AppleLink, warts and all

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 07/90 item 01 - scanned

A strange thing happened to me the weekend that London introduced its two-tier telephone numbering system. Suddenly, I could only get on to AppleLink by dialling the Hitchin number. Previously I could get on through one of the London numbers. After a couple of weeks of support calls, and many new modem drivers, it suddenly dawned on me what the problem was. On a pulse telephone (the one that clicks when you dial), you had an extra seven or eight clicks when dialling the new 071 or 081 numbers. The AppleLink CCL file, which drives the modem, waits after telling the modem to dial the number, before going on to check if the connection was successful. With the new codes, the wait wasn't long enough. I extended it by a couple of seconds and all my problems disappeared.

After this rather shaky introduction to AppleLink, the system has proved really useful. For example, one of the articles I'm working on involves a fair amount of contact with Apple developers all over Europe. With AppleLink, we are keeping in touch far more effectively than we could by telephone. AppleLink is different to any other comms system I have used. Usually, the PC or the Macintosh is a window on some sort of system which neither knows nor cares what sort of machine you're using. This means that all data has to be exchanged in the format of the lowest common denominator, typically 24 lines of 80 columns, text only. It works, it's fast but you do have to be a bit technically minded to use it. AppleLink turns comms from a fairly arcane process into one which presents itself just like any other well-written Macintosh application. It properly exploits the user interface. Mail can be saved and sent using the familiar pull-down menus and dialog boxes. You have an in-tray and an out-tray on one side of the screen. An arrow pointing down into either means that mail is waiting to be read or sent. The main body of the screen shows icons representing the various bulletin boards to which you can belong.

At this point though, some of AppleLink's imperfections begin to reveal themselves. It hasn't got the wit to know what items I have already scanned or read. Each time I join a bulletin board, AppleLink tries to display the full list. You can press Command-full stop to halt the listing, but it does make me wonder what we gave computers brains and memory for if they can't remember what we've been doing and try to help us a little.

My biggest complaint concerns speed. I spend a lot of time on other services such as CIX or Telecom Cold and I have to say that AppleLink is slow by comparison. I actually dread getting a memo with a list of other recipients at the start, because I know I have to sit there, clocking up connect time, before I reach the important stuff. I'm even more irritated when the important stuff isn't there. The trouble is that AppleLink doesn't let you scan the list of messages and then off-load those that look interesting. You can do it if they've been put onto the System as files, but not if they're memos. And some memos can be quite long. I had one today from Apple which was 1300 plus words. That sort of thing irritates me, but if you've never used a communications program, you'll probably be amazed at the speed and convenience of communicating this way.

Some systems, such as Telecom Gold, give users access to other information systems through 'gateways'. At the moment AppleLink doesn't provide access to such services. It's all right for those content to stay within the Apple world, but the rest might want access to these other services. Even if the gateway is a text-only window, I believe that Apple should seriously consider adding this facility.

I know I've whinged, but my feeling about AppleLink is that overall it is a very nice service: it plugs you into the Apple community where you can get help and inside information, it's slowish and, I fear, a little expensive - approximately 25p to 50p a minute, depending on modem speed and payment method plus, of course, your telephone charges. Having said that, the value of the information you can get from AppleLink could easily dwarf the cost of getting it. Before signing up to AppleLink, you have to agree to the terms of a ten-page contract. Unbelievably, one of the conditions is that you cannot communicate with anyone without their prior consent. So, if someone says "why don't you contact David Tebbutt, his ID is TEBBUTT.D", you first have to find me so you can ask me if you can write to me. To save you the trouble though, let me tell you now that you can - well, providing of course, you don't send me any incredibly long memos, junk mail or press releases.