The first month of 1986 saw some changes at Micronet. Simon D’Arcy vacated the Editor’s terminal, becoming Micronet’s Publisher; Sid Smith, Simon’s Deputy, moved into the hot seat and is working on a new section — The Sunday Supplement. And a new record was set.
The mood at Micronet is jubilant: there are some thirty thousand Micronet pages on Prestel, and on average each one was accessed ten times a day during January. That makes almost nine and a half million page accesses in the month: a record. Micronet is the most popular area of Prestel...
A great deal has been happening on The Net, as afficionados like to call it, since we took at it in last June’s TECH NICHE. Perhaps the most significant change has taken place on the Chatline front: the service has expanded considerably. There are now two ‘Daisy Chain’ chatlines, which allow subscribers to send messages for all to see, and no less than seven brand new ‘Quickchat’ channels have been opened.
The new Chatline service is run on a computer which is much more sophisticated than the one it began life on — the frustrating delays and breakdowns that aggravated Chatline users have largely been eradicated. The seven new Quickchat lines work rather differently to the 100 page message board principle of the original Daisy Chain chatline — they cope with one message at a time, and you can’t step through the old messages. New messages on the Quickchat channels appear a few seconds after they are sent, and overwrite the current frame. “Blink, and you’ll miss it”, as Micronet puts it on their explanatory page.
Now that Chatline is run on a mainframe computer, the Chatline service has been fragmented so that people with a common interest can go to a particular area. Religion, politics and adventure Quickchat lines already exist, as well as a gay line. People dialling up the net can now communicate very rapidly with other users who share their interests. Of course, the personal mailbox facility is still going strong, allowing Net members to communicate with each other, sending personal electronic mail, using ready drawn greetings card frames from the Micronet library if they like or keying in a straightforward letter.
“Micronet is becoming more and more of a club and communications service” , Peter Probert their publicity man asserts, “Increasingly Micronet is becoming the link between home computer users nationwide”. About 20,000 people are currently ‘on the Net’ and it has become the largest single area of British Telecom’s Prestel service, accounting for nearly a quarter of the page accesses on the whole system.
The Gallery section of the Net has really taken off in the twelve months it has been running. The Gallery allows individual Micronet subscribers to rent a collection of up to twenty six linked pages and then use them to publish their own material so long as it’s not done for financial gain. Soon after the service started, a queue of over four hundred people waiting for Gallery pages formed. The Powers That Be decided that a bit of weeding out was needed — now it costs a bit more to get started in the Gallery, and the people who thought they ‘might as well have some pages anyway’ and did nothing with them have stopped clogging up the area.
In the Gallery, you can rent up to four frames for four months at a cost of 99p a frame and a 5p editing charge is levied every time you edit one of those pages. Up to twenty two further frames can be rented in a Gallery ‘Exhibition’, costing 50p each with a 10p-per-edit-charge. So for £15 excluding editing charges, it’s quite possible to publish a respectable small magazine on Micronet much cheaper than printing a few hundred copies. And the potential audience is huge — your Gallery entry reaches into homes containing 70,000 people.
The Gallery service is very much an electronic publishing First for Micronet — currently there are over 250 Gallery exhibitors, and some of the material is very good indeed. Understandably the range of topics covered in Gallery entries is wide ranging — from motorbiking t o religion, Net gossip and collections of random jottings. Well worth a browse. And just to keep Gallery exhibitors on their toes, Micronet has introduced an element of competition, publishing a league table of the most popular Gallery slots for all to see... Otherwise, Micronet staff don’t interfere with the content of Gallery frames, unless they’re obscene or illegal, of course.
Interactive games are getting popular too. Apart from the games run in the Gallery, gamesters might like to browse through some of Micronet’s own offerings. In the ‘Buttons’ section there’s a prize adventure running. You’re charged a few pence per page as you progress through it, but the incentive is a juicy cash prize which is awarded each month, when a draw is made from the subscribers who solved the adventure. The ‘Round Britain Race’ has also proved very popular. The player moves a flashing cursor on a grid laid over a map of Great Britain, attempting to find four specified locations. The cursor can be moved North, South, East or West, one square at a time and each move costs a penny. Once again, a cash prize is awarded periodically to someone who has completed the game.
Of course, there’s a range of games and utility software which can be downloaded into your computer and saved to tape or microdrive, some of which is free and some of which you pay for.
On the more serious side, a new business related service, Bizznet, has opened, where subscribers can access pages relating to a range of business matters. Simon D’Arcy, Ex-editor and new Publisher of Micronet sees the service moving towards providing more and more useful information: “The idea is to provide information for Mr Average at home who wants assistance in filling in his tax returns, who wants to know where to go to get the cheapest car insurance, who wants to know where to put his money — which Building Society is offering the best rates, whether or not the Post Office makes more sense than a Building Society, and so on.”
