BBS: The Documentary

Before this whole Internet/Web fad, before AOL, before CompuServe, before even Prodigy, we had the BBS -- dialup Bulletin Board Systems serving communities of computer users. BBSed had their heyday in the Eighties, and they were generally small, homebrew systems -- a Sysop (System Operator) would start up a BBS by installing special software on a spare computer, attaching a modem and a phone line, and waiting for the calls to roll in. The BBS was primarily a local thing, because generally people didn't want to spend money to dial long-distance. So what you had in the Eighties (and still very much into the Nineties, and a bit still today) was a broad patchwork of regional online communities. This local aspect of the system was largely lost when everyone moved to the Internet, and it's only present in niche sites like Craigslist and various City Guide sites.

As a teenager, I was hugely addicted to BBSes, and even had a special phone line put in (thanks, parents!) so I could dial up my local 'boards' to exchange messages, play online games, and chat (that last option was only available if the BBS's Sysop was rich enough to have multiple phone lines running -- or if you were chatting with the Sysop him or herself!). I often met new computer geek friends online, then found out they went to my middle school. And this was in the Eighties!

I keep running into former BBS users who remember the "good old days," (when busy signals were a regular feature of "checking your email") and thought I'd blog about the topic. The other day I was buying paper at the local paper warehouse and the cashier and I somehow got into a conversation about BBSes. I'm telling you, we're everywhere, hiding in plain view. So I'm wondering -- are any flossers former BBS users? Do you remember the days of downloading files in tiny segments, configuring your dialup client to work with the latest and greatest download protocol, and trying to figure out how to use Fidonet to send email (then "e-mail") cross-country? (Bonus points: remember when your friends got 2400 baud modems before you did, and lorded it over you for months? And when it happened again with 9600 and 14.4k modems?)

Much more, including a 10-minute clip of The BBS Documentary, after the jump!

Whether you're an old-school BBS user or just interested in computer history, there's one film that's required viewing: The BBS Documentary. Spanning three DVDs, this five-hour film chronicles various aspects of the BBS scene through interviews with those who wrote early BBS software, ran major BBSes, even those who created the ASCII/ANSI art that was a staple of the BBS scene. As Wired Magazine said, it's "surprisingly engrossing." I bought the DVD set when it first came out in 2005, and have recently started watching it again -- and I'm reminded how much history is revealed by the film. This is history that's been happening in garages, basements, and spare bedrooms across the world for the past thirty years -- and you'd hardly know it if you didn't see a film like this.

If you're ready to experience the whole film, order The BBS Documentary now! If you're not up for paying for it yet, you can watch several hours of it online at Google Video, or watch this clips compilation from YouTube:

IBM Unveils the World's Smallest Computer

The latest piece of technology to be zapped by the shrink ray of progress was recently revealed during IBM Think 2018, the computer giant’s conference that offers a sneak preview of its latest hardware. According to Mashable, IBM’s newest computer is so small that it could disappear inside a salt shaker.

An IBM computer on a motherboard and atop a pile of salt

That tiny black speck on the right? That’s the one. (It's mounted to a motherboard on the upper left of the left photo.) IBM claims the computer has several thousand transistors and has roughly the same kind of operating power as a processor from 1990. While that may not sound impressive, any kind of artificial intelligence in a product that small could have big implications for data management. IBM believes it has a future in blockchain applications, which track shipments, theft, and non-compliance. Its tiny stature means it can be embedded into materials discreetly.

As an example, IBM noted that the processor could be injected into a non-toxic magnetic ink, which can then be stamped on a prescription drug. One drop of water could make the ink visible, letting someone know it’s authentic and safe to take.

The tiny little motherboard and its processors are still in the prototype stages, but IBM predicts it could cost less than 10 cents to manufacture. The company hopes it will be commercially available in the next 18 months.

[h/t Mashable]

Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On

In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]


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