Some time near the end of this month, a computer-nerd friend of mine of long standing is going to go through a mild but significant change in his lifestyle: He is going to cease offering services as a network node on FidoNet.
This will hardly be a life-wrenching event for anyone, since my friend has now lost the very last client on his server – a fellow nerd living in Watson Lake, who has also now moved on to the new millennium in digital communication.
Nevertheless, though its passing may go unnoticed in the small world of Yukon geek-dom, this shut down does mark the end of an interesting epoch in the history of computer communications, but locally and globally.
My friend has been a participant in the FidoNet network, in some capacity or other, for more than 21 years now – 18 of them in Whitehorse.
At one time, he was the server for four or more local bulletin board systems (BBS’s), which were the internet chat rooms of their day – places local computer nerds could connect to on their modems to read and comment on discussions over a wide range of subjects, technological or otherwise.
FidoNet was essentially a modem-based communications network by which these BBS’s exchanged e-mail and “echomail,” which was by far the most popular feature of these services.
Echomail was, in effect, a time-delayed chat room service, where postings from users around the world on various subjects would be updated daily.
The glory days of FidoNet spanned the years to its inception in the United States in 1984 to the advent of wide-spread internet access in the mid 1990s.
At its highest point, around 1993, it apparently consisted of almost 25,000 network nodes around the world, and almost 1.6 million users.
This achievement is all the more impressive, when you consider that it was accomplished without any significant public or private financing, by a loose collection of unpaid computer hobbyists.
It worked because thousands of people (people like my friend) invested their own time and money into it.
In the days before internet, being a FidoNet network node operator represented a real financial cost to the volunteer.
You had to commit to having your serving computer make a daily long distance call to a computer server upstream from you to download the netmail, echomail, and other files that were being routed your way for the use of your clients.
In the pre-internet days of high long distance prices and very slow modems, this could quickly get very expensive, particularly as the volume of clients and informational demand kept expanding.
This was a particular challenge in places like the Yukon, which in those days had long cripplingly high long distance charges.
Though he enjoyed a brief period when he partnered with a user who had a satellite connection and could bring down the all the echomail groups, for the most part, my friend was limited to a selected group of these discussion groups.
He pulled them down on an early-morning long distance connection to a FidoNet computer in Oregon (which, for reasons now long since forgotten, was cheaper to call than British Columbia).
My friend’s early involvement with the development of in the Yukon (which is where he and I initially met and became friends, actually) was in part driven by his need to find a faster, more affordable way of supporting the needs of his FidoNet users.
Over time, however, the internet proved to be a very mixed blessing for BBS’s and FidoNet.
Though the faster modems and cheaper connectivity made the FidoNet services easier to deliver, they also made those services less necessary.
People began to drift away from BBS’s, getting their newsgroup, chat, e-mail and software download needs directly from the internet.
As the BBS’s dwindled, so, too did the number of volunteers offering FidoNet networking services.
According to the FidoNet home page (fidonet.org), the network now consists of 10,000 nodes around the world; the site does not even attempt to give an account of the number of actual users.
That is less than half of the number from 1993.
Though it continues to be popular in places like Russia (probably because of that country’s weak civilian internet infrastructure), it is now very much a forgotten old dog in the more IT-developed regions of the world.
Still, the Yukon, whether it knows it or not, owes a good deal of thanks to the local FidoNet community for the development of internet in the territory, since so many important players in the effort (like mike friend) were FidoNetters or BBS operators.
Today, much of the volunteer, do-it-or-free ethos that motivated, and still motivates, FidoNet, has rubbed off on the hobbyists and enthusiasts who populate the Open Source movement in computer software development.
I was never a part of the FidoNet community myself, though I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with it in the pioneering days of Yukon internet.
It was, like most communities of amateur enthusiasts, a quirky, cranky, some times contentious, but always creative place to be.
So, when my friend finally puts the old dog to sleep, this month, there are a number of us, FidoNetters or not, who might do well to give it an affectionate last pat on the head, for the good things it did for us at the time, and for the legacy – both technological and ethical – that it has left us with.
So long, Old Shep. Good dog.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.