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Bulletin Board System(BBS)

A Bulletin Board System or BBS is a computer system running software that allows users to dial into the system over a phone line (or Telnet) and, using a terminal program, perform functions such as downloading software and data, uploading data, reading news, and exchanging messages with other users.

During their heyday (from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s), many BBSes were run as a hobby free of charge by the "SysOp" (system operator), while other BBSes charged their users a subscription fee for access, or were operated by a business as a means supporting their customers. Still others were run by Internet service providers as part of their service to subscribers.

The term BBS may also be used to refer to any online forum or message board.

Bulletin board systems were in many ways a precursor to the modern form of the World Wide Web and other aspects of the Internet. BBSes were a highly social phenomenon and were used for meeting people and having discussions in message boards as well as for publishing articles, downloading software, playing games and many more things using a single application.

The BBS was also a local phenomenon, as one had to dial into a BBS with a phone line and would have to pay additional long distance charges for a BBS out of the local area, as opposed to less expensive local charges. Thus, many users of a given BBS usually lived in the same area, and it was common for activities such as BBS Meets or Get Togethers (GTs or GTGs), where everyone from the board would gather and meet face to face, to take place. As the use of the Internet became more widespread, BBSs slowly faded in popularity.


A notable precursor to the public bulletin board system was Community Memory, started in 1972 in Berkeley, California, using hardwired terminals located in neighborhoods.

According to an early interview [1] while he was snowed in during The Great Chicago Snowstorm of 1979, Ward Christensen began preliminary work on the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS.

CBBS went online on February 16, 1979 in Chicago, Illinois, and was the first of its kind. [1]

With the original 110 and 300 baud modems of the late 1970s, BBSes were particularly slow, but speed improved with the introduction of 1200 bit/s modems in the early 1980s, and this led to a substantial increase in popularity. This was also the time when Apple II based BBSes were surpassed by DOS ones. Charles Oropallo was eventually able to connect several TRS-80 systems, each using separate phone lines, allowing for several people to be online simultaneously.

Most of the information was presented using ordinary text or ANSI art, though some offered graphics, particularly after the rise in popularity of the GIF image format. Such use of graphics taxed available channel capacity, which in turn propelled demand for faster modems. Towards the early 1990s, the BBS industry became so popular that it spawned two monthly magazines, Boardwatch and BBS Magazine, which devoted extensive coverage of the software and technology innovations and people behind them, and listings to US and worldwide BBSes. In addition, a major monthly magazine, Computer Shopper, carried a list of BBSes along with a brief abstract of each of their offerings.

Arguably the most profitable BBS was Event Horizons (1983-1995). According to Wired Magazine [2]and The Economist ("A hitch-hiker's guide: America's information highway,"1993), Event Horizons BBS grossed more than $3 million in 1992. Event Horizons BBS was founded by Jim Maxey in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The BBS began as a message board but soon offered forums, mazes, puzzles, online games, and thousands of astronomy images. Later, Event Horizons BBS was one of the first to offer adult images and video clips for downloading to a huge customer base.

With the rise of the World Wide Web function of the Internet around 1996, BBSes rapidly declined in popularity in the west. In Europe and Asia, BBSes continued to increase in popularity for several years, but very few existed by 2004.

Several BBS systems connected directly to the Internet, removing the necessity of direct dial-up and consequently attracting a more geographically diverse user base. This also allowed email to pass between them, so that (for instance) a user on a FidoNet system could send and receive messages in the days when Internet access was limited.

Public BBSes were often prone to abuse. It was not uncommon for BBSes (especially ones that did not use call back validation) to be flooded with rants full of profane language and insults. Some of these activities became legendary, especially in areas like Cincinnati in the late 1980s.


Before commercial Internet access became common, networks of BBSes provided regional and international e-mail and message bases. Some even provided gateways by which members could send/receive e-mail to/from the Internet. Elaborate schemes allowed users to download binary files, search gopherspace, and interact with distant programs, all using plaintext e-mail. Most BBS networks were not linked in real-time. Instead, each would dial up the next in line, and/or a regional hub, at preset intervals to exchange files and messages.

The largest BBS network was FidoNet, which is still active today, though much smaller than it was in the 1990s. Many other BBS networks followed the example of Fidonet, using the same standards and the same software. They were called Fidonet Technology Networks (FTNs). They were usually smaller and targeted at selected audiences. Some BBSes were connected both to FidoNet and other FTNs, and as a user logged in, they would be taken to the appropriate part of the system. Some networks used QWK doors and other non Fido software and standards.

