Dial M for Modem

by Delores Haze

You’ve uncrated your machine, mastered BASIC and taken over the family TV set. But what do you do once you’ve played all the games, and tried your hand at a few elementary graphic designs? You get a modem. Then—with the help of your telephone—you’re ready to tap into remote data bases and shop at Saks, research the family tree, play new video games and find out what the weather’s like in Tanzania—without leaving your easy chair. The fun of personal computing has just begun.

All you need to make your home terminal a gateway to the best of what the world has to offer is a pushbutton phone, a modem and, of course, your trusty computer. Your modem (short for modulator/demodulator) will translate the computer’s digital signals in to Ma Bell’s analog (voice) signals. A modem at the other end of the line unscrambles the message back into digital signals, and you’re in business.

The modem itself is a device about the size of shoebox costing anywhere from $195 to $450. Hooking up into databases involves calling a number (this means paying long-distance rates if it’s out of your area), typing in the database’s account number and password and browsing through the “menu”—the list that will appear on your computer screen detailing the services your database can offer.

Let Your Fingers Do The Walking

If you’re a video gamer turned computer user in search of something that challenges more than just your reflexes, GameMaster’s interactive strategy game service might be for you. The Evanston, Illinois-based service (312-328-9009) features an interactive gaming network modeled after a house, with 35 different game “rooms.” The service costs an initial $40, which nets you a 50-page documentation book, a map of the house, game rules and two hours of free playing time.

Modem blueprint—telecomputing made easy

Take notice. Video games offered via telephone lines are long on strategy and excitement, but short on graphics, which are difficult to transmit. Many games are text only, with a few of the games featuring rudimentary graphics. Unlike arcade and home versions, many of GameMaster’s offerings allow up to 10 players to participate. In the GameMaster War Room is Nuke Strike, a two-player game, while the Engine Room features Air Flight Simulator, a single-player game with constant real-time readouts of flight data. A two-to-four player game, Oil Burn, involves bidding on the rights to drill for oil in different locations. A multi-player, real-time game called 18 Wheeler involves moving three trucks to three different locations using data based on actual interstate mileage.

Other rooms include the Locker Room (Football, Baseball), the Board Room (Chess, Checkers, Backgammon), Classroom (lessons in French, Spanish, German and real-time math exercises for children) and the Observatory (horoscopes). The Parlor allows up to six people to just sit and chat via computer. For an extra dollar, you can get a private “box” to receive electronic mail in the Mail Room. In the Kitchen are recipes from users; system subscribers are allowed free system time to put their recipes on line. The GameMaster service is on line 24 hours a day. Should you get hungry for spaghetti and meatballs at 3 a.m., now you know where to call.

One of the earliest computer information services, and certainly the database with the most services, is CompuServe, an H&R Block company. Originally started as a database geared to the needs of large corporations, the company decided to make use of the computer power left unused after the business day ended. The purchase fee is $29.95 for personal computer owners. The starter kit includes a user ID number, system password, printed users’ guide and one hour of free time.

What do you get? Well, CompuServe has a variety of games, some of them interactive, including MegaWars, which can involve up to 10 players and includes some graphics. Most of the games are all-text. Others include Adventure, Football, Backgammon, Banshi, Black Jack, Bridge, Chess, Civil War, Concentration, Craps, Cube Solver, Eliza (an online computer simulation of a psychiatrist), Hammurabi, Maze, Mugwump, Othello, Real Time Trek, Roulette and Scramble, among others.

Future File

CompuServe doesn’t limit itself to games and some of its programs and services are well worth the $5-an-hour connect time. If you’ve blown your youth away playing video games and need a little help getting into college, CompuServe’s The College Board service provides information on adult education, choosing a college, financial aid and SAT test information. Most personal computer owners are technology buffs and CompuServe provides Future File, a collection of articles and interviews with futuristic authorities on business, political, military and technological subjects.

Also available to users is the electronic version of the World Book Encyclopedia. A clearinghouse for consumer information about making and saving money through manufacturers’ refund offers is part of the service. This Refundle Bundle provides specific information and has an interactive section in which users can receive answers to specific questions.

Users can also shop at home with the Compu-u-star, a service supplied to CompuServe by Compu7u-card. It offers thousands of items at up to 40 per cent off suggested retail prices.

