attracts dungeon masters, and Play by Party-Line shows signs of taking over from the Play by Mailbox dungeons and dragons games which have long been a feature of Compunet.
To accommodate DMs there is a special *dice command which puts a dice throw on all the player's screens. Much use is also made, by gamers and Party- Liners generally, of the *alias command.
Party-Line co-exists with Chat-On-Line, an area where messages are put up for one day and can be seen by all on the system. Party-Line messages can only be read by those who are in the room at the time.
In either, especially late at night, the user is likely to run into a variety of computing "names" like jeff Minter of Liamasoft (who also maintains his own jungle area full of free demos, utilities and chat), Blagger-writer Tony Crowther (a regular contributor of music and graphics to the Jungle's Art Gallery, which he started) and the Gang of Five - the programmers from Virgin Games (their occasional jungle publication, GOF News, is distinguished by being the only tabloid to have 37 solid pages of Bingo as well as, of course, a Page 3 ... ).
Inevitably in such a social network, Compunet has produced its own celebrities. Voted Celebrity of the Year in a recent poll conducted by a member was "Bogg", Graham Marsh, a 19-year-old who began the tradition of unloading music programs into the jungle (there is now a music hall area). By displaying his talent in this way Graham has earned work - for instance, Virgin asked him to write the music for Dan Dare.
They asked another Compunetter, 15-year-old Stu jackson, to do the loading screen, on the strength of the high-res graphics he put into Art Gallery. Commissions are also conung the way of another subscriber and graphic artist, 18-year-old Bob Stevenson.
Other talented users put up games and utilities, free or for sale. One promising new section is for Quilled adventures, whose authors find them hard to distribute in the normal way.
Compunet has a large commercial telesoftware section featuring current products from a wide range of software houses, like Firebird, Alligata, Melbourne House and Level 9. These usually sell at or below the tape price, and seldom take more than about 10 minutes to download (a successful download and save is guaranteed).
The great advantage for subscribers - the great majority of whom own disc drives - is that Compunct telesoftware is always suitable for downloading on to disc. Often there isn't a disc version available at all in the shops, or if there is it can be hard to find and the price differential between disc version and tape versions is, of course, practically always more than the cost of a disc.
If I have stressed the social and entertainment side of Compunet it's because that's where the system is unique. But many subscribers are also looking for more serious benefits like computing expertise, information, help and software for business computing, closed user groups for business purposes, teleshopping and so on.
Compunet's Club 128 area caters for the technical and business aspects of computing and, as its name implies, contains a database run by Commodore 128 owners full of useful advice and utilities.
Since most users still have C-64s, the section also contains material for them as well as business services, a business jungle, and a Precision Helpline for users of Precision software products like Superbase.
Teleshopping takes place through a link to another computer, that holding the huge Comp-U-Card database, with details of over 20,000 products from freezers and videos to holidays.
You tell the database you are interested in TVs. It responds with a few questions to narrow your choice and produces details of the various models which fit your criteria. Goods can be ordered on-line by credit card. Other services include theatre and travel booking, and more are planned. But the essence of Compunet is not services or information, useful though these are, but the creativity and interaction of its users. Many real-life friendships have been made, and useful contacts established, through the system. It's the only service in Britain to be a genuine network in the full, human sense of the word.
Compunet has three subscription levels, but most users opt for standard subscriptions at £10 a quarter. This gives unlimited off-peak access to the system and also a quantity of free storage for the member's own material.
Compunet can only be accessed with a Commodore modem. These are available through Compunet for £52.49 (including p&p and a quarter's basic subscription).
Compunet Teleservices Ltd., 7-11 Minerva Road, London NW10 6H,7. 01-965 8866.
12th March 1999: tlmar86.htm