Ionic Column: October 1996
by David Parry
The Ionic Column tends to be a sort of journal of me and my PC. New hardware, new software, new programs, plus some comments on new developments gleaned from the various BBS or technical magazines. I do not have much to report on for this month, mainly due to the fact that I have been heavily involved in my "paying hobby," and thus further work on OS/2 has been put on the back burner for a month. A future issue is likely to concern ISDN, as I am moving office shortly and will install ISDN instead of two conventional lines. Apart from the speed, it costs about the same as I pay for two analog phone lines.
The Information Superhighway (sic)
It is not really such a new concept, as members of TPC will know. Tokyo has had its BBS for many years now, acting as a vital forum and virtual meeting point even before the concepts were popularized. Too bad nobody got around to trade-marking that delightful term "virtual cafe" coined by former TPC newsletter maven Andreas Braem.
The key issues in connectivity are both low-tech and high-tech. The high-tech part is the provision of systems that can communicate relatively quickly and easily. The question that I would ask is: why has all this had to wait for Pentium PCs stuffed to the gills with mega-wads of RAM and connected to high-speed modems or ISDN? The technology to communicate was available ten years ago, but it was not easy to use. The low-tech part is price and availability. The whole thing has mushroomed and reached critical mass now that prices have plummeted and the technology is easy / easier to use. And more fun.
No one element is that new. Online services such as Compuserve have been around for years, but they used to be so expensive. The Internet was restricted to academia and government institutions until just a few years ago. What would have happened if it had been made available to the general public earlier? The Internet is now much more than file transfer and e-mail, but those two alone could be done with 2,400bps modems and the older file transfer protocols.
Looking at the various BBS today, it would have been nice to have had ZMODEM and mail readers (widely) available ten years ago. Around that time I was stuck with a 300bps modem, but we all typed on-line anyway. It was not all that expensive if one lived in Tokyo, since we lived on-line at local call rates.
The funny thing is that we are returning to that with the Internet and the World Wide Web, assuming that you can find a provider on your immediate vicinity. In the same way, watching the pages appear on my screen at 14,400 bps reminds me somewhat of the old days of watching the text crawl across the screen with a 300 or 1,200bps modem.
In case I make it sound that the only progress has been in terms of the appearance of the text rather than its content, I hasten to add that graphics can be vitally important to communicate information. Needless to add, graphics were out of the question with the older slower modems, although there were some very ingenious example of art made up of ASCII characters. Is there a computer user on this planet who has not seen the ASCII Raquel Welch?
I'll give just one example of information that requires graphics. Vendors of computer-related products used to quote a phone number, and maybe a fax number. A few die-hards even quoted telex or telegraph numbers. A sales inquiry or a desperate plea for technical help meant a phone call or a fax. Many vendors automated these procedures with the soulless labyrinths of voice mail or fax on demand. An increasing number then offered BBS for technical support and file downloads of upgrades and bug fixes. The BBS were usually located in the USA and you first had to be registered, which meant waiting a day for allocation of a password to allow you to download anything, but it was quicker than waiting for a set of diskettes.
These days I can get sales brochures from the vendor's Web homepage instead of shooting off a fax and waiting for an envelope to arrive—eventually—maybe. I can also get what I want by simply viewing the homepage; downloading the image for printout later is like paying somebody else to fax something to me, though, I can shoot off sales or technical queries to the vendor's Internet account, to an online service, or through their Web homepage again. If I need updated drivers or the like, I can also download them from Compuserve or from the vendor's Internet number by FTP (File Transfer Protocol) at local instead of international telephone rates. It is quicker and cheaper even with my 14,400bps modem. Once I get ISDN, I will use the Web much more.
PTTs worldwide used to make much more money on their telephone services than in delivering bits of paper. The term is used to describe a state-run monopoly that covered post, telephones and telegraphic transfers, and it was also the name by which the French post office was known. In many countries the two sections were split, and then privatized separately. Thus Germany has Deutsche Bundespost, which retained the hunting horn logo and the paper-shuffling business, and Telekom handles telecommunications. Neither of these are exactly customer-oriented. It's somewhat like dealing with a Third World embassy.
Virtual phone calls
Telekom has been plagued with frauds concerning over-billing and misuse of phone numbers, as I well know from personal experience; I got a phone bill for 415 DM (US$250) for three days of calls placed just before my arrival in Germany. Perhaps they assumed that I had made virtual phone calls. I had to pay the bill, but finally got the amount credited in full after sending off a fiery missive or two. Their monopoly ends next year, and phone costs are predicted to be halved in the areas where the newcomers can compete. I am keen to find out how international calls will be affected, although this is less of an issue than before due to Compuserve and the Net.
