Sunday, September 25, 2005

And Then Along Came AOL

With all my successful work on QuantumLink, and my involvement with PC-Link, I was asked to provide my newswire service on America Online when it first started. I started in the later part of 1990 helping to test the new service and get my area off the ground. Everything went live around January 1991 and the fun began! My AOL New Product News area covered just the PC industry while the QuantumLink area still covered the Commodore market. PC-Link continued for awhile with a mirror of what I started posting on AOL, so at least I didn't have to post everything multiple times.

In the beginning the AOL area was built on a message board model with me being the only one allowed to post messages to get news articles and press releases online for users to read. Later on there was an automated process implemented when my area was updated and I was then able to use their Rainman process for posting press releases without having to type them live online any more. Around that time is when I started putting my PC Industry database online as well, but more about that later in another article.

In the earlier Commodore days it was pretty easy to get press releases and news articles since almost everyone knew who I was from the magazine articles. As I moved to the PC market I had to work harder to get information since there were many more companies involved and lots of other competing news services. So I started cataloging company names and basic product information, scanning hundreds of publications every month looking for new companies. I used that database to generate mailings with letters requesting companies to add my name to their press release mailing list and offering to distribute their information for free. I was mailing hundreds of letters every month and then answering tons of inquiring phone calls from companies wanting more information about what I was doing. Since my service was free to the companies I was getting a lot of interest!

In the beginning, the press releases were hand typed online, then they were done offline but still hand typed. Eventually I made a deal with the kind folks at Canon who provided a very good quality scanner with an auto document feeder and I managed to get a copy of OmniPage OCR software from the publisher. With the new scanner and OCR software I was then able to scan paper press releases, convert them to text files and clean them up, add my special header information and upload them to AOL for automatic processing. What used to take hours was now done in minutes and the volume of press releases grew to over 300 per week at one point.

At some point in time we added various download libraries to my area and I started collecting demo files for various products and making them available to users. Then shareware authors started sending me their releases, so I wound up posting their press release and then uploading their software to the download libraries. At one point I had two computers doing uploads to AOL day and night. At first all the uploads were going into my libraries and then AOL had me pass on the files to the regular file libraries where the sysops in those areas processed the files and made them available to users. Eventually I got away from doing a lot of the uploads and went back to concentrating on the news articles and database.

When PC Expo started in New York City I would go to the show with a friend and get copies of every press release published at the show. I had press credentials and would hit the press booth first to collect the packets made available there to the press. Then we'd walk through the show to introduce my news service to each company present and look for anything we might have missed in the press booth. It was absolutely amazing the amount of information we'd collect at one of these shows! If you've seen the plastic trays used by the post office, the ones that are the size of a laundry basket, we would typically fill three or more of those trays with paper. Once home everything would be cataloged in my database and all the press releases would be scanned and posted online within a week after the show. I hate to think how many hundreds of press releases were handled! The only problem was that AOL never realized what we had and never really publicized what was available.

Besides the mailings asking for press releases I also had an automated process that scanned a large list of company websites looking for their new press releases as well. Those press releases were gathered and included with the releases received in the mail, via email or by fax and everything was posted online. I later expanded my listing of web resources to monitor online publications, organizations, events, company/product indexs, press release libraries, distributors and more from throughout the PC industry. I wrote a program that built a website index to list all my resources and made that available on AOL and then later to everyone via the web. The website was called the PC Industry URL Reference List and there are copies still available in the Wayback Machine at archive.org -- click here for a sample! Just keep in mind most of the links listed are no longer valid since this was back in 1999.

My New Product News area on AOL continued to flourish and grow over the years, with lots of off shoots along the way. I had a similar news area on Delphi from September 1993 to March 1997, plus I did a news distribution for local BBS systems via BBS Press from October 1994 to December 1995, but more about them later. AOL finally pulled the plug on my news service in November 1997 when they decided not to renew my contract. It was an amazing run, I just wish I had the time to make it a full time effort. I was working a full time engineering job all the time I was running the newswire if you can imagine that! Work all day, come home and eat a quick dinner, then handle the database and newswire until about 2 AM. Next day, repeat the above! I probably would have killed myself if AOL hadn't cancelled the contract, so they probably did me a favor in the long run. In any event, I had a lot of fun along the way and hopefully people found the information useful.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Q-Link's Online Experts

Here's the complete text from the original article published in the 1980's covering Jim Butterfield and myself, our involvement with the Commodore market and our work on Q-Link.....

Q-Link's Online Experts Lend Their Time & Talent

Q-Link has attracted a group of the nation's most respected Commodore computer experts, providing members with current and reliable information on the technical and fun aspects of computing.

The experts host forums, lead topical discussions, and answer questions on message boards. Two of these people, Jim Butterfield and Bob Baker, share a devotion to computers and to Q-Link.

Q-Link's Long-time Guru, Jim Butterfield

Jim is one of the most famous computer masters on Q-Link. He has written numerous public domain software programs, and in particular, utility programs for the Commodore.

