Fidonet was a world-wide computer network system that built on the infrastructure of the BBS scene to provide electronic mail, forums and file transfers. It assumed that its users connected via a dial-up modem, and was oriented around minimising the time spent using the phone line. It did not use the now-familiar Internet for anything, yet it did allow messages to propagate around the globe. It began in 1984, and its heyday was probably during the early 1990s; the number of BBSs involved peaked in 1995 at 35,787.
The BBS Scene
The Bulletin Board scene consisted of a series of hobbyist-supported servers called BBSs or "Bulletin Board Systems". They had one or more modems connecting them to regular phone lines. Users dialled-up via terminal software, and entered their username and password. ASCII-based menus were presented, offering services like public-domain software downloads, or the chance to leave messages for other BBS users. Live chats were possible, but only if more than one user were simultaneously connected; or if the fearsome figure of the SysOp (System Operator) was at home.
While using these facilities, your computer was connected via the plain-old telephone network; while you pratted about in the menus, looking for the latest software, your phone-bill was ticking up and up.
Enter The Fido
Fidonet built on this set-up in two key ways- the BBSs connected together once daily to exchange messages and files; and the users' software was automated, economising the time spent on-line.
BBS SysOps signed up for a "midnight line" or similar service from their phone company which offered reduced rates for calls made late at night. During this defined "Zone Mail Hour", human callers were rejected- it was for backbone traffic only. Each Fidonet BBS called a number of others; and received calls from a few more, so that messages between end users propagated to the appropriate BBS. Messages were zipped up into "Packets" and stowed on the BBS ready for the user to download later. BBSs that were involved in Fidonet were known as "Nodes". The sequence of calls and mail exchanges was handled by automated software, known as Robots and Front-end Mailers.
The users also had a special suite of software, including a Tosser, Mailer, Reader and a FReq processor. Together, these tools maintained a local copy of a message inbox and a series of forums (known as Echoes); provided a user-interface for reading and replying off-line, and facilitated sending and receiving messages with the Node.
Our typical Fidonet user would spend some time reading through his favourite Echoes and reply to a few messages. A trip to his own mailbox might reveal a few personal messages (Netmails) to reply to. He'll have a look at the latest filelist and select a few public domain utilities to try out or text files to read.
Then he'll hit a button and the Tosser will generate a Packet of all the new messages, and a FReq (file request) of the files he's after. Only then would the Mailer software be engaged to actually interact with the BBS. It dialled the BBS, and the modem made those familiar hissing, chiming noises while the connection was established. It uploaded the new Packets, downloaded the Packets generated during the Zone Mail Hour, and requested the files, which were downloaded during the session. The software hung-up as soon as the transfers were finished.
You may now be asking, "Wasn't this all rather slow?". The simple answer is- "Yes, yes it was". Netmails and Echomails filtered their way through the network over a few days; perhaps as much as a week if the target Node was on another continent. This meant that the messages tended to be well-considered, earnest, lengthy, and created with some care. They were the equivalent of a letter, rather than an internet-style email or Usenet posting. Many Echoes were moderated, which meant that there was a basic quality threshold, very little trolling, and no spam.
The userbase was even more geeky than the hobbyist internet userbase. The computers used were typically Amigas, Ataris and early home PCs. So Echoes for maths, science fiction, and computers themselves were common and well used. But the full range of topics included law, music, disabled support groups and the 12-step programme. I used to use the "B5_UK" Echo, a lot.
The Science Bit
Data transfers were handled according to direct point-to-point modem protocols like zmodem, ymodem, kermit, hydra and the like to handle the bits. Fidonet software typically offered a very wide range of these protocols, and part of the fun was to tweak the settings and try out new versions. Hydra for example offered bi-directional transfers, and I can remember the excitement of its introduction. The Zone Mail Hour process was managed according to a simplified form of UUCP.
Fidonet had an addressing scheme to ensure that messages got to where they were sent. Each Node had a unique number, arranged in a rigid heirarchy. At the top level was a continent "Zone" number- 1 for North America; 2 for Europe, Israel and the former USSR, 3 for Australasia, etc. Within each Zone were defined a number of Regions, and each Node was numbered in a single Region. The users of a Node were also numbered. So the old "Wally's BBS" Node was addressed "2:259/27"; meaning it was in Zone 2, Region 259 and was Node 27. The tenth user of that Node would be addressed "2:259/27.10"; so user accounts were sometimes called "Points".
I haven't used Fidonet for many years; and it seems that the internet has taken over for all intents and purposes for most people since the mid-1990s. Fidonet is only widely used in Russia, and by die-hard nostalgics elsewhere. Ironically, these users often run Fidonet services over the internet; replacing their dial-up BBS systems with TCP/IP telnet, for example.
As befits a system based on the BBS scene, Fidonet's logo is reassuringly ASCII. It's a trademark of Fidonet founder, Tom Jennings:
_ @/_ \ _
| | \ \\
| (*) | \ ))
|__U__| / \//
_//|| _\ /
- Fidonet on Wiki, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidonet
- My own warm recollections from the 1990-1996 era
- My A-Level project (a hypercard simulation of Fidonet software), 1995