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Someday everybody will communicate by computer, according to an emerging army of dreamers. Personal computer networking - exchanging text and pictures between terminals, over phone or cable - is so convenient that many expect it to become as widespread eventually as the telephone and television are now. The dreamers include corporations like AT&T, IBM, Sears, CBS, and the Knight-Ridder newspaper etiain, but the systems these companies plan are still mostly unformed. These are still pioneer days, and personal computer owners are the pioneers.

Maybe the frontier feeling explains why computer networkers seem so fiercely individualistic. Or maybe the flexible nature of telecommunications inspires everyone who tries it to do something different. I've seen people play games (pp. 28-45), order products (p. 141), start small businesses that span continents on nationwide conferencing networks (pp. 146-147), retrieve public domain software from free bulletin boards (pp. 148-149), investigate background material about specific news stories (p. 144), seek romance (on bulletin boards, pp. 148-149), get stock quotations (p. 142), and work at home, sending their reports to the office by electronic mail (p. 145).

Most personal computer networks, such as The Source, CompuServe, and a dozen others reviewed in this section (pp. 141-147), give you a password and charge by the amount of time you're actually logged on (the "connect hour"). To reach them, you simply dial a local phone number that ties into one of several cross-country transmission services, which are cheaper longdistance carriers of computer signals than the regular phone lines.

Less expensive than national networks are local bulletin boards, which you can dial into to leave messages or take part in discussions. (Unlike national networks, bulletin boards aren't connected to cross-country transmission services; if you call one that isn't local, you must pay for the long-distance telephone call.) We review guides to existing bulletin boards on page 148, and software for starting your own on pages 148-149. To give an example of the bulletin boards' power; David Hughes of Colorado Springs entered onto his computer bulletin board the text of a pernicious city council bill outlawing professional work at home. Instead of tracking the bill down at City Hall, residents could dial in at their convenience and read the bill at home. Within a week, Hughes had gathered enough angry readers to storm the next city council meeting and influence council members to defeat the measure.

To begin telecommunicating, you need to buy a modem (p. 155) and a piece of communications software called a terminal program for your personal computer The modem is an electronic box that first translates computer characters into sounds that travel through phone lines, and then untranslates them back into computer characters at the other end. The terminal program controls the modem, shunting text between it and your screen, disks, and printer Compared with word processors, learning programs and organizing tools, modems and communications software don't vary much. We recommend a small selection of modems on page 155 and sixteen terminal programs on pages 150-154.

If you send a lot of programs and other files from one computer to another, you might also want file transfer software, reviewed on page 156. "An acquaintance regularly sends me spreadsheet files by phone," Louis Jaffe wrote us. "Loaded into SUPERCALC, they work just fine." Ultimate file transfer - local networks that allow several computers in one building to work with the same files simultaneously is described on page 157.

Telecommunications is probably the most personal of computer applications, but it's also the most technically complex. The necessary tools - modems and communications software - are uneasy compromises between computers and phone lines, which weren't designed to work together In practice, that means every computer network and software package you use will take a bit of fiddling until you get your connections right.

But don't be daunted; it's becoming easier. Programs are finally emerging that treat telecommunicating as a human activity instead of a technical obstacle course. Modems are getting cheaper and more reliable. A few computers - the TRS-80 Model 100 (see page 153), the PCjr (see page 17) and more to come - are appearing with built-in modems. And the networks are becoming more plentiful and reliable every week.