CNET - Moving with the times.
(Written by Dave Spink - JAM magazine January,
OK, before I go any further let me put a few things straight.
Firstly I am a long-time user of Compunet, so I'll be a bit
biased towards it. Secondly, I write Terminal software for
Compunet, so I'll be a bit biased towards that as well. Fair
Compunet subscribers do have a habit of sticking up for Cnet
as it get called - Compunet is only its Sunday name - and,
hopefully, once you've read this you'll see why we do. Cnet
is probably best described as an interactive online database.
Now you already know an online database, it's called Prestel.
And I'll bet you know a few interactive systems too - I would
say Bulletin Boards count as interactive. Cnet crosses the
small-and-friendly feeling you get from a BBS with the large-cold-halls-of-information
that Prestel supplies and comes up with something rather unique
in the world of comms.
First we had better get the history lesson out of the way.
Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I'll begin.... TEACHERS'
PETs Way back in the early eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was
riding high and the VIC-20 was the latest thing, Commodore
UK decided to get involved with the education market, what
with the roaring success of its PET series of computers in
schools. The company decided it would be a good idea to have
a nationwide network which teachers could use to exchange
ideas and information using their trusty PETs. So Commodore's
Special Project team was put on the job. The network they
came up with was the forerunner of Compunet. It was called
Many of the innovative features of the system were designed
by a member of the team called Nick Green (more of Nick later).
Commodore needed someone to program the system for both the
PETs and the central mainframe. Two teachers came forward
- Dave Parkinson and Mike Bolley. They called themselves Ariadne
Software (sound familiar?). Dave and Mike were responsible
for the original mainframe coding, and the original terminal.
But there was trouble heading Commodore's way. A certain television
company released a small number of Computers to accompany
one of its programs.
The BBC micro caught on at an incredible rate - perhaps because
it was British - and established itself as the standard for
education. Bye-bye PETNET. It was shelved. But this was not
the end for our hardy network. Around 1983/84 PETNET surfaced
again. This time Commodore decided it would do well as a leisure
network, or at least not one devoted to education needs. The
C64 was taking off now, so the PET terminal was re-written
- again by Ariadne - to work on the C64, and the mainframe
was a time-slice on ADP's ageing DEC-10. ADP also provided
the network of local dial-up points. It was around this time
that Commodore pulled out and left Compunet, as it was now
called, to fend for itself as a commercial company. I'm sure
the main reason Compunet survived this trauma was because
Commodore were bundling Compunet modems with the 1541/Easy
Script offers, just before they stopped making the 1541. This
same special modem is still required to this day to access
Cnet on a C64.
For a few years Cnet plodded along with moderate success.
Quite a few dedicated users had joined by now, dare I mention
FOGG and TJ? However, in true Cnet style, another disaster
was looming - ADP shut down its DEC-10 network, which left
Compunet out in the cold yet again. A mainframe was bought,
custom built by Cambridge Micro Computers. It was always referred
to as the mainframe, but the whole system, including hard
drives, looked more like an oversized shoe box and sat in
the corner on the floor of the computer room. But it was an
impressive beast, far more powerful than the old DEC-10. And
its full power was available solely for running Compunet.
This new mainframe ran OS/9, so none of the old code would
run on it. The whole system was re-written in C by... wait
for it... Ariadne.
Although the company was helped this time by the new Compunet
MD, Graham Cragie, and the Compunet programmer, Robert Foot.
The next problem was finding a nationwide network. ISTEL was
chosen. ISTEL was mainly used by travel agents for accessing
reservation systems and stuff like that, but it welcomed Cnet,
probably because it gave the company something to do with
its network in the evening when all the travel agents had
Had Cnet now achieved success? Not a bit of it. There was
another, more serious problem. Cnet had a lot in common with
the Amiga hardware - unique features that make it special,
but also hold it back. In the case of the Amiga I'm referring
to the custom chips and the fact that they hold back speed
improvements, but then where would the Amiga be without them?
In the case of Compunet the problem was the C64. Cnet was
completely based around it - the graphics used online were
exactly the same as the C64 character set, including the 16
colours and all the various graphics shapes, which is no bad
thing since some amazing effects can be achieved with them.
