During the 1980s and 1990s Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were widely used on all kinds of computers. The BBS Documentary documents the rise and fall of the BBS subculture.

Watching this documentary left me wondering about Unix systems. They are - similar to BBS - designed to support remote TTYs over a modem, using getty and login to provide access to the system.

Does there exist any record of a publicly accessible Unix system during the 1980s and 1990s that people could call into using a modem?

  • Without registering in advance? – OrangeDog Jan 16 at 14:22
  • Any answer is welcome, I'd just like to know whether accessing Unix systems remotely was "a thing" like BBSes were in those days. – Jaap Joris Vens Jan 16 at 14:25
  • It depends on what "publicly accessible" means. I don't think there were any that would just let anyone in, but e.g. webhosting services were widely available from the 90s onwards. – OrangeDog Jan 16 at 14:27
  • Oh yes, of course. But were there pre-WWW Unix systems that people could access? – Jaap Joris Vens Jan 16 at 14:29
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    As a sixth-former in UK school (approximate age 17-18) in the early 1980s I had a login to three of the local polytechnic (university) timesharing systems. One of those was UNIX. I don't recall if logins were publicly available or if it was arranged through my college. – roaima Jan 16 at 15:01

Even before they were routinely interconnected, Unix systems could be considered as effectively their own BBSes. They were usually multi-user systems, and they allowed their users to swap files, and exchange messages (initially as a specific use of shared files). Users didn’t have to connect to a separate BBS.

Interconnecting Unix systems, whether permanently or intermittently (using UUCP), provided an extension to this, and protocols were created to allow users to share files with users on other systems, and to send and receive messages to and from users on other systems. Successive changes to protocols and new protocols provided more and more indirection, for example going from bang paths for email to the present-day DNS-based system.

There was one significant difference between BBSes as seen from micros, and Unix systems: the former tended to favour asynchronous use, since only a small number of users could be connected simultaneously (compared to the overall number of users), whereas the latter also allowed synchronous messaging systems (starting with write which was already present in V1 Unix) and related programs. This led in particular to the emergence of MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and the communities surrounding them; these were nominally multi-user text-based games, but often users were interested more in chatting with other users than actually playing the game. (MUDs weren’t only available on Unix systems; Micronet in particular in the UK offered one which was accessible over Prestel.)

Many Unix systems also provided dial-up access; this was fairly straightforward since modems could be considered as extensions of the serial lines used to connect terminals to Unix systems. I don’t know of any which had the same access patterns as BBSes; most would have provided dial-up access for regular users working from home (although logins could of course be shared, or given out more widely than the bean-counters intended), and some provided commercial access to specific services.

Many early ISPs effectively provided dial-up connectivity to Unix systems; but the latter weren’t the end-users’ target, they were simply a hop on the way to the rest of the Internet, either directly (for interactive protocols) or indirectly (for email, Usenet etc.).

  • Don't forget the good ole days of NNTP! – mikem Jan 17 at 9:08
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    @mikem I still use NNTP ;-). I included it as part of Usenet... – Stephen Kitt Jan 17 at 10:10
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    Usenet is still widely used - typically 100+TBytes/month – Jeremy Boden Jan 17 at 14:40

SDF Public Access Unix has been offering dialup access of some sort to UNIX shells since 1987 and still offers dialup today (now as a paid service).

Members have UNIX shell access to games, email, usenet, chat, bboard, webspace, gopherspace, programming utilities, archivers, browsers, and more. The SDF community is made up of caring, highly skilled people who operate behind the scenes to maintain a non-commercial INTERNET.

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    Here's the actual answer. – OrangeDog Jan 17 at 17:29

There were two reasons to use a BBS in the 80s.

  1. Warez
  2. FidoNet

The Internet made both obsolete in the 90s.

The FidoNet got replaced by E-Mail and the Usenet. In the beginning dialup connections were used with UUCP which implements a batch transfer similar to FrontDoor or BinkleyTerm. Later on direct connections where used with PPP. This made it possible to use SMTP and NNTP directly. But the Internet had much more than a BBS: for example IRC and later on WWW. Those who where still interested in Warez where happy with Newsgroups and uuencode or IRC bots. And the other used instead 30 floppy disks Slackware, which contained so much free software, it was a cockaigne. With Slackware it was possible to run on a 486 home computer the same OPEN LOOK GUI, which was running on the expensive SPARCstations in the university. At that point I did not use DOS and Frontdoor anymore. BBS's became obsolete.

A PC running Linux connected via Ping e.V. to the Internet of the local university was (at least for me) the successor to a PC running DOS connecting to a local BBS.

So there are many similarities but I would not call it equivalence.

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    I am slowly beginning to realize the the Internet could be seen as the Unix-based equivalent of a BBS... – Jaap Joris Vens Jan 16 at 15:57
  • there were also doors – mikeserv Jan 17 at 14:25
  • And there were message boards where you could actually talk to people. – Michael Hampton Jan 17 at 15:39

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