Back in the 1980s, British Telecom ran a dial-up Viewdata service called Prestel. One of the IPs (Information Providers) was called Micronet, which supported the UK computer hobbyist - mostly Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro owners, of course.

Micronet featured sections written by contributing authors. I vaguely remember MicroMouse. Sadly, I never read The Gnome at that time. This node is about The Gnome after he parted company with Micronet - and, indeed, Prestel.

But first, some more background is required.

In the late '70s, when Prestel was created, no one had PCs. Any online systems comprised of a time-share mainframe with dumb terminals.

Thus it was with Prestel. The home user was provided with what would now be called a set top box and a keypad (0-9, * and #). The box plugged into a TV set and the phone line and contained a modem and some minimal hardware and software to decode and display the viewdata frames.

Obviously, Information Providers weren't going to produce content on this kit. BT offered a number of different options. Initially, this meant buying or renting a dedicated Viewdata editing terminal. These cost several thousands of pounds.

Around this time, the BBC commissioned Acorn Computers to produce a computer for them. Part of the spec was a teletext decoder. Acorn put a display mode in the standard machine, known as MODE 7, that was suitable for displaying videotex. The BBC Micro was born. As a full-powered computer, it had all the potential needed to replace the Viewdata editing terminals - including the display hardware that let down all other computers of the time. It also cost a lot less... which meant you could sell a BBC Micro plus Viewdata editing software for a tidy sum and still undercut the alternatives by a large margin.

Information Providers, of course, loved the idea.

It quickly became apparent that the BBC Micro could also do most of the work of the Prestel mainframe in terms of storing and presenting frames - you could "run" Prestel on your BBC Micro! The Viewdata Bulletin Board was born.

Which gets us to the point where The Gnome left Prestel and set up at home. Or rather at a mate's house (but that's not the point).


So, what was it like?

Well, it had a very similar feel to Everything.

It was multi-user (very rare at the time, given BTs line rental prices - remember one phone line equals one caller). Users could read and post messages, which were "threaded" for reading and appeared immediately (unusual for a Viewdata system). This fostered a good community spirit. A number of external Information Providers wrote for the BBS (including me - I had a Fantasy Role Playing Game section - lovely yellow and red colour scheme...).

Oh, and it had the AutoGnome to keep chatters company, just like EDB does. And just as vicious... it could drop the phone line on unwanted callers... (As could high-ranking callers... oh, the power..!)

As you might have guessed, it ran on a network of BBC Micros. One per caller (eight, I think). Plus one for the AutoGnome. Plus one for the file server. Plus one for local login. Plus a couple of spares. That's a lot of BBC micros in one back bedroom...

The sysop was The Great Goblin (or T'GG to his friends - or Glyn Philips to others). He had worked for Acorn on the BBC Micro and prior computers. He wrote the host code and designed the modem driver interface (for pre-Hayes compatible modems). This interface was also used by the BBC's Viewdata terminal software (not surprising, as he wrote part of that, too).

What became of the Gnome at Home? I don't know. Glyn shut it down "for technical reasons". I think it cost a lot to run - sorry, I know it cost a lot to run, as I was running a multi-line BBS at the time, too! Viewdata was really only supported by the BBC Micro so the potential subscriber base was small to start with and not growing all that fast. There were many free BBSes that people could call. All of these reason, plus more personal ones, probably contributed to his decision. But it went.

The Dwarfen Realm (my Viewdata BBS) picked up a few ex-callers. But the writing was clearly on the wall. The day of the Viewdata BBS was passing...

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