Cutting postage costs—legally
I thought that Japanese postage was expensive, but Germany is not exactly cheap. And becoming less so. The rates are due to go up within a few months, which will due a great deal to encourage the use of faxes and e-mail. I can send a one-page fax locally or within Europe for a third of the price of a letter. It will soon be a quarter of the price of a letter. The ratio is slightly less for international calls outside Europe. I initially cut costs by faxing instead of sending snail-mail, but I have made a bigger saving by sending e-mail through Compuserve in the past year.
Cutting postage costs—illegally
Talking of cutting postage costs, a scam that is being perpetrated over the Internet is an offer to show you how to do just that. In return for a fee of around $20, you get a letter mailed with a 2c stamp, saying that you can mail a letter at this bargain rate. The scam? The automatic sorting systems reject letters with no stamps, but accept mail that has a stamp on it, even if it less than the full amount. It requires the human eyeball, Mark 1, to recognize the problem, but the odds are that most of these letters will get through.
A load of baloney
Scams like this offer you useless information for a small fee. Since the amounts are so small, nobody bothers much, but it does add up. It is another example of the "salami principle," often used to defraud computerized accounting systems, in which a very small amount is sliced away somewhere in the system, but a great many times.
By and large, you only need one on-line service. I use Compuserve, and have wondered from time to time whether to sign up for Germany's very own T-Online, or to look for America OnLine (AOL), which I think is represented in Germany by T-Online. All the services interconnect, and also the "T" in T-Online stands for Telekom, a company that is not my favorite vendor. Compuserve has Internet access, so I can send mail through the Internet, and also receive it. By the virtual sackful.
Again, I borrow a phrase from a TPCer, Peter Evans, who took a very jaundiced view of the relentless e-selling via the Internet in a recent BBS posting. Other BBS postings showed me that "spam" (now without trademark or capitalization) is not merely a meat product beloved of Pythons, but also a verb. And a verb much used and abused by the blowhard salespersons of the Net, who seize upon lists of names and numbers to feed into their junk e-mail machines. At least they don't waste paper, but I waste a few minutes every day wading through the cyber-junk. The funny thing is that many of them seem to be trying to sell to each other, and to push others to do the same. An e-mail program shoots out thousands of messages to hapless Netizens, offering them a chance to buy the same bulk mailing software and "guaranteed" lists of e-mail addresses to sell to the virtual community at large.
Every day brings a crop of offers to get rich quick. Some offer information, others a chance to get involved in marketing schemes which require you to recruit umpteen more people before you stand to make any money. Some even begin with a rundown on the various sales schemes and scams jostling for space in my mailbox. It is a bit like the junk mail that I used to receive by the ton in Tokyo, but more democratic. The Net may be a good way to sell niche products or to make direct sales that also make savings by cutting out the middleman, but you might be forgiven for thinking that the Internet is nothing but a very cheap way of shotgunning sales offers at a great many people, and supposedly, a well-heeled market segment with a relatively high level of disposable income at that. Despite the size of the Internet, it still seems a very incestuous business in which everybody is trying to sell something to each other. Is that really the way to get rich quick?
Put up or pay up
The Internet is already under pressure to either restrict advertising or to charge for its own services. A couple of the bulk mailer vendors commented that there are a number of vocal "Net police" who make life miserable in a virtual sort of way for the Net-marketers. I must admit that I do not welcome the flood of sales literature that I get, especially when it is very US-specific, but sometimes there are useful things as well. The ones that irritate me the most are those hopefuls who think I will waste time on an 800- call to the USA (only possible outside the USA if you are registered with a callback service), calling up a fax auto-responder or pointing your browser at their Web homepage. The only good thing I can say is that at least they do not waste paper.
But the real prize for chutzpah has to go to the hard-driving salesman in Tokyo who left a message on my answering machine, asking me to call him back urgently. I did so, and got a sales pitch for Persian carpets. It's much the same as being asked by e-mail to fax for sales information or to ring up at my expense and listen to a tape. I wouldn't waste the time even if my telephone was free, which it assuredly is not.
Of course, this is a very democratic business. Time and distance make no difference on the Net, so TPC readers in Japan and I all get the same mail. Curiously, none of the e-mailers seem to know that US Compuserve account numbers always begin with a 7, and elsewhere in the world with a 1.
That's all for the moment. I hope to have some comments on digital cameras and imaging in the next issue, as I will be helping out an exhibitor at Photokina in Cologne. It will also be interesting to see if I get any feedback on this article from someone reading the TPC Web homepage.
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