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PLATO: The Emergence of On-Line Community

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PLATO: The Emergence of On-Line Community 

Copyright (c) 1994 by David R. Woolley 


     An earlier version of this article appeared in the 
     January 1994 issue of the Matrix News. 
     E-mail:  [email protected] 

The PLATO system was designed for Computer-Based Education.  But
for many people, PLATO's most enduring legacy is the on-line
community spawned by its communication features.

PLATO originated in the early 1960's at the Urbana campus of the
University of Illinois.  Professor Don Bitzer became interested
in using computers for teaching, and with some colleagues founded
the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL).  Bitzer,
an electrical engineer, collaborated with a few other engineers
to design the PLATO hardware.  To write the software, he
collected a staff of creative eccentrics ranging from university
professors to high school students, few of whom had any computer
background.  Together they built a system that was at least a
decade ahead of its time in many ways.

PLATO is a timesharing system.  (It was, in fact, one of the
first timesharing systems to be operated in public.)  Both
courseware authors and their students use the same high-
resolution graphics display terminals, which are connected to a
central mainframe. A special-purpose programming language called
TUTOR is used to write educational software.

Throughout the 1960's, PLATO remained a small system, supporting
only a single classroom of terminals.  About 1972, PLATO began a
transition to a new generation of mainframes that would
eventually support up to one thousand users simultaneously.


PLATO Notes:  Original Development

In the summer of 1973, Paul Tenczar asked me to write a program
that would let PLATO users report system bugs on-line.  Tenczar
was the head of the system software staff, and I was a 17-year
old university student and junior system programmer.  I had been
with CERL for about a year, learning the ropes and doing minor
programming tasks at minimum wage.

We already had a way for users to report bugs, but it was just an
open text file called "notes".  Anyone could edit the file and
add a comment to the end.  After investigating a problem, a
system programmer would insert a response (typically something
like "+++Fixed - RWB").

This was simple enough, but there were problems.  For one thing,
only one person could edit the file at a time.  For another,
there was no security at all.  It was impossible to know for sure
who had written a note.  Most people signed or at least initialed
their comments, but there was nothing to enforce this.  And
occasionally some joker would think it was fun to delete the
entire file.

It was just such an incident that prompted Tenczar to ask me to
develop a replacement.  His idea was a simple refinement of the
method we had been using:  a user would type a problem report
into a special-purpose program, which would automatically tag it
with the date and the user's ID and store it safely in a tamper-
proof file.  The same program would allow convenient viewing of
the stored notes.  Each would appear on a split screen, with the
user's note on the top half and the system staff's response
below.

It occurred to me that half a screen might not be enough space
for some notes.  And that some problems might require back-and-
forth conversation between a user and the system staff.  A limit
of one response per note wouldn't permit much dialog.

I came up with a design that allowed up to 63 responses per note,
and displayed each response by itself on a separate screen.
Responses were chained together in sequence after a note, so that
each note could become the starting point of an ongoing
conversation.  This is what John Quarterman calls a star-
structured conferencing system, and PLATO Notes was apparently
the first of its kind.

My first prototype kept all notes in one file.  Upon entry you
would see an index of the most recent notes, listing each note's
number, date, title, and number of responses.  You could then
select a note to read, or page back through the index to find
older notes.

As I showed this to other members of the system staff, we began
to talk about other ways that this program might be used beyond
just problem reports.  We thought it would be nice to have a
separate area where new users could ask questions and get help
from more experienced users, and another area where the system
staff could announce new PLATO features.  So I added a top-level
menu to let people choose among three notesfiles:  System
Announcements, Help Notes, and General Notes.

Notes was released on August 7, 1973.  It was named after the
text file it replaced, so that people accustomed to typing
"notes" would be taken to the right place.

