Speccy on a VTX5000

Caught in the Micronet

Micronet 800

Some things in life seem lost in the mists of time, but since I returned to my roots by taking up retrocomputing a few years ago, so many fond memories have come back to me, often with a feeling of regret that the subject of those memories is no longer with us.  One such subject is Micronet 800 – and my own active involvement in that much-loved and much-missed online system, as a co-editor of one particular section – 16/32.

For those who have never heard of it, Micronet 800 was an early online information provider on Prestel, British Telecom’s interactive Viewdata system, which, beloved as it was by travel agencies and public libraries, was in many ways Britain’s web before the World Wide Web.  Micronet 800, which was provided by Telemap Group, a part of EMAP, was aimed at the 1980s personal computer market, and was an online ‘electronic magazine’ that gave subscribers computer related news, reviews, general subject articles and downloadable ‘telesoftware.

It coexisted with dozens of independent and mostly free text-based ‘bulletin board’ systems which were dotted about the country.  But unlike these boards, Prestel and therefore Micronet 800 was usually available at local call rates – in the days before cheap telephone calls and broadband internet!

Prestel

Users would log onto the Prestel network and enter the Micronet 800 home page by entering *800# (hence the name) on their modem or computer. Most Micronet 800 members would have their default main index page set to page 800 automatically.  The Prestel system used an asymmetric 1200/75 system – 1200 baud download speed, 75 baud upload.  As there was no high resolution graphic content on Prestel (it was all done in text and special characters, the display was just 24 lines of 40 characters, with seven colours and very simple block graphics), the slow data rates mattered little.

By May 1986, I had become an Atari 520STFM user (I later also owned the original 520ST), and my enthusiasm was such for this wonderful computer (the poor man’s Macintosh!) and online communications, that I decided I wanted to give something back to the Atari community, and so I decided to offer my services in editing on Micronet 800.  And so it was that, with my assistance, a whole new area for ST users began to open up on Prestel.

16/32 Micronet Directory Entry, from members magazine Logon, issue 12, Summer 1990

For the Atari ST user interested in communications, there hadn’t been much of interest in the UK other than hobbyist bulletin boards and expensive electronic mail.  The new area I had a hand in setting up on Micronet 800, entitled 16/32, was named, like the ST itself, after the structure of the 68000 microprocessor (16 bit external, 32 bit internal), and was intended to provide an incentive for ST owners to pay their subscriptions, take up their modems and log on to discover what they were missing!

16/32 was a Micronet Contributors area, run and edited by users, for users.  The brains behind the creation of the feature belonged to Steve Kelly, one-time programmer for Psion (of Sinclair fame – remember Chequered Flag?), and also writer of ST Karate for Eidersoft.  Years later he went to work for the Bitmap Brothers.  Where he is now, I cannot say.

Chequered Flag by Psion.

Steve first decided to take up the pen (or the key) on behalf of Atari ST users of Micronet in early 1986 when he began to try his hand at writing and, in an attempt to get more out of Prestel, he booked a series of ‘frames’ (short pages) in the Gallery, a section where Micronet would lease up to twenty-six frames to subscribers for a small quarterly fee. With the help and contributions of other ST ‘Netters’, Steve was able to provide interesting articles, tips and news, albeit in a rather confined space.

Gradually, the original 16/32 became so popular that Steve contacted the Micronet editorial team at Herbal Hill, London, with a view to starting up a regularly updated ST magazine on a more professional basis. Steve appealed to ST users via his Gallery pages for support for the implementation of the new database, and the response from the ‘Netters’ was overwhelming! Around this time, Micronet had undertaken an updated survey of the computers used by subscribers, since it was obvious that many had changed their micros since the days when those who logged on were mainly Acorn and Sinclair owners. It seems likely that the results of this poll were taken into account, as shortly thereafter the provisional go-ahead was given to begin the organisation of the new 16/32.

Atari 1040 STF.

During several weeks of negotiation with the Net and, in particular, with Features Editor, then also News Editor, lan (love me, love my Beeb) Burley, Steve collected together a band of volunteer editors who would be taking on different sections of the vastly enlarged magazine as their own responsibility. Eric Matthews and Paul Nevitt, who had been in on 16/32 from the beginning, were joined almost immediately by Nick Elliott and myself.

I had been about to take pages in the Gallery myself in support of Steve‘s original 16/32, when I was invited to contribute to the new area. This seemed an ideal opportunity to help create an electronic magazine for real users of the ST. As it turned out, Paul and Eric were unable to take an active part due to other commitments, which left Steve in overall charge, and Nick and myself as co-editors.

During an initial period of setting up and gradually getting the feel of Prestel editing, we came up against a rather more serious problem than we had anticipated. Strange as it may seem with machines of the power of the ST to hand, there simply wasn’t communications software available with the capability to edit Prestel pages off-line! All the current communications software had either a very simple, limited editor, designed for brief messages only, or had no Prestel graphics editing at all. This meant that two of us had to use BBC Micro and Spectrum to edit our pages off-line and then upload them, and, for a while at least, Steve found it necessary to edit online – an expensive process and one which would have made things impossibly expensive for me since I live near Birmingham, and Duke, the Prestel editing computer, is in London – fortunately for him, Steve lived in London.

Speccy on a Prism VTX5000 Modem

As it happens, then, I began my Micronet editing ‘career’ using my dear old 48k Sinclair Spectrum computer (not the bashed about example shown above!), and Steve Kelly kindly donated a prototype Interface 1 and twin prototype ZX Microdrives.  Oh, how I wish I still had those now!

