BBSes of the 2020s

6 days ago

In the early 90s I ran a BBS (Bulletin Board System) on my ridiculously tricked out Amiga 500.  It had a 20 MB hard drive the size of a shoe hanging off the side, an internal CPU expansion board upgrading to a zippy 68020 clocking 33MHz, and a USRobotics dial up modem at 28800 baud connected to the serial port at the back. This was, if not quite before the Internet, at least before the Internet had made it to my teenage bedroom. No WhatsApp, but you could send messages to other users on the BBS, and even between BBSes if the sysop had connected to FidoNet. Which I had not because the purpose of the BBS was not social networking. I am not quite sure when the statute of limitations expires for copyright violations on distribution of cracked games, so I will plead the fifth on the name of my BBS. Suffice it to say, compared to swapping floppy disks over mail, BBSs were considered a technical improvement associated with social degeneration because it did not require a fingerspitzengefühl for sending mail in such a way that the stamps could be reused - with a thin layer of glue or appropriate placement on the envelope to confuse a sleepy post office employee. I had no interest in playing any of the games passing through my hands. I was a socially awkward teenager seeking the approval of a cooler crowd by being the first to supply the latest wares.

In case you are wondering, by the way, running a BBS on a dial-up modem means that you can only have one user at a time. Each BBS was a phone number with a dedicated landline, or worse, harassed parents persuaded to unplug the house phones at 10 PM to run a part-time service until the morning. But if you dialled and there was another user connected, you got the busy signal.

There were several choices for the software to operate BBSes on the Amiga. I think I settled on AmiExpress, which was easy to get running but offered limited options for customising the user experience. There was a messaging area, a chat facility with the sysop should they be awake, and the all-important file exchange for uploading and downloading goodies. And it was sparkling ANSI colourful out-of-the-box. My friend’s brother swore by the Paragon BBS software which was clunkier but allowed you to install small text games like snake. But he was a traitor and shortly thereafter switched the Amiga to a PC.

I liked exploring the different BBS software systems though. They weren’t particularly configurable, it was mostly options that could be switched on and off and some ASCII art that could be configured. At some point I heard a rumour of something amazing: Freeform. Here is the only reference I can find on the Internet to Freeform, which promised to change everything for BBS sysops:

This new BBS software not only allows every config value imaginable to be set/changed by the SysOp, but the entire design and flow-of-logic that operates the bbs can also be altered. It will eventually be able to emulate menus/msg-bases/file-bases/etc of all known (42) Amiga BBS software packages (as well as those of your own design). SWHQ is currently beta-testing this software.

I had yet to learn the meaning of the word “vapourware”, so I was very excited. Imagine being able not just to switch the text but also the logic flow! If I had had that kind of power, I would probably have had no idea what to do with it.

Freeform never happened. Much as I looked, I never found any further information or updates from the project. And eventually I too became a traitor and switched to a PC.

I started thinking back to Freeform almost 30 years later when I began to work on Saltcorn, an open-source nocode platform. In many ways, BBSes were the websites of their time, and BBS software systems compare to nocode platform in the trade-offs they make between ease-of-use and configurability. The BBSes were not serious businesses in the same way that apps can be real startups with venture capital funded stand-up ceremonies in bona-fide co-working spaces. Which precisely answers the charge that my programming friends make against nocode products: that they are ticking time bombs of technical debt, that they will never scale or be anything buy a toy. To which I say: there are plenty of websites and applications and information products out there that can be built without an engineer in sight and that may not be unicom prospects but still deliver real value to their communities. One can do an awful lot with WordPress, an indisputable nocode success story. The next generation of nocode platforms are about pushing the boundaries of what can be built without funding , without an engineering team and without writing a line of code.

So even if Freeform never existed, or was just a cruel joke, I am building it under a new name 30 years later as a gift to all the socially awkward teenagers out there and anyone else who has a burning idea they need to build. Just do not use it for pirating cracked games, it is not going to make you look cool.