Every note or response appeared on its own screen.  Since PLATO
was designed for education, its architecture was biased toward
carefully crafted full-screen displays.  It was easy to place
text or graphics at specific locations on the screen, but nearly
impossible to scroll text.  For Notes, this was both an advantage
and a drawback.  One nice feature was that the note title, date,
time, and author's name always appeared in the same place. After
using Notes for a while, your eye "knew" exactly where to look
for these things.

On the down side, each posting was limited to 20 lines of text so
as to fit on one screen.  The only way to overcome this was to
write a series of responses, but that allowed other responders to
slip in and disrupt the flow.  Still, the 20-line limit had the
virtue of encouraging brevity.

Most options for reading notes required only a single keypress.
While reading a response, for example, one keypress could perform
any of these functions (among others):

	* proceed to the next response
	* go back to the previous response
	* go back to the base note
	* skip to the next base note
	* begin writing a new response

There were too many options to list them all on every screen.
Most prompts were quite minimal, but a Help key was universally
available.  It would display a complete list of the options
available at any point.

Notes quickly became an indispensable part of the landscape.  It
appeared just as PLATO was beginning a phenomenal growth spurt
made possible by the new mainframe. Although PLATO had been
evolving for over a decade by this time, to the new flood of
users coming on-line, PLATO without Notes was hard to imagine.


The PLATO Architecture

PLATO is designed to be extremely responsive to keys.  Every
keypress is processed individually by the central mainframe, but
the response (or "echo") is usually so fast as to appear
instantaneous.  An echo time of 100 milliseconds is excellent;
anything over 250 is considered unacceptable.

This is vital, especially because displays do not appear
instantaneously.  Originally, all PLATO terminals communicated at
1200 bps.  At that speed, a long posting in Notes might take up
to 10 seconds to fill the screen.  But a single keypress aborts
the display and moves on if the first line or two of a note
doesn't spark your interest.

The ability to abort pending display output is crucial.  Even now
that faster connections are possible, connecting through a
network that does not permit aborting output makes PLATO feel
maddeningly sluggish.


Talkomatic and "Term-Talk"

Any competent PLATO programmer can quickly hack together a simple
chat program that lets two users exchange typed one-line
messages.  PLATO's architecture makes this trivial.  A few such
programs existed on PLATO before 1973, but they did not get much
use, probably because the user community was quite small and most
terminals were still in a single building.

In the fall of 1973, Doug Brown designed a program that let
several users chat as a group.  He wrote a simple prototype to
demonstrate the concept and called it Talkomatic.

The real magic of Talkomatic was that it transmitted characters
instantly as they were typed, instead of waiting for a complete
line of text.  The screen was divided into several horizontal
windows, with one participant in each.  This let all the
participants type at once without their messages becoming a
confusing jumble.  Seeing messages appear literally as they were
typed made the conversation feel much more alive than in line-by-
line chat programs.

I worked with Doug to expand Talkomatic to support multiple
channels and add other features.  Each channel supported up to
five active participants and any number of monitors, who could
watch but couldn't type anything.  (One drawback to the
Talkomatic approach is that the size of the screen limits the
number of participants in a channel.)

Empty channels were open to anyone, but any active participant in
a channel could choose to "protect" it.  This prevented anyone
from monitoring the channel, and the participants could then
decide who else to admit.

Talkomatic was an instant hit.  Soon it was logging over 40 hours
of use per day.  It was not officially part of the PLATO system
software, and in fact it was used mostly for what administrators
would consider frivolous purposes.  There was no way to contact a
specific person to let them know you wanted to talk, so it was
more like a virtual water cooler than a telephone substitute.
People would hang out in a channel and chat or flirt with whoever
dropped by.

But Talkomatic was so appealing that it inspired the system staff
to create an officially supported chat feature.  It became known
as "term-talk" because it could be accessed from anywhere on
PLATO by pressing the TERM key and typing "talk".   The TERM key
was originally meant to provide hypertext-like branching to term
definitions.  In practice, it was rarely used for terms, but it
was handy for instant access to features like "talk".