The nearest thing to the C64 block graphics are the BBC viewdata
blocks - Ceefax, Oracle and Prestel - but the Commodore version
has many more shapes and colours. However, this meant that
for any other computer to access Compunet it would have to
be able to emulate the complete C64 character set. Something
beyond many computers. But not the Amiga. Ariadne was drafted
in again to write an Amiga terminal. After alterations to
the host and a lot of messing with the protocol it was possible
for Amiga's to log on to Compunet and display the usual Commodore
screens. Quite a feat, since a 16 colour medium resolution
was needed to get all the characters and colours right.
It was around this time that Nick Green - the original developer
- came back on the scene. He bought a controlling share in
the company and became Managing Director. Both Graham and
Robert left soon after this, and soon after that Jane Firbank,
who had been the editor of Compunet from the start, also left.
This left Cnet with a staff of four - two programmers, an
administrator and a new editor, Peter Hardcastle. There has
to be another problem, doesn't there? BAUD RATES Right form
the start Cnet could only be accessed at 1200/75 Full Duplex.
There were some attempts at 1200/1200 Half Duplex, but this
never came to much. Now, it may come as a shock but there
were not that many Amiga owners who were willing to spend
10 hours or the like on the phone uploading an Amiga program
at 75 Baud. ISTEL did have a 1200/1200 network but there was
a disagreement about access to it. This, along with stacks
of problems were having logging on, led to a dispute between
ISTEL and Compunet. The legal proceedings relating to this
affair are still going on, so I'd better not say any more
Since this divorce happened, just over a year ago, Compunet
has only been available on a direct access London number,
which has led to lots more problems - for a start, not many
people can afford to phone London to use Compunet. All is
not lost though because the direct line case use up to 2400
Baud for Amiga users, and also MNP Level 5. Another network
came on the scene after ISTEL, Called Fastrak, and said Cnet
could use its network. But at the very last moment -in fact
the very day access was supposed to start - Fastrak pulled
the plug and completely changed its mind about allowing Cnet
on its network. Legal proceedings are also in progress with
So, in its present state Compunet can be accessed by a C64
using Compunet's special modem at 1200/75 on the direct London
number. Amiga an ST users can also access Cnet on the London
number, but at speeds up to 2400. This all needs specific
Compunet software. What about people who don't have the software?
Well, just recently Cnet has been working on a plain scrolling
TTY system without any of the C64 graphics and colours, which
will mean any computer and modem will be able to dial up Compunet
an logon. This system is still under development, but is running
most nights. Call 071-284 4068 with 8N1 for a demo. You lose
amend, once online, you make your way to TERM and download
the proper Amiga terminal. It'll be worth it, believe me.
Multi-user things seem to be all the rage these days, and
Compunet is sure to satisfy your need in this department.
There are two multi-user games (MUGSs) - Federation II and
Realm. Fed II is one of the newest and most advanced multi-user
games there is. It is written by Compunet's ex-Admin Manager,
Alan Lenton, better known as YETI on Cnet or Bella on Fed.
Compunet was the first system to host Fed, following its success
it has now moved to the ill-fated Matrix BBS, GENie in the
USA, and MicroLink. I don't want to go into details about
Fed here, but it's a space trading game of an incredible size.
The other MUG, Realm, written by Martin Hardcastle, better
known as RYKE, is also a new game and is only available on
Compunet. This one is rather more traditional as MUGs go,
since it's set in a Middle Earth type environment where you
can go troll-bashing and treasure collecting. Great fun.
As well as games there is a straight chat system known as
PartyLine, Pline for short, which allows you to communicate
in real-time with several other subscribers at the same time.
Pline was one of the first of its kind, certainly in the UK,
and became one of Compunet's most popular features. Normally
it would cost £1 an hour to use - this doesn't include the
phone charge of course - but at the moment it is free. One
of the nicest features of Pline is that it is set in a "house"
environment consisting of any number of different and completely
separate "rooms", which are created by the users. The only
room which is always present is the which one you arrive in
when you enter Pline. This is the Lobby. When you create a
room it can be locked if you like, which means you can control
access to it.
Compunet has a structure in common with many large data storage
systems - a tree. Each branch can have a maximum of 10 children,
each of which can have a further 10 children of their own,
and so on. The first directory - each directory consists of
a parent and 10 children - has a key of 1. Each individual
upload has a key, or GOTO if you like. These are automatically
numbered sequentially when a new upload is made, but it can
be changes to more meaningful labels for interesting areas.