More specifically, Micronet wants to provide information useful to people setting up their own business, for instance, and a whole range of new services are on the cards as Mr D’Arcy explains: “The idea is to help people who have been fostering a germ of an idea, who want to become self-employed by expanding their ideas. Maybe they’ll come to rule out, once and for all, the idea of setting up for themselves if they take advice and find that the idea doesn’t really stack up — on the other hand, we’d like to be able to give people the necessary impetus to take their idea further. A Watchdog area is planned which will be a consumer hunt, taking up the cudgels on behalf of people who feel they’ve been conned — perhaps buying a program that won’t work or a computer that breaks down and their local store is being rather unfriendly when it comes to replacing the faulty goods — we’ll be investigating the matter on behalf of the customer”. And a ‘Legal Eagle’ offers free legal advice on a range of knotty problems.
Looking for a job? Micronet can help. Jobsearch is just one of over thirty interactive areas on the Net. Run in conjunction with a national employment agency, Jobsearch collects news of computer staff vacancies from recruitment consultants and displays them — vacancies often appear in Jobsearch before they reach the more conventional press and the section keeps up front; it’s updated twice weekly.
A thriving classified/small ads service runs on the system. In the Talent sections, Netters can advertise their skills, from plastering through drumming to landscape gardening. A Home Search service is running, as well as a Swap Shop where folks can offer odd unwanted items for sale or exchange and can advertise for items wanted.
The Contact sections, apart from the Chatlines, encourage people to get to know each other. At the moment the Agony Auntie is temporarily indisposed (something to do with being revamped!), but the Grafitti board is thriving — it’s surprising what people have to say to the world! Already several Micronet members have organised evening meets at pubs, and there have even been a couple of marriages as a result of contacts made on Micronet. (Not an activity that Micronet is likely to actively encourage — experience has shown that Micronet Weddings tend to result in the cancellation of one partner’s subscription!)
In many ways, Micronet is becoming a CB channel for micro users — o f the 20,000 subscribers around 8,000 are Spectrum owners. The publishers encourage special interest groups to flourish, “Unlike a conventional magazine, which has one editor, we’ve got somewhere in the region of forty or fifty people editing their own areas — excluding the Gallery”, Simon D’Arcy explained, “There’s a whole range of subject areas which are put together by individuals or groups. A member of the Micronet team oversees contributors — not from the censorship point of view, but to offer advice on the English or graphics, and to keep an eye on what’s going on”.
Spec-tacular is one such area on the Net which should be of particular interest to Spectrum owners. Stared in December 1984 by Mike Kent, Bob Garbutt and Dr Mike Sun, Spec-tacular contains utility programs, technical hints, news and reviews of Spectrum products and a User to User group, boasting 650 members. The User to User group consists of people keen to get in touch with one another using their modems on a one-to-one basis, and is based on a directory of members. What’s the use of having a modem if there’s no-one to call up. goes the argument. Apart from Micronet, that is...
The new editor of Micronet, Sid Smith, is looking forward to expanding the services offered even further. His personal ‘baby’ at the moment is the Sunday Supplement, which should come online for the first time, on a Sunday of course, at the end of February or early in March. The Sunday Supplement will contain reviews of books, films, shows and carry listings of events around the country. A gossip columnist — ‘a doyenne of the industry who will remain anonymous’ is the official line — is set to contribute incisive human interest stories, and Micronet’s very own situation comedy/soap opera spoof, MACRONET will soon be entertaining folks after their Sunday lunch.
The Celebrity Chatline feature, in which subscribers can interview an industry figure live, on line, will be included in the Sunday Supplement but the Celebrities won’t all be involved in the home computer industry. Just stars of stage and screen, as it were...
It’s quite clear that if Micronet maintains its present rate of growth and keeps the innovative edge, it will become a major force in publishing. At the moment its pages are really only open to people who have home computers — there are a lot of Prestel TV sets in living rooms across the country, but as a proportion of the total number of tellies, Prestel sets are very much in the minority. In the longer term, as technology advances, the potential for a service such as Micronet is exciting — and not just for the people in Micronet Towers.
“Micronet could become the fifth entertainment channel on home TV sets”, Simon D’Arcy is convinced. “In the long term I would love to see the remote terminal which is capable of accessing Prestel and Micronet which would free the domestic user from having to use a micro — which is a restraint at the moment, because it’s still a fairly technical affair to access Micronet using a modem. You have to enter passwords and so on. I would love to see it a lot easier.”
Admittedly TV sets are currently available which allow you to access the broadcast Teletext services, Oracle and Ceefax, and some include a printer, and a few allow you to go online to Prestel. “I’d love to see television sets which allow you to access Prestel automatically catch on — then if there was nothing on the broadcast channels, you could press button five on the remote unit and be automatically connected to Prestel and Micronet. Then you could do whatever you wanted, maybe hook up a computer, download software and start playing a game on the same TV set you were using to watch Coronation Street five minutes before.”
Channels One, Two, Three and Four had better look out. Micronet’s coming!