A "term-talk" conversation was limited to two people, but had its
own advantages:  you could page a specific person, and you could
use it without exiting from whatever else you are doing.  A
person receiving a page would see a flashing message at the
bottom of the screen identifying the pager, and could use "term-
talk" to accept.  The bottom two lines of the screen then became
a miniature Talkomatic.  An unwanted page could be rejected with
"term-busy", or simply ignored until the pager gave up.

A feature was later added to "term-talk" that allowed the
participants to switch to "monitor" mode, in which one person
could actually view the other's screen.  The person being
monitored was free to move about the system normally, editing
files, running programs, etc.  This was extremely useful for
remote consulting:  someone who needed help could literally show
an on-line consultant what they were trying to do while
maintaining a conversation at the bottom of the screen.  To
ensure privacy, monitor mode could be initiated only by the
person whose screen was to be monitored.


Personal Notes

With Notes and "term-talk" in place, it began to seem natural to
use PLATO as a means of communication.  What it obviously lacked
was a way to send private mail.  Kim Mast tackled the job, and in
August of 1974, Personal Notes was released.

Personal Notes was similar to Notes in many ways:  each note
appeared on a separate screen, and options such as moving to the
next or previous note, deleting a note, or responding, were
available as single key presses.  There was no index of notes,
however.  Entering Personal Notes took you immediately to the
first note you had not yet read.  From there, you could move
forward or backward through your notes.

Kim and I worked together to integrate all of PLATO's
communication features into a seamless package.  For example,
while viewing a note, you could:

	* copy it to a notesfile
	* forward it to someone as a personal note
	* send a personal note to the author
	* initiate a "term-talk" with the author

All of these options were available in both Notes and Personal
Notes, and the same keys were used in both.


Notes Categories

The success of Notes led to overcrowding.  There were only two
notesfiles which users could write in, and they were used for
practically everything.  It became a chore to wade through the
volume of notes written every day, and people began to ask for a
way to filter out notes they weren't interested in.

My solution was this:  the system staff would define a list of
categories, such as "bug reports", "suggestions", "events",
"jokes", etc.  Anyone writing a note would assign it to one of
these categories.  Users could select which categories they
wanted to see when reading notes, and their selections would be
stored permanently as part of their user records.

In early 1975 I created a version of Notes that supported
categories, and released it to a limited group of users for
testing and comments.

Suggestions from users were vital to PLATO's evolution, and Notes
was no exception.  Since I had written Notes originally, it was
my turf, and I made most of the decisions about what features
were implemented.  But I had the benefit of lots of ideas from
users as well as from the rest of the system staff. Often a
suggestion would strike me immediately as great idea, and if it
was not too difficult, it might be implemented and released
within a day or two.  Not all ideas were implemented, by any
means.  But sometimes I would argue against a proposed change,
only to be convinced of its merit by cogent arguments or by the
sheer number of people voicing support for it.  Thus, Notes was
shaped largely by a consensus of the entire PLATO community.

The notes categories concept was well received at first, but it
got bogged down in controversy over features and never made it to
general release.  A particularly contentious issue was how notes
should be presented.  One faction wanted to see all notes in
chronological order, with the categories serving only as a filter
to skip unwanted notes.  Others wanted categories to serve an
organizing function, as well:  all the notes from one category
would be shown, then all the notes from the next category, and so
on.

Strange as it seems now, I held out against organizing notes by
category.  I was used to reading notes about many different
subjects all jumbled together, and just wanted to be able to see
all the new notes listed together in one place.  But support for
more organization grew, and I began to see that I was in a losing
battle.

In the meantime, though, other problems became apparent. First, I
realized that as the volume of notes increased, there would be
technical problems with keeping everything in one large file.
Second, it wasn't clear how many categories would be needed.  I
had designed in a limit of 60, which seemed like a vast increase
over the 3 we had been living with.  But if we ever needed more
it would be very difficult to increase the limit.  After months
of wrangling, my concept of notes categories seemed fatally
flawed. I really didn't know where to go with it.

