Plied by free drink, PAUL EVANS gets sociable on Micronet’s new exclusive chatline

HI THERE! I’m back online with a new modem for my ST and I think the VTX has risen again from the dead. So it’s back to normal and the long promised Shades article...

Just as I was getting ready to write it up, off goes the phone: it’s David Rosenbaum from Micronet begging me to put back the Shades feature again in favour of Micronet’s latest brainchild. Before I know it I’ve got an operating manual, access to the system and a bottle of wine! Why wine? Well, it’s common practice to have a press briefing over these matters, normally with lots of food and booze. However, Micronet decided to do things a little differently.

So, what is the latest add-on to the Micronet database? It’s the launch of an idea that’s been hanging around for quite sometime now but not many people have bothered with: teleconferencing. Teleconferencing is a sort of up-market version of the chatline: instead of the one-line chats ’netters are used to, you have a computer that can allow certain groups of people to chat away without being listened to by unwanted guests. The chats are confined to the group’s screens only: you can allow certain people to chat but throw others out, and there are many ‘channels’ that can be used by different people — like a CB but without the interruptions.

Such a system has many uses: club meetings can carry on privately and business issues can be discussed. Until now, these systems have been used rarely and only by business men, but by the time you read this, Micronet will be offering their teleconferencing system to the public.

Micronet’s version is called TeleTalk and runs on a modified PDP11. This is accessible via a gateway on Micronel page 700999911. The operating software was written by Neil Newell, the programmer responsible for the remarkable Shades scrolling software.

I logged on to Micronet as requested by Dave for the world’s first on-line press briefing — hence the bottle of wine through the post. As I passed through the gateway I wondered if Micronet had got their wires crossed, since the opening screen was identical to Shades! However, I followed the commands given, created my persona and password, and was placed in the reception area. It turns out that the whole thing runs as an adventure! On typing ‘look’ in the command box I got the following reply ‘You are now standing in the thickly carpeted, finely decorated TeleTalk reception area and you feel immediately relaxed by the environment. West of you is the reception desk and to the east is a large noticeboard. To the north a long corridor stretches away, and above the doorway to it hangs a sign reading To the conference rooms. Apart from all this detail, there’s a sign standing on the floor pointing southwest reading Trader Vic’s — this way.

Wow! TeleTalk is not an adventure, however: the style is such to make the whole idea more user-friendly and enjoyable, and allow interaction with other users. There is a large list of commands available to help you and these are easily discovered by taking the self-help lessons available on-line. The whole kaboodle is set in a conference centre (called Hotel California for some reason) and you can hold private discussions in any one of the 30 rooms available. If you want a general chat with anyone, then just go to Trader Vic’s bar which is just a general chatline for the socially-aware person. You talk by using the commands SAY (message) to give a general message to everyone in the same room as you, or TELL (user) (message) to give someone a message that no-one else can listen to. The 30 rooms, however, are for more private chats: you can hold club meetings in them, or discussions on certain topics. One definite use would be meeting of Starnet or PBM ‘alliances’ to plan their next move without the opposition finding out!

To use a room for, say, a conversation with a group of Spectrum enthusiasts planning to destroy some Commodore owners on Shades, the first thing to do would be arrange a meeting. This can be done in a few different ways: you can leave a message on each user’s mailbox arranging the time to meet. It is impossible to arrange the room number as no booking service is yet available. The leader then arrives five minutes early and claims an empty room by going to the reception desk and obtaining the key to an empty room (in true adventure style). On the other side of the room is a noticeboard on which people can write messages. The leader announces on this which room the meeting is being held in. When the others arrive they can read the board and type the simple command GOTO (room number) whereupon they are transported outside the required room. The leader is already waiting, so they can enter and start the meeting. Easy! However, what’s to stop the enemy getting in? Even easier! The door acts like a censorship system (yes, I know it sounds crazy): it has a lock and a blind on the window. If anyone is to be allowed in, you just leave the door open: if you want to know who is coming in, then leave the blind open and lock the door. The person on the other side can knock and look through the blind to see who’s inside. The leader can hear them and let them in if so desired. If the blind is closed, then the conversation will not be interrupted in anyway: knocks can’t be heard by the people inside and anyone outside is unable to see who is in.

If the leader does not like what someone is saying, he can silence them by typing MUTE (name). This person’s comments will now be unheard by anyone in the room until he leaves. If someone starts causing trouble the leader can throw them out of the room with no resistance; the keyholder has complete control over the conversation and room, so the leader can formulate a plan, go onto Shades, and kill every Commie on sight!

What I have just outlined is just some of the many commands available to the TeleTalk user. You can leave messages to each other by writing MEMO’s. These are stored in your ‘Memobox’ and can only be accessed on the TeleTalk computer. If you need someone who you know is on TeleTalk at the same time, then you can use the PAGE command. Everyone on TeleTalk carries a radiopager on which people can call you if needed.

Many adventure-style commands are available, such as INVENTORY and READ (object). You can even type KISS (name) with success! I suspect that many commands are undocumented and are left up to the user to discover.

Other aspects of the system include the information centre. This area contains a self-teach system for first-time users, a news section and a file centre where archives are kept (?). I suppose there will be a large amount of gossip and amazing happenings flying about that will add to the atmosphere. We will have to wait and see.

So that’s the theory, what about in practice? My first experience of TeleTalk in action was at the aforementioned press on-line briefing. Initial reactions were ‘slow and confusing’: the normal scrolling service now available to Shades users has not yet been implemented on TeleTalk, although it’s promised soon, so you have to make do with Viewdate scrolling. While this is a very good piece of software, it’s still a bit confusing. Sometimes it doesn’t give you a chance to see what’s going on as it is rather rapid in rewriting the area of the screen you were trying to read. However, after about five minutes you get used to it and it soon becomes no problem. The same applies to the speed: I said it was slow. but when you compare it with the normal chatlines, it easily outpaces even Turbo as the chat appears near-instantly. It just seems slow as your mind thinks it’s playing an adventure where responses are supposed to be instant. When the scrolling system gets underway it will be a joy to use.

There is only one thing that really gets to me about it and that is the timeout feature. If you do not use the system for more than one minute it asks you to key hash before allowing you to type anything. Not so bad you may think, but it often happens when you’re just finishing a long sentence, which is than lost. After a few attempts at the same sentence it could make a grown man cry! Besides these niggles, and the tedious typing of SAY or TELL before each sentence, TeleTalk is really fun to use and is a lot more versatile than other chatlines. It’s ideal for any usage and very convenient. Definitely worth the Micronet subscription if you just use TeleTalk alone! It’s a good replacement for Talkabout addicts now the system is closing down, and Micronet’s product manager, Phil Godsell, sees it as a lot more upper-class. Yuppienet hero we come! One thought occurred to me as I was talking to Phil: chats are not monitored so room is open for abuse of the system. Perhaps a police service will come into force. Finally, a charge is made for connection to TeleTalk (ala Shades) but it will only be a few pence per minute.

That’s all for this months. See you next time for the long-awaited Shades feature Bye!


TELETALK: Look out for CRASH meetings for Speccy owners conducted by yours truly on TeleTalk. Watch the noticeboard for details of meeting times etc.