Way back in 1980 BF (Before Facebook) and a decade before the World Wide Web was created, Usenet came into being. It was set up as a communication channel, a cross between a bulletin board and email, and it flourished. Cut forward 30 years and despite the massive popularity of various entities like AOL, CompuServe, ICQ, IRC, Friendster and yes, even the mighty Facebook, it’s still going strong.
It also remains the place where serious geeks announce important things to the world. Linus released Linux on the newsgroups first, Tim Berners-Lee did the same for the Web and the Mosaic web browser first saw light of day on a posting.
Nowadays Google Groups maintains the archives of past posts for posterity and history, and the newsgroups, the collection of disparate interest groups spanning the gamut from computing to recreation and science, continue to generate around 1,800 messages *every hour*. Business is booming.
For it is indeed a business nowadays. Where before every ISP automatically delivered Usenet account access as part of your plan, now you need to sign up to a premium service if you want to get the fastest most comprehensive newsgroup coverage. Sure you can find free news services, and even search engines, but the fact is it costs real money to maintain terrabytes of data as a newsgroup supplier and serve it up at a respectable speed to your users.
One of the two biggest companies supplying such commercial services are Giganews and Binverse, and since I hadn’t taken a look at Usenet for at least 10 years I willingly accepted the offer of a test account from the latter recently to see if and just how much the whole service has changed.
Well it’s certainly changed all right. We’re now used to the full blown multimedia, graphical glory of the Web, but Usenet has always been the resolutely geeky brother in the basement, refusing to compromise on UI or functionality. You learn it, or take a hike. The new premium services have all but removed that attitude.
The first screen that greets you once you’ve logged into the Binverse online account manager is a super helpful Quick Start page, designed to…well get you started. The modern newsgroup community appears to have changed somewhat from a pure discussion based set of groups, to one which has a healthy appetite for file sharing, demonstrated by the fact that a full 3 or 4 help topics are devoted to searching for and downloading files of all sorts. The legal material includes open source software, public domain material, even scientific research, however a large proportion of files on the alt.* group appear to be copyright stuff. A sign of the times?
The first thing you need to do is download the software which makes the file sharing activity easier than the horrible…repeat horrible…mess it was in the old days. You see Usenet files are typically shredded into lots of little parts as they are distributed amongst the myriad servers in the network, which means that gathering them all together used to be a nightmare for the non-technical. That’s all in the past.
Now you get a nice big friendly search box and a download button and you’re away. Enter your search term and the super slick software hunts for all the bits of the file, downloads and collates them, repairs them if necessary and presents you with a nicely packaged result you can go away and play, view or listen to immediately. Mostly. Sometimes the files are encapsulated in risky wrappers like .exe format (which I would be very wary of) or .iso, which is fine for the latest Linux distro, not so understandable for a multimedia file.
But boy is it fast. Did we mention speed before? Binverse comes with two modes, unlimited low speed downloads at 1 Mbps downloads, and a metered high speed setting which gives blistering speed for a certain amount of data depending on your plan. How fast? Well a 700MB file took me around 8 minutes from go on my not so fast ADSL Internet connection, compared with around 2–3 hours or more you can typically see on a BitTorrent download.