Originally BBSes were accessed only over a phone line using a modem, but by the early 1990s some BBSes allowed access via a Telnet,packet switched network, or packet radio connection.
Ward Christensen coined the term "Bulletin Board System" as a reference to the traditional cork-and-pin bulletin board often found in entrances of supermarkets, schools, libraries or other public areas where people can post messages, advertisements, or community news. By "computerizing" this method of communications, the name of the system was born: CBBS - Computerized Bulletin Board System
A classic BBS had:
- A computer
- One or more modems
- One or more phone lines
- A BBS software package
- A sysop - system operator
- A user community
The BBS software usually provides:
- Menu Systems
- One or more message bases
- File areas
- SysOp side, live viewing of all caller activity
- Voting - opinion booths
- Statistics on message posters, top uploaders / downloaders
- Online games (usually single player or only a single active player at a given time)
- A doorway to third-party online games
- Usage auditing capabilities
- Multi-user chat (only possible on multi-line BBSes)
- Internet email (more common in later Internet-connected BBSes)
- Networked message boards
- Most modern BBSes allow telnet access over the Internet using a telnet server and a virtual FOSSIL driver.
- A "yell for SysOp" (The original chat, before multi-line systems) caller side menu item that sounded an audible alarm to the SysOp. If chosen, the SysOp could then initiate a text-to-text chat with the caller; similar to what commercial websites have used to sell and support products.
Software and hardware
Unlike modern websites and online services that are typically hosted by third-party companies in commercial data centers, BBS computers (especially for smaller boards) were typically operated from the SysOp's home. As such, access could be unreliable, and in many cases only one user could be on the system at a time. Only larger BBSs with multiple phone lines using specialized hardware, multitasking software, or a LAN connecting multiple computers, could host multiple simultaneous users.
The first BBSs used simple homebrew software(*), quite often written or customized by the SysOps themselves, running on early S-100 microcomputer systems such as the Altair,IMSAI and Cromemco under the CP/M operating system. Soon after, BBS software was being written for all of the major home computer systems of the late 1970s era - the Apple II,Atari, and TRS-80 being some of the most popular.
A few years later in 1981, IBM introduced the first DOS based IBM PC, and due to the overwhelming popularity of PCs and their clones, DOS soon became the operating system on which the majority of BBS programs were run. RBBS-PC, ported over from the CP/M world, and Fido BBS, created by Tom Jennings (who later founded FidoNet) were the first notable DOS BBS programs. There were many successful commercial BBS programs developed for DOS, such as PCBoard BBS, RemoteAccess BBS, and Wildcat! BBS. Some popular freeware BBS programs for MS-DOS included Telegard BBS and Renegade BBS, which both had early origins from leaked WWIV BBS source code. There were several dozen other BBS programs developed over the DOS era, and many were released under the shareware concept, while some were released as freeware including iniquity.
During the mid-1980s, many sysops opted for the less expensive, ubiquitous Commodore 64 (introduced in 1982), which was popular among software pirate groups. Popular commercial BBS programs were Blue Board, Ivory BBS, Color64 and CNet 64. In the early 1990s a small number of BBSes were also running on the Commodore Amiga models 500, 1200, and 2000(using external hard drives), and the Amiga 3000 and Amiga 4000 (which had built-in hard drives). Popular BBS software for the Amiga were ABBS, Amiexpress, StormforceBBS, Infinityand Tempest.
MS-DOS continued to be the most popular operating system for BBS use up until the mid-1990s, and in the early years most multi-node BBSes were running under a DOS based multitasker such as DesqView or consisted of multiple computers connected via a LAN. During the 1990s, a handful of BBS developers implemented multitasking communications routines which, although run under MS-DOS, allowed multiple phone lines and multiple users to connect to the same physical BBS computer. These included Galacticomm's MajorBBS(later WorldGroup), eSoft TBBS, and Falken.
By 1995, many of the DOS-based BBSes had begun switching to modern multitasking operating systems, such as OS/2, Windows 95, and Linux. These operating systems also provided built-in TCP/IP networking, which allowed most of the remaining BBSes to evolve and include Internet hosting capabilities. Recent BBS software, such as Synchronet, EleBBS,DOC or Wildcat! BBS provide access using the Telnet protocol rather than dialup, or by using legacy MS-DOS based BBS software with a FOSSIL-to-Telnet redirector such as NetFoss.
Content and access
Since early BBSes were frequently run by computer hobbyists, they were typically technical in nature with user communities revolving around hardware and software discussions. Many SysOps were transplants of the amateur radio community and thus amateur and packet radio were often popular topics.
As the BBS phenomenon grew, so did the popularity of special interest boards. Bulletin Board Systems could be found for almost every hobby and interest. Popular interests included politics, religion, music, dating, and alternative lifestyles. Many SysOps also adopted a theme in which they customized their entire BBS (welcome screens, prompts, menus, etc.) to reflect that theme. Common themes were based on fantasy, or were intended to give the user the illusion of being somewhere else, such as in a sanatorium, wizard's castle, or on apirate ship.
Many BBS did not infringe on copyright laws by systematically inspecting each file that was added to their public file download library for violations. In the early days, the file download library consisted of files that the SysOp obtained themselves from other BBS and friends. As time went on, Shareware CD ROMs were sold with up to thousands of files on each CD ROM. Small BBS copied each file individually to their hard drive. Some systems used a CD ROM drive to make the files available. Advanced BBS used Multiple CD ROM disk changer units that switched 6 CD ROM disks on demand for the caller(s). Large systems used all 26 DOS Drive letters with multi-disk changers housing tens of thousands of copyright free shareware or freeware files available to all callers. These BBSes were generally more family friendly, avoiding the seedier side of BBSes. Access to these systems varied from single to multiple modem lines with some requiring little or no confirmed registration.
Some BBSes, called elite, warez or pirate boards, were exclusively used for distributing pirated software, phreaking, and other questionable or unlawful content. These BBSes often had multiple modems and phone lines, allowing several users to upload and download files at once. Most elite BBSes used some form of new user verification, where new users would have to apply for membership and attempt to prove that they were not a law enforcement officer or a lamer. The largest elite boards accepted users by invitation only. Elite boards also spawned their own subculture and gave rise to the slang known today as leetspeak.