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3. Other items

posted Nov 19, 2010, 8:28 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Nov 29, 2010, 6:50 AM ]
Conferencing: In concert with Kari Gluski, PAM for communications and Carol Kamm, project leader for web services, U-M Online has been investigating web based conferencing options. The initial plan called for replacing confer (due to expense) by September. Following active research for scaleable web based conferencing, the team concluded the September goal was not doable. As an interim solution, Confer developer Bob Parnes was contacted. He has agreed to lower his fee from $2.00 per subscriber to 25 cents. With the lower fee, U-M Online can afford to stay with Confer until a suitable web based alternative is available.

PLATO Notes is the progenitor of:

  • Lotus Notes
  • DEC Notes (aka VAX Notes)
  • NetNotes/WebNotes
  • Notesfiles (used on PeaceNet and the other IGC/APC networks)
  • tin and tass (Usenet newsreaders)
Here are some other first-generation conferencing systems that emerged in the early to mid-1970's:

  • EMISARI (1971, Murray Turoff, U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness.) This was a special-purpose system used for 90 days to coordinate the Nixon administration's wage-price freeze. It is generally recognized as the first computer conferencing system.
  • PLANET (Jacques Vallee, Robert Johansen, and others at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California.)
  • Confer (1975, Robert Parnes, University of Michigan.) Confer is the parent of Caucus, PicoSpan, and YAPP.
  • EIES (1976, Murray Turoff, New Jersey Institute of Technology.)

Centralized Forums

Centralized forum software originated on mainframes in the early to mid-1970's with systems like PLATO Notes, Confer, and EIES. These were designed specifically for group discussion, and they treat messages as part of an ongoing conversation with some inherent structure. Discussions are stored on one central computer, and each new message is assigned a place in the discussion structure immediately upon being posted. Over the years this line of software has evolved sophisticated features for managing and participating in conversations.

Within this arena, there is another identifiable subgroup of products whose designs have been derived from Confer, a system originally developed in 1975 by Robert Parnes. I call these products "WELL-style" conferencing systems, because the WELL has been very influential in spreading this design. There are a number of features that tend to appear in WELL-style conferencing software, but the most readily identifiable feature is that it structures discussions as linear chains of responses, and displays each discussion as a continuous stream of text.

Examples of WELL-style Web conferencing software include:

  • Backtalk
  • Caucus
  • COW
  • Motet
  • Web Crossing
  • WELL Engaged
  • YAPP

Examples of other centralized forum software for the Web include:

  • Allaire Forums
  • Big Mouth Lion
  • HyperNews
  • NetForum
  • Podium
  • Post-on-the-Fly Conference
  • TALKaway
  • WebBoard
  • WebNotes
  • WebThread (by Emaze)
MTS Fostered Creation of Computing Community, by Susan Topol,
Information Technology Digest, Volume 5, Number 5, 13 May 1996, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, pp. 1, 27-29.

According to Bob Parnes, architect of the Confer system, "MTS was our system; it belonged to the University, not to a corporation."

Confer became a common means of communication as students organized their own conferences and CRLT staff members convinced instructors to set up course-related conferences.

"MTS and Merit/UMnet allowed many people to communicate electronically for the first time both one-to-one — using e-mail — or one-to-many — using e-mail, newsgroups, and conferencing," said Christine Wendt, then computer systems consultant for Merit. "So many people today are impressed by the Internet and the World Wide Web, but after more than 15 years of conferencing and e-mail using MTS, I have a feeling of 'been there, done that.'"

E-Mail and Confer

In the mid-1970s, the next great computing revolution on campus further expanded the U-M MTS community. Bob Parnes, then a graduate student studying experimental psychology, was attending a seminar in which Professor Merrill Flood was discussing the new concepts of e-mail and electronic conferencing and their use in decision making. Flood had a magnetic tape of a prototype system and approached Parnes about getting it to run on MTS. Parnes declined, but offered instead to attempt writing a similar program for MTS.

Because of a graduate teaching assistant strike, Parnes was temporarily relieved of his teaching duties and had some extra time to devote to his experimental system, which he called "Confer." MTS served as an excellent development environment for Confer, which was built on top of the MTS file structure and exploited its filesharing features. According to Parnes, "I don't think I could have written Confer anywhere but on MTS."

Confer played a tremendous role in enlarging the electronic community at the University and in removing the traditional geographic borders of the classroom and campus. Said Parnes, "Confer enabled a lot of people to talk together who wouldn't have otherwise."

The U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching was an early sponsor and proponent of Confer and saw great promise in it for expanding learning environments. Those working on the Merit Network were also excited by the potential for Confer, and they created the MNET:Caucus conference to help users get quick answers to their questions and take some of the load off their consulting staff. It turned out that the participants — both consultants and users — learned a lot from each other through the conference. MNET:Caucus, a statewide conference, later became the first campuswide computer conference.

Not only did Confer offer the opportunity for various forms of group discussion, it also served as the first e-mail system on campus. The MTS message system (or "$MESSAGE") was introduced in 1981. Written by Jim Sterken, $MESSAGE allowed MTS users to send and receive e-mail. Gavin Eadie and Jim Sterken then enhanced the message system to include remote mail — the ability to exchange e-mail with users on other systems. The early e-mail exchange was done over Mailnet. Mailnet was eventually replaced by BITNET and the Internet.

Although $MESSAGE eventually surpassed Confer as the e-mail facility of choice on campus, the computer conferencing portion of Confer continued to thrive. Parnes went on to form his own company — Advertel Communication Systems, Inc. — which markets and supports Confer.

A Century of Connectivity at the University of Michigan, Nancy Bartlett, et al., Bulletin No. 55, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, December 2007.

1975: Ph.D. student Robert Parnes developed an innovative conferencing software program called CONFER as “an alternative to face-to-face-communication” for partial fulfillment of his doctoral degree in philosophy. The first CONFER was called K4HS:RP.Confer.

Confer Conferencing System
``Confer'' is the name of a conferencing system written in 1975 by Robert Parnes at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was a predecessor to the Picospan and Caucus conferencing systems. Confer pioneered many of the design features in Backtalk. [Backtalk is a conferencing system developed by Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss.]