The Online User's Encyclopedia:
Bulletin Boards and Beyond

Bernard Aboba

Addison-Wesley 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
The Online User's Encyclopedia is not actually an encyclopedia at all. As the introduction admits, it is in fact a guide — a guide to getting online for personal computer owners (both Macintosh and DOS/Windows software and applications are covered). It begins with a brief chapter on why one would want to get online, with some warnings about what one can and cannot do with computer networks. It then gives all the information a first-time user needs to be able to connect: information about modems and software and detailed explanations of a wide range of bulletin board interfaces.

The longest section of the Online User's Encyclopedia is devoted to the Internet, beginning with a brief description of what it is and how to get access to it. Separate chapters then cover mail, ftp, USENET, IRC/MUDs/talk, libraries and WAIS/gopher/WWW. The final chapter gives a brief account of TCP/IP for those who want to run PPP or SLIP. The chapter on USENET is pretty good, managing to fit everything from a summary of the newsgroup creation procedure to ftp sites for Mac newsreaders into just fourteen pages — Kibo even gets a mention! (There does seem to be an undue emphasis on the negative aspects of the Internet in places; it is not true, for example, that all, or even most, newsgroups are for abusing their subjects.)

The next section has chapters on UUCP, BITNET, Fidonet and PCBoard nets and connections between them. This is mostly aimed at those wanting to set up their own bulletin board systems. The whole area is terra incognita for me (I've spent my entire networked life on the Internet, and have never logged onto a bulletin board), but the coverage seems fairly comprehensive.

The rest of the book is a kind of miscellany of useful information (perhaps "encyclopedia" wasn't so inappropriate after all). The tutorial section contains chapters with advice on minimising phone bills, file conversion between different architectures and applications, compression, emoticons, K12Net, and even computer control of household electronics! Then there is a collection of short essays, including Bruce Sterling writing on freedom of knowledge and Vince Cerf on "How the Internet Came to Be" as well as pieces on the history of other networks. The appendices contain an annotated bibliography for further reading, eighty pages of product recommendations (ranging from addresses for access providers to hardware and software), a brief list of online resources, and a whole pile of other useful stuff. An extensive glossary rounds the book off nicely.

Extensive use of screen pictures, session printouts and step by step instructions make the critical bits of information and ways of doing things really clear, so The Online User's Encyclopedia is suitable for absolute computer novices. On the other hand it also contains material that will interest seasoned network users, and some that few even of those will ever need (how many people ever worry about DNS internals or buy routers?). The formatting and layout support this kind of 'dual use' admirably.

The Online User's Encyclopedia is not really suitable for users on larger computer systems, but their administrators might well be interested — as system administrator of a university department with many Macintosh and PC users I found it useful. And, while some of the material is specific to the US (or even to California), there is a little information on other countries (so two places to enquire about getting Internet access in Australia are listed) and there is no reason for it not have a worldwide readership.

This would be the perfect present to buy for a friend who wants to get access to the net, or for yourself if you are still unsteady on your virtual feet or want to do fancy things like set up your own bulletin board. The Online User's Encyclopedia is a genuinely engaging book, one that conveys not just information but also the author's enthusiasm for his subject; it is sufficiently comprehensive to answer almost any question dial-up users are likely to ask (and if not, online support is provided), but it is also a book which does its best to encourage them to actively explore and to become hooked on networking.

March 1994

Related reviews:
- books about networking
- books published by Addison-Wesley
%T The Online User's Encyclopedia
%S Bulletin Boards and Beyond
%A Aboba, Bernard
%I Addison-Wesley
%D 1993
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0201622149
%P xxiv,806pp