Jim's career brought him to the early stages of computer development. In the late 1950's, he specialized in data transmission, computers, and electronics. This interest led to his involvement with the first single-board microcomputer.

In 1976, Jim co-authored "The First Book of KIM," a companion volume to an early small computer. Another of Jim's popular books, "Machine Language for the Commodore 64, 128, and Other Commodore Computers," is a straightforward manual on the inner workings of the Commodore.

A prolific writer, Jim has authored numerous articles on computing which appear in Compute!'s Gazette, Compute!, where he is associate editor, and other technical publications.

In his hometown of Ontario, Canada, Jim is a well-known television celebrity, having produced his own TV show on computers. He is also the principal computer consultant for the "Bits and Bytes" television series aired on public television.

Jim was one of the first experts to host forums on Q-Link, and he continues to hold monthly "open topic" sessions in People Connection's Auditorium. Here, he'll answer any and all questions about computing. Look for his meetings scheduled in the Update calendar.

Bob Baker's Inside Connections

Bob Baker has been involved in the evolution of the Commodore since it's inception. He has also been a key player in the development and enhancement of Q-Link.

After earning his degree in engineering, Bob became immersed in computer programming. He was on the ground floor of research and development of super micros for multi-users.

In the Commodore Realm, Bob has been around since the very early days of the 2001 Series Commodore PET. Bob became a syndicated columnist and followed the development of Commodore machines by writing stories for Byte Magazine, Compute! and Commodore Magazine.

Hot News on New Products

Bob's connections as a reporter give him access to press releases and to information from software manufacturers before the public sees it. Bob brings this information straight from the manufacturers to Q-Link. "I put this information on Q-Link message boards in CIN even before computer magazines publish it," he said. This information can be found in the "New Product Information" area of the Commodore Information Network.

The New Product Information area is a collection of special message boards for the C64, C128, Amiga and now the PC10/IBM clones. Bob scans hundreds of publications before they reach the market and posts the news on these boards.

Bob is now concentrating on building a database of new product information. When he's finished, Q-Linkers will have access to one of the largest databases on new product information available. "The database will contain a listing of nearly 5,000 products with a short description, the price of the product, and what computer it runs on," Bob said.

Bob also holds monthly gatherings in People connection's Auditorium. Find out about new products, bring questions, and learn what's in the works for your computer.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Move to Online with QuantumLink

In late 1985 I was contacted by QuantumLink and asked to be involved with their new online service they were developing for Commodore C-64 users. The service was going to be launched around January 1986 and they wanted my help. Apparently the folks at Commodore had given QuantumLink my name and contact info along with their recommendation. I was asked to participate in a Meet the Press area, answering questions for Commodore users. I quickly agreed and helped test out features of the new system before it went live while building up some initial areas, helping with uploads to the file libraries and more. So I was there online when Q-Link initially went live in January of 1986 and stayed there almost to the end.

Once the service was live, my area quickly evolved into more of a news service and was eventually renamed the New Product Information area that was managed and run entirely by myself. I was posting industry news, press releases and technical information besides answering questions of all sorts. With my connections at Commodore, and many other companies throughout the Commodore market, I became a funnel for information between users and many of these companies. The only problem was that all the articles and postings had to be hand typed online over a dialup connection at very slow speeds. It was so time consuming it wasn't funny!

Besides the news service, I was also participating in monthly gatherings in Q-Link's People Connection Auditorium, many with the help of Jim Oldfield of the Midnite Software Gazette or me helping him with his auditorium events. We actually got so proficient with running these group discussions that we didn't even need a sysop to assist us most of the time. We handled the question queue ourselves and kept the meetings running smoothly from month to month.

Originally the Q-Link area started with mostly C64 related information and expanded over time to include the C128, Amiga and even the PC10/IBM clones eventually. Somewhere along the way I started cataloging product and company information from the news service into a massive database covering the entire Commodore market. That information eventually concentrated on just the Amiga system and Commodore used a lot of that information in their Amiga Resources for Educators that was published twice in 1989. Commodore Canada also published a similar reference book using my data about the same time.

With all the work on Q-Link, Commodore asked me to write an Inside QuantumLink column for their magazine covering tips, tricks, news of new features, etc. The column started in January of 1987 and appeared in 34 issues before it stopped publication in October of 1989.

With the success of the news area on Q-Link, and since I was already starting to cover the IBM clone market, QuantumLink asked me to provide a similar service on PC-Link when it started in January of 1989. For a short while the same news was being posted on both services and then America Online was born and my news service was moved there as well in January of 1991.... but more about that later!

The Q-Link days were probably the most fun of everything I've done throughout the years. I met a lot of interesting people and had a lot of fun doing what I was doing. At one point I was told that my area on Q-Link accounted for more than 1% of the total monthly usage for all of Q-Link! That was supposedly a pretty remarkable feat in those days. In many cases I was posting news and press releases months before they appeared in the magazines so my area did become pretty popular. There was even an article published in one of the Commodore publications about myself and Jim Butterfield that covered my background and early involvement in the Commodore market. If there's any interest I still have a copy of that early article and would be more than happy to include a copy of it here.