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CNET - Moving with the times.
(Written by Dave Spink - JAM magazine January, 1991)

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 enough?

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 PETNET.

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 gone home.

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 about it.

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 Fastrak now.

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 Domain software.

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 it.

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.

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.

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 is TOP-CAT.