Software and Hardware

The first BBSes ran on simple software, often written (or debugged) by the sysop. By the mid-1980s, there were a number of free and shareware BBS programs, such as Fido, which offered various levels of features, ease of configuration, or capabilities. There were several successful commercial BBS programs, such as Wildcat, owned by Mustang, which were often (but not always) more feature-laden or dependable than the free programs. For SysOps using the Commodore 64, a popular commercial BBS package was Blue Board, sold from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. There were also numerous BBS packages for Apple II systems.

Unlike modern websites that are typically hosted by third-party companies in commercial server installations, BBS computers (especially for smaller boards) typically operated from the sysop's home, often in a bedroom or closet. As such, access could be unreliable, and in many cases only one user could be on the system at a time. Those few BBSs with multiple phone lines and either multitasking software or a LAN connecting multiple computers, could have multiple simultaneous users.

By the late 1980s, the majority of BBSs ran on DOS, due to the overwhelming popularity of DOS-based IBM-compatible computers, but remained text-based, rather than using the Graphical User Interface (GUI) design that became familiar on the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. A BBS GUI called Remote Imaging Protocol was promoted in the middle 90s but did not become widespread.

By the early to mid 90's BBSes ran on the Commodore Amiga increasingly popular. External hard drives for the Amiga 500 and the PC like looking Amiga 2000, Amiga 3000 and Amiga 4000 with build-in hard drives turned the game and music home computer into 24/7 BBSs around the world. Popular BBS software for the Amiga were Amiexpress, Infinity and Tempest.

During the high point of the bbs software market in the early 1990s the best selling commercial programs were PCBoard and Wildcat! BBS, each claiming to be number one on the basis of different accounting methods.

Today while a few of the BBSes have evolved to include Internet hosting capabilities such as Wildcat! BBS and PCBoard, most of the remaining traditional BBSes use the Telnet protocol rather than dialup, either by using BBS software designed to support Telnet, or by using a FOSSIL to telnet redirector such as NetFoss (freeware) or a COM port redirector such as NetSerial with older DOS based BBS software.

Content and Access

Some general purpose bulletin board systems had special levels of access that were given to those who paid extra money or knew the sysop personally. BBSes that charged money usually had something special to offer their users such as door games, a large user base, or pornography. While many pay BBSes had pornography, some of the largest BBSes charged users merely for discussion boards. Pay BBSes such as The WELL (now Internet forums rather than dial-up) and Echo NYC (both of which exist to this day), execpc,and MindVox (which folded in 1996) were admired for their tightly-knit communities and quality discussion forums. However some "free" BBSes maintained close knit communities and some even had annual or bi-annual events where users would travel great distances to meet face-to-face with their on-line friends.

Some BBSes, called "elite boards" or "WaReZ boards", were exclusively used for distributing illegally copied software. These BBSes often had multiple modems and phone lines, allowing several users to upload and download files at once. Most elite BBSes used some form of new user verification, where new users would have to apply for membership and attempt to prove that they weren't a law enforcement officer or a lamer. The largest elite boards accepted users by invitation only.

BBSing survives as a niche hobby for those who enjoy running BBSes and those users who remember BBSing as an enjoyable pastime. Most BBSs are now accessible over telnet and typically offer free email accounts, web interfaces, ftp file downloads, IRC chat and all of the protocols commonly used on the Internet. Revival of the hobby that most presume to be from a "dead era" long since left buried under the sands of time has been gaining massive awareness by people who are nostalgic for what is referred to as "the hey-days". Others, including the newer generations of the 21st Century, are finding out about not only the "old school" BBS Technology but its modern day inheritor technology as well. Some BBSes are Web-enabled and have a Web-based user interface, allowing people who have never used a BBS before to use one easily via their favorite web browser. For those more nostalgic for the true BBS experience, one can use DOSBox running on a PC and to redirect COM port communications to telnet, allowing them to connect to Telnet BBSes using 1980's and 1990's era modem terminal software, like mtelnet, Telix, Terminate, Qmodem and Procomm Plus. The same can also be done using NetSerial for Windows. Aghbbs and AGHGroup with Telix client side and RemoteAccess via dial-up.

An open source alternative is SyncTERM, which is available for all modern platforms, including Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP, Linux, OpenBSD, NetBSD, OS X , and FreeBSD.

The website textfiles.com serves as a collection point of historical data involving the history of the BBS. The owner of this site produced BBS: The Documentary, a program on DVD that features interviews with well-known people (mostly from the United States) from the "hey-day BBS" era.

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