If you’re looking to communicate with other computer owners, CompuServ’s “CB Radio” has 40 “channels” allowing you to talk with a variety of people. Other services include the Associated Press wire and access to The Washington Post, St. Louis Post and Columbus Dispatch.

The Source (703-821-6660) is probably the second largest consumer database service. It has a one-time hookup fee of $100 and charges $7.75 per hour after 6 p.m.


The Source, like CompuServe, has an electronic shopping service—CompuStore—which offers about 30,000 different items from refrigerators to cotton shirts for sale, usually at a discount. In the educational lineup, this service features very basic language lessons in Esperanto, French, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish, and math and geography lessons, also geared to the grammar-school level.

It’s possible, if not to fly electronically, then to check the schedules of all North American flights to domestic and foreign destinations with information about departures, arrival times and airline meals. The Mobile Travel Guide, updated yearly, provides restaurant reviews from across the nation, categorized by state, area, type of food and whether entertainment or live music is provided. The company also offers news (UPI wire) and weather services.

Refrigerators aren’t the only thing you can buy via your computer and telephone. The Telephone Software Connection sells software packages outright. Potential buyers must own a Hayes Micromodem II or Novation AppleCat II modem in order to access the service (213-516-9430). The software is designed for the Apple II computer. When you access the network, the service presents its software and prices, along with some free goodies—samples of its software. The computer programs (paid for by credit card) are loaded directly into the computer, which in turn can be loaded onto tape or disc.

Game software from TSC includes Lunar Lander II, Chess Connection ($35) (which allows you to play chess with a friend over the phone), Go-Moku ($20) and Tele-Gammon ($35). Educational programs are Math Tutor, Time Tutor (both $25) and Spelling Tutor (820). One program that should interest videophiles is the Video Librarian ($40), which maintains an electronic card catalog for video tapes and videodiscs and is designed to locate entries by title, category or keywords.

There are plenty of other uses for your modem. Electronic bulletin boards are scattered across the country and they’re yours for the accessing. All it costs is the price of a long-distance telephone call.

To tap into the bulletin boards, most systems require that you dial the number, wait to hear a high-pitched tone, then place the phone handset in the modem. You’ll probably then hit the computer’s return key, so the system will know that you’re there. Some computer bulletin boards are up and running 24 hours a day. By the way. CompuServe, The Source and GameMaster operate bulletin boards, but you’ll have to pay for interconnect time.

Your Family Tree

Once you tap into one network, most systems carry information about other computer community bulletin boards. Also helpful is the On-Line Computer Telephone Directory, available from Jim Cambron, PO Box 1005, Kansas City, MO 64111.

Probably the oldest free bulletin board is CBBS in Chicago, first established in 1978 and operating 24 hours a day. Call (312) 545-8086. The Family Historian Forum-80 out of Fairfax, VA, is set up by the publishers of Genealogical Computing, to help you in researching and keeping track of your family tree. Dial (703) 978-7561. Other Forum-80 lines are in Kansas City, MO, (816) 861-7040 and Shreveport, L.A. (318) 631-7107. The Remote North Star NASA in Greenbelt, MD (301) 344-9156, provides information about space shuttle missions. HEX stands for the Handicapped Education Exchange in Silver Spring, MD (301) 593-7033. And that’s just a sampling of the hundreds of bulletin boards out there—all of them free.

That’s what’s happening today. Major corporations, however, are launching experimental database projects in anticipation of someday entering the market in a big way. CBS and AT&T are now conducting a joint field experiment involving 100 homes in Ridgewood, NJ and will add another 100 by next year. The high-quality graphics service provides international, national and local news, weather and sports from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Newark Star-Ledger, among other papers. With this service, a user can order groceries from Grand Union Stores and have them delivered to his home, as well as order from Saks Fifth Ave and J.C. Penney. Home banking and electronic notepads are also part of the trail project’s service.

But you have to start with a modem and the best way to find out more about them is to contact the people who make them:

* A.M. Jacquard, 3340 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405;

* Anderson Jacobson Inc., 25 Olympic Ave., Woburn, MA 01801;

* Astrocom Corp., 120 W. Plato Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55107;

* Bockus Data Systems, 1440 Koll Circle, San Jose, CA 95112.

Once you’ve got your modem, personal computing is a whole other ballgame. It’s no longer a matter of mere software or learning complex programming techniques and foreign languages. It’s no longer dependent on the information you bring to it; now it can bring you information and services in a way that makes your poor old telephone look like a prop from The Flintstones.

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