A key can be a maximum of 6 characters long. By using a key
directly you could jump straight to the directory you want
to see rather than having to move down the tree one level
at a time with mouse clicks. Some commonly used GOTOs are
TODAY, PARTY, REALM and FED.
The automatic page numbering has currently reached around
530,000. If you consider that this number has never been reset
since Compunet began you'll get a good idea of the number
of uploads that have been made onto the system over the years.
As I mentioned already, users can upload onto Compunet without
restriction - text and programs can be uploaded by anyone.
Users can set up their own areas on a given theme, some written
text frames on various subjects, not just computer-related
subjects either, and others upload programs - either ones
they have written themselves or freely distributable and Public
When an area becomes popular the editor will usually give
the area an Alpha-GOTO instead of the hard-to-remember page
number. Typical area names are FOGG, HOTBED, 30+ and FRED.
In fact, just about anything will do as a GOTO, the sillier
the better. Each and every upload on Compunet has the following
information added to it during upload. Some of it can be modified
either by the uploader or other users: KEY: as already mentioned,
each and every upload is given a unique key. TITLE: the 16
characters allowed for this are used to give an indication
of what the upload does. If it is a program upload the title
will be used for the filename on disk as default. TYPE: The
type of upload - T for text or P for program - is followed
by the size in Kilobytes for a program, or number of pages
for a text frame.
The ID of the user making the upload is automatically added.
Compunet's ID's can be more sensible than most systems. In
fact, users can choose their own ID's when they subscribe.
Some examples are: GNOME, GARFIELD, PRAT, TRANCER, ZEUS and
AIDEN. There are also sensible ID's such as JASON, ROY, TJ
and BURT. UPLOAD DATE: Show how old the item is.
A unique feature of Compunet is that each upload is given
a life, in days, when it is first uploaded. For example, if
you gave an upload a life of 7 it would last for a week and
then die (be automatically erased). This value can be changed
at any time to give an upload more life, and items can also
be made immortal by the editor. These upload will stay alive
until time ends, or until the original uploader want to remove
The other unique feature of Compunet uploads is the ability
of other users to show instantly what they think of an upload
on a scale of one to nine, nine being the best. Each upload
will show the number of people who have voted on it and the
average value of their votes.
WHOS'S DOING WHAT?
Since so much can happen on Compunet all at the same time,
any way of helping people to find out where the action is
is very helpful. Two relatively recent developments help with
this. NETWHO is a special page which updates every minute
and shows the ID's of all the users currently logged on and
whether they are in PartyLine and want someone to chat with.
The other helpful feature gives a list of all uploads made
each day - the auto index. Each hour the system looks through
its database for uploads that have not been listed already
- made within the past hour - and appends them to the existing
list of the day's uploads. These lists can be found at GOTO
MON, TUE, WED, and so on.
Compunet allows free mailboxing between users. A single mailbox
can be sent to up to five people at a time and is given a
title and type just like a normal upload, although only text
can be sent via MBX. If mail is waiting, or arrives while
you are logged on the word MAIL will appear on the next new
directory sent to alert you. It can then be read whenever
you are ready. Mail lives for about a month and is automatically
killed after it has been read.
GET YOURSELF KNOWN
If you want to get yourself known in the computing industry
then Compunet is not a bad place to start because you can
upload your own demos and programs in your very own area and
contact people very quickly via their mailboxes. Some well
know people and companies used to be, or still are, Compunet
subscribers. Such people include the original developers of
Cnet, Ariadne (ARIADNE), who have now moved on to greater
things with the Amiga and CDTV.
Jeff Minter of Llamasoft also used to subscribe (YAK), and
indeed some of his early work can still be found on the net.
Eddy Carrol (ALLANON), C64 and Amiga whizz, has his own directory
(GOTO EDDY) and this includes his excellent comms program
for the C64/128, EdTerm. Compunet has its own stars, of course,
and I'd better now give my opinion of who I think is "famous"
on the net because I'll just get into trouble for missing
people out. On the other hand, if you fancy the quite life,
simply viewing other peoples efforts, then Compunet is perfect
for this, too. And by using the VOTE command you can encourage
the uploaders to continue uploading.
For further information about Compunet and subscrition rates
phone 071-267 7677. If you want to mailbox me online, my ID
TO COMPUNET PAGE