The Apple as a computer terminal. Communications packages for the Apple II

by Graeme Philipson

(Reprinted from The Australian Apple Review March 1984)

An increasingly popular use of microcomputers, the Apple of course included, is as terminals. With the addition of a few bits of hardware and software the Apple 11 can become a complete intelligent terminal, capable of communicating via normal telephone lines with mainframe computers, databases, electronic mail services - anything that you can use a conventional terminal for.

What sorts of things? Many people are still unaware, or only vaguely aware, of what a computer terminal can do. Despite being touted for some time, with such phrases as the "Global Village", the "Electronic office", "Paperless communication", the field of microcomputer telecommunications is still in its infancy, mainly because of its relatively high price compared to more orthodox means of communication.

But this is changing very quickly as telephone charges drop and microcomputers become more widespread and less expensive. As an example, a lot of publicity has been given recently to unauthorised entry of databases in the US by teenage "hackers", as in the recent movie "Wargames". The time is coming when inter computer communication will be as common as a telephone call, though that day is further away than a lot of techno-gurus seem to think. Let's have a look at what you can do NOW, with an Apple 11 and less than $1,000 worth of software and peripherals.

1. You can access any of the public database/electronic mail services. There are two well-known ones, one American and one local. "The Source", owned by Reader's Digest and based in Virginia in the USA, allows anybody to access any of thedata available on their large mainframe computer. There is a vast amount of information: weather reports, news, computer problems. You can also leave messages for other users by accessing their number. They then collect the messages when they connect themselves. You can scan a list of users currently using the system, and break in and "chat" with them if you, and they, so desire. And there is a lot of advertising, omnipresent in today's world. There is an Australian attempt at emulating The Source's capabilities, called "The Australian Beginning" (TAB, they call themselves). This is Melbourne-based, and has suffered a few problems in its short lifetime. It is quite good, though it is very limited compared to The Source. Its electronic mail facility is cheaper, but it has never caught on with the business community.

2. You can access any of the extremely large number of semipublic databases, most of which are American-based. There are a few available in this country, but once again their use is limited by the relatively scarce amount of information available. These databases are considerably more expensive to access than The Source or TAB, but they are extremely useful for a number of specialist functions. A good example is the "World Reporter" recently introduced in Australia by Software Sciences. This database allows a user to access news items that appear in the British Press. Just type in a codeword, say"Lebanon", and the location of all news stories which use that word will be displayed . Overseas databases are accessed via OTC's "Midas" network, a communications link which is much cheaper than having to make an international phone call. But the information still has to go via satellite, and it is prohibitively expensive for most private users.

3. You can access your company's or your university's mainframe computer. This allows people such as computer programmers to work at home or off-site. In this situation the microcomputer usually acts as a "dumb" terminal, performing the same role as a terminal attached directly to the computer. The only difference is that communication is over a phone line, rather than directly into the computer.

4. You can interact with other microcomputers. If you and a friend both have a terminal, you can ring up, say something like "I want to send you a file''l you both put your computers into communications mode and you send your text file through the phone lines directly into your friend's computer. We use this method ourselves to collect some of the stories for this magazine.

What do you need?

You need hardware and you need software. Sound familiar? It's the old story of the hardware being no good without the software to support it. The hardware consists of two items:

1. A serial interface card. Terminal communication usually occurs via what is delightfully called an "Asynchronous RS-232C Serial Interface". In the Apple II's case, this consists of a plug-in interface card which normally likes to reside in Slot 2. There are a number of such cards available: the one we recommend is the "Digitek" serial interface card. It costs around $200 which is a lot cheaper than some, including Apple's so-called "Super Serial Card" and it is well-made and easy to use. It is commonly available, and any Apple dealer should be able to supply one.

2. An acoustic coupler or a modem. An acoustic coupler is a device which plugs into the serial interface at one end and a telephone at the other. You have to mount the telephone handset in the little rubber pockets, which can be a bit cumbersome to do, even impossible if you have a non-conventional handset. The acoustic coupler converts the electrical impulses into high-speed clicks which are transmitted to the telephone's microphone, where they are once more converted to electrical signals. The same procedure happens in reverse at the other end, or when you are receiving data. It is inherently inefficient, but at low speeds (typically 300 Baud/ ie 30 characters a second) it works okay. The big advantage of acoustic couplers is their portability. As long as you have a telephone, you have a terminal connection. The alternative to an acoustic coupler is a modem, which stands for MOdulator-DEModulator. This performs the same function, but there is no conversion from electrical to audio and back again. You need to plug your modem into a telephone outlet, coupled with a telephone.

This requires a special plug which can only legally be installed by Telecom, which reduces the portability of modems. It is possible to do the wiring yourself, but this is highly illegal and still not portable. As this is a respectable publication, we cannot recommend this course other than to say that we know of people who have done it themselves and it does work. Modems are more efficient, which means they can run at much higher speeds. This can mean a substantial saving, depending on what proportion of your log-on time is spent actually transmitting and receiving data.

Prices of acoustic couplers and modems have fallen recently and range between $200 and $500. The best acoustic coupler has long been the "Sendata 700" by Anderson Digital, at $249. They also make modems, the cheapest of which is the "Sendata 300" for $220. Dick Smith (The Electronic Dick!) has a good little modem for $199.

The software

The hardware, as is often the caseis no real problem. We haven't gone into it too much, because hardware is hardware and if you purchase a well known brand from a reputable dealer you can't really go wrong. But software . . . that's a different story. There are many different programs, called "terminal emulators" available. They vary in price and capability, and which one you get will probably depend on which one the salesman wants to show you. We look at a few of them later in this article: the list is by no means exhaustive, but it includes the most popular packages plus a few new ones, so it should give you some indication as to what to look for in a terminal emulator.

One very important piece of advice: before you buy, see the software you want actually running with the hardware you have connected to the other end you will be using. Make it a condition of the sale that you see it working, preferably on your own machine. There can be fiddly cable connections, depending on your modem and serial card, there can be tricky bits to actually getting the software running properly so that your data is transmitted and received clearly, there is usually a lot that needs to be done. This is because you will usually be using different bits of hardware and software from different manufacturers which should ideally all be compatible, but which can require a bit of tweaking to gel working properly.

Don't be daunted by this however. Once it's working, it should be trouble free. If your dealer can't or won't help you find one that can. That's what computer dealers are for.

What to look for in a terminal emulation program

Any Apple II communications program should do the following things:

1. Allow you to transmit Apple DOS text files. This allows you to create documents offline using a conventional word processing program (eg Zardax), then send them at high speed once connected. This means that you do not have to key your document in when you are logged on/ which has obvious advantages of time and therefore money.

2. Allow you to use a "Log-on File". When you access a data base, particularly if you go via Midas, there are many access numbers and code words which you have to type in when you connect. If you have to do this often it is a time-consuming, boring and repetitive task. A log-on file allows you to store all this information in a text file, where it can be retrieved when necessary and do all the boring work for you.

3. Allow you to save your terminal conversation as an Apple DOS text file, thus allowing you to edit or print the document once you have logged off.

4. Have facilities to use different types of data transmission. There are a few different standards of serial data transmission which need not concern us here. They have to do with such things as different speeds/ different check characters/ different duplex settings.

5. Operate in 80 columns. While this is not necessary/ most professional quality databases use an 80 column standard for the formatting of data. If your terminal operates only in 40 columns some data may be less legible.

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