Later, I moved on to using a BBC Micro with ‘Weirdbeard’ Prestel editing software, which was wonderful, especially as the ‘Beeb’ has a Prestel-compatible teletext mode.   In both cases I was using the PRISM VTX 5000 modem; the Spectrum had a dedicated version, the Beeb connected via its RS423 port.  I don’t recall ever using the ST for the job, which was a pity as it was a lovely machine.

Eventually, Steve, an experienced programmer, was able to write a desk accessory which enabled him to upload full frames, albeit in a roundabout way, using Fastcom software, which did not normally have this facility. The method employed was far from perfect and Steve would have loved an alternative.

By the end of April 1987, then, after much discussion of what was to be the final make-up of16/32, the first skeleton framework was going up from page 800916 on Micronet. Within a fortnight, the flesh was appearing on the bare bones, and 16/32 as we later knew it began to take shape. Working within a limit of a hundred frames, we gradually added our title page, then a Welcome page to introduce new readers to us. Steve Kelly took on the News and Letters areas and created a new feature, ‘Bits’, where all sorts of strange things appear. Basically, the bits in here wouldn’t fit anywhere else in 16/32!

Nick Elliott masterminded 16/32’s Features area, where guest writers could see their names up in lights together with series run by the regular editors, such as Steve’s series on the ‘C’ language which I recall we published in mid 1987. Bill Welsh, one of our contacts in Bonnie Scotland, sent us a feature around that time on the use of Midi synthesisers with the ST which then appeared on 16/32. Nick also took on our Reviews section and many interesting articles on software and hardware were penned by him and volunteers, including a review of the Twillstar independent 1 megabyte disk drive.

PDST 31 May 1987

By now, you’re probably wondering how I fitted into all of this. For my sins, I edited 16/32’s Public Domain feature area, entitled ‘PDST’, where I presented a regularly updated guide to software in the Public Domain, and Shareware, much of which was superb, including weekly reviews of the best ‘PD’ programs available for the ST, and a monthly guide to PD Libraries.

In addition, I also wrote the weekly Communications feature in, would you believe it, the features area! There I discussed various aspects of communications with the ST, including bulletin boards in the UK and abroad, and in 1987 I presented a Bulletin Board Users Code of Practice. In May 1987, 16/32 was running my beginner‘s guide to communications, as many non-technical subscribers to Micronet had expressed an interest in the ‘nitty gritty’ of the technical details of the hardware and software they used, or were about to purchase, to log onto Prestel and other services – as many ST owners on Micronet (or ‘the net’ as we called it!) had transferred from other micro’s, and were unsure of the requirements of communicating with their ST, such information was in great demand.

PDST Chess Review, 31 May 1987

Gradually then, things took shape and by by mid 1987, 16/32 had started to take on a regular routine of weekly updates (and sometimes, if a news story broke or a significant press release or product reached us, a daily editorial). Contributors to our letters pages, of which there were many, had kept up a lively battery of comments and questions, which had been limited before as they had to write via our personal mailboxes on the system.

By May 1987, 16/32 had been equipped with a pre-addressed mailbox frame, so things began to rapidly hot up in the post bag! By then, software houses and dealers had begun to take notice of the new electronic magazine, and submissions of the latest software products and books enabled us to fill 16/32‘s reviews area with the latest goodies for the ST’er – up and coming reviews of software from Computer Concepts, Soft Bits, Bobtek, Hisoft, Silica Shop and other manufacturers were all in the pipeline to go online.

Micronet 800 Contact.

Routes leading to the area began to appear in strategic places around Micronet, and our updates became a regular feature of the Micronet What’s New page.  Gratifyingly,  according to the many readers who contacted us, a large number of ST users took to making 16/32 their first stop after logging on – which encouraged us to put our best into the content.

At the time, price cuts had been announced by Atari, and the popularity of the ST was set to soar – a fact graphically illustrated on Microchat, one of Micronet’s CB-style ‘Chatlines’ – where hardly a day went by without a new ST user appearing, having sold his or her BBC Micro outfit, or Amstrad outfit, or Commodore outfit, in order to take a leap into computing’s future with the ST! Behind the scenes, though, Steve, Nick and myself were fighting a weekly battle against line noise and cranky software to put the pages up every Sunday – and though we often swore at our gear, the show must go on!

One thing made it all worthwhile, the feedback from the readers (or should that be viewers?) of 16/32. We had nothing but help and constructive comments, and that counted for a lot, especially when you were crying into your beer after receiving your latest ‘phone bill! Perhaps the best comment we had in those early days came from Martyn Moore, Manager of Silica Shop – it seemed they were able to sell modems to ST owners on the strength of the presence of 16/32 on Micronet – praise indeed!

But it was not to last forever – nothing good ever does.  Prestel eventually priced the home user out of the service with a new pricing structure, adding time charges on top of the telephone bill for evening access, effectively killing off home usage even though the network was underused during the 6pm to 8am time-slot.

Today, this remains the peak usage time of the Internet. In 1989 BT finally acquired the entire company, and folded the business into first the Dialcom Group along with the rest of the BT Prestel companies and Telecom and subsequently BT Managed Network Services.

In 1991, along with all its online services, BT closed the service, intending to focus on providing network services.  The subscriber base was transferred to Compuserve which subsequently became AOL UK.

The Micronet Team launches Micronet 800 in 1981.

Micronet 800 closed on 31 October 1991, leaving ten thousand members behind.  Through the mists of time and fading memories it is obvious now how many aspects of online publishing and interactive services on the internet were pioneered by Micronet 800 and have become commonplace today.

Since then, I have never had any contact with my fellow editors of 16/32.  I wonder how many are still out there? I’d love to hear from you! And I’d love to hear from any past readers of 16/32. All those long years ago.

To quote Roy Batty in Blade Runner (yes, the movie was premiered in 1982!):

“All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain….”

Stuart Williams

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