Stallings/Free-Net Study/4C

First Class and Supporting Hardware

as used by the Great Lakes Free-Net

[Note: While writing this paper, I was under the impression that the name of this software package was "First Class," with a space between the words. All occurrences should read "FirstClass," without a space.]

The First Class BBS software package is sold by SoftArc, Inc. of Markham, Ontario. It is notable mainly for its graphical user interface (GUI), which Macintosh or Windows users may install free of charge on their home computers. Great Lakes Free-Net (GLFN) was the first Free-Net to use First Class, and it is therefore the "Worlds first GUI Free-Net" (Tumanis). NPTN endorsed the software for use by rural Free-Nets from 1993 until 1995.

The First Class server software runs on almost any Macintosh computer or network of computers; GLFN uses a Quadra 950 and a Centris 650, with 20 telephone lines and modems in all. GLFN shares many message forums with other First Class systems via the OneNet protocol, and a connection to FidoNet (a similar but much larger network of BBSes running on MS-DOS computers) is expected in the future (Tumanis).

[Note: as of November 1996, GLFN had 40 phone lines and 12 inbound Internet ports. (Tumanis, 1996)]

First Class does not, as far as I can tell, permit users to access the Internet via telnet, gopher, or World Wide Web. It does, however, allow participation in Internet-wide "UseNet newsgroups" and even "listservs" -- electronic mailing lists. This latter accomplishment is due to the fact that First Class's message forums are simply public mailboxes, so e-mail can be sent directly to a message forum from anywhere on the Internet. GLFN allows users 2 hours' total connection time per day at no charge.

GUI but not Sticky

In Technologies & Society: the Shaping of People and Things, Ron Westrum classifies technologies as either "technotonic" or "technostressing." "A device is technotonic to the extent that it gives the user a sense of control, of mastery over the en vironment." (p.221) Technotonic devices also reflect a "high degree of skill", their "appearance or use evokes aesthetic pleasure", and they produce good associations in the minds of their users. (p.222)

In my experience using GLFN through the Macintosh version of the First Class client software, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that its graphical interface is technotonic.

The GLFN 'DeskTop' window

The general impression one gets while using the First Class client on a Macintosh is that it is an extension of the Mac's own "Finder" -- the program used to manipulate files. Menus appear as overlapping windows (like the Finder's "folders") with the possible choices represented as any of 207 colorful icons. As in the Finder, one may rearrange these icons at will or choose to see a list view instead, with the options organized alphabetically or by date or (if they represent files) size.

The 'GLFN Statistics' window

The brilliance of the First Class interface, however, lies in how it differs from the Finder. No distinction is made between the representation of a menu, a message forum, a file library, or a personal mailbox; they are all displayed in split-screen windows with folders (submenus) in the top half and files in the bottom. Unread messages have red flags beside them, and those with files attached have little file icons beside them. Multiple icons may be opened at the same time by selecting them all before double-clicking, and as the information is being transferred between computers, a tiny red line creeps across the top of the frontmost window to show how much of the transfer is complete. Icons may be assigned to items apparently at the whim of the system operators (sysops); some files on GLFN have folder icons and vice versa.

Unfortunately, the graphical interface is limited to those users who use the Macintosh OS or Microsoft Windows. First Class does support a text interface, but I was unable to get GLFN's to work at all [during my research]; if it does not work, GLFN may be excluding a very large number of its potential users.

[Note: In November 1996 I tried logging into GLFN through a text-only telnet connection and encountered a menu system which appeared to be every bit as good as CFN's or WC-SGFN's. However, this paper was written in August while the text interface was not functional.]

Furthermore, there is no graphical interface on the server software itself, so the sysops must learn to interact with it by means of text commands. I did not have the chance to learn to use the First Class server software, so I am not sure how arcane its commands are, but they are not immediately obvious. However, sysops tend to be a hardy breed not easily daunted by the task of learning a new system.

In my time using GLFN, the only defect I found in the First Class client software is that it has a low tolerance for intermittent Internet connections. While I was working on the Free-Net's menu outline (see the appendices) from Oklahoma via a PPP connection, the First Class client frequently lost contact with GLFN and logged me off the system, closing all the windows I had opened, which meant that I then had to log back on and reopen all the windows.

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