A Struggle for Online Survival

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A long, long time ago, before there was a World Wide Web, before the word "Internet" had become part of the popular lexicon--way back in, say, the 1980s--there was the BBS, or electronic bulletin board service.

Often modest operations run out of someone's living room and serving just a few hundred customers, BBSs were the original online communities, offering chat services and games and sometimes even shopping, usually on a local basis.

The rise of the Internet, and especially the Web, has meant doom for many of these pioneering businesses. But in Southern California and elsewhere, enterprising BBS operators are fighting back, trying to guard their corner of cyberspace.

"The BBS market in the region has shrunk to 20% of what it was five years ago," says Greg Gooden, operating partner of Annex, a San Fernando Valley-based BBS. PCs now come prepackaged with easy-to-use Web software, he points out, so consumers have little incentive to shop for a BBS and cope with some of the still-arcane setup procedures.

Still, Gooden says, "those [BBSs] that remain are fighting back."

They have a few potent weapons at their disposal. Their chat groups tend to be smaller and more intimate. Subscribers are usually in the same area code. Some services are cheaper than those offered by the major online services and Internet access providers. And the most aggressive of them are adding equipment and features that make them full-fledged players in the Internet arena.

Hershel Webster, proprietor of the Westwood Story Board, launched his service in 1990 with the idea of catering to the writing community. But he and his partner learned that the social element of the "board"--mainly chat--was the biggest draw.

He still considers that to be a competitive edge: "You can chat in areas on the Net, of course," says Webster, "but who are you going to know there? It can become overwhelming."

But competition from the Net has forced him to look much further afield for customers. He's added toll-free numbers to give the service a broader reach, and he's established a Web site (http://www.story.com) to give potential customers another way to come on board.

"Interactivity and chatting are the things that keep people online," says Ed Maguire, operator of Culver City-based ECN (Entertainment and Consumer Network, http://www.ecn.com). "Every night, we have a live game where the users can interact with other folks on line. They are familiar with the other players from frequent online chatting sessions."

Staying alive has required additional capital. Webster, for example, had to spend about $20,000 to modernize his BBS with additional phone lines and a Web site.

Once the additional equipment is in place, though, the Internet connection can bring some new opportunities. One of the biggest problems for small BBSs, for example, is figuring out how to afford enough phone lines to prevent busy signals. When customers come in from the Web, though, they don't use a phone line.

Additionally, a Net connection makes it possible to enter a BBS system by "telnetting" from another Net site.Because that doesn't tie up a dial-in phone line either, most BBSs offer lower rates--as little as $4 a month--for telnet-only customers.

(Telnetting requires the user to have another Internet account somewhere else.)

Perhaps most important, the BBSs need to find new ways of setting themselves apart from the Web pack.

Maguire of ECN is working diligently on pulling more entrepreneurs into his business, as opposed to those who are interested only in the entertainment side of it. Annex (http://www.annex.com) uses the BBS as a loss leader for its computer-consulting services. And all are trying to nurture the sense of community that made successful BBSs work in the first place--and that many on the Net are seeking, with only mixed results.

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Freelance writer Laura Bell can be reached at writer@well.com

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