About this time, a few people began to ask for private
notesfiles.  We had all seen how useful Notes was for discussing
development of PLATO itself.  Couldn't the concept be extended to
allow any small group of people working on a project to
communicate among themselves?  In fact, a group in Chicago that
was using PLATO to develop pharmaceutical courseware wrote a
clone of Notes for their own use.

Suddenly the future clicked into focus.  I abandoned the
categories project and began to implement Group Notes.


Group Notes

Group Notes was a generalization of the original Notes. Now there
could be an unlimited number of notesfiles, and users would be
able to create private notesfiles for use by their own work
groups.  Group notesfiles would serve the same purposes for which
notes categories were designed with none of the inherent
problems.  The 60-category limit vanished.  Distributing notes
across many files solved the technical problems of dealing with
large volumes of information. The burden of managing notesfiles
would be distributed, as well;  no longer would the system staff
have to oversee everything.  And, yes, notes would be organized
by subject, as so many people had insisted.  Group Notes is one
of those ideas that, with hindsight, seems glaringly obvious.

Group Notes was released in January, 1976, and thereafter use of
Notes skyrocketed.  Soon there were public notesfiles for
subjects like books, movies, religion, music, and science
fiction, as well as many private notesfiles for work groups.

The internal structure of notesfiles still had not changed much
since 1973, and it was beginning to show its weaknesses.  In
particular, it made it difficult to implement a sorely needed
option to read all responses written since a certain date and
time. So I rewrote Notes almost from scratch, and converted all
notesfiles to a new internal structure in July, 1976.  Although
it has been modified many times since, this version forms the
core of the Notes software still in use today.


Access Lists

Access lists are the key to Group Notes.  A person who creates a
notesfile is automatically registered as a "director" of the
file.  A director can edit the access list to specify who else
can access the notesfile and with what privileges. Access can be
specified for individual user IDs or for entire work groups, and
any level of access can be granted to the general public (anyone
not specifically listed).

There are six access levels:

	* Director
	* Read/write
	* Read/respond
	* Read-only
	* Write-only
	* No access

Read/write is the most common type of access.  It permits both
writing new notes and responding to existing notes.

Read/respond permits responding, but not writing new notes.

Write-only access permits a user to write new notes, but not read
or respond.  It is sometimes used as a blanket access level for
the public, providing a way for someone to request access to a
private notesfile.  It is also useful for collecting comments
from the public about some issue, while maintaining the privacy
of each person's remarks.

Generally, anyone who can read a notesfile can also view its
access list, although the director can choose to prohibit this.


Reading By Date

Notes offers a way to read all notes and responses written since
a certain date and time. This feature is designed so that you can
sequence through all new postings using a single key. For every
note with new responses, the base note is displayed first to
provide context. A keypress then skips to the first new response.
Pressing the same key repeatedly sequences through the rest of
the response chain, and then skips to the next note with new
responses.

In 1978, John Matheny implemented the Notes Sequencer, a great
boon to habitual notes readers.  The Sequencer lets you create a
personal list of the notesfiles you read regularly, and
automatically keeps track of the last time you read each one.
Using the Sequencer, you can quickly scan all the notesfiles in
your list for new postings with a minimum of key presses.


Deleting Notes

Someone who has second thoughts after posting a note or response
can delete it or edit it, as long as no responses have been added
after it.  This restriction is meant to avoid garbling the thread
of a conversation.  Deleting a response from the middle of a
chain can make the following responses seem nonsensical.  But an
author who desperately wants to delete a posting anyway can
appeal to the notesfile director, who can delete any posting
without restriction.

A director can delete a response from the middle of a chain
without disturbing subsequent responses.  However, if a director
deletes a base note, all responses disappear with it.  Directors
frequently use this power to clean out a notesfile, removing old
notes that are no longer of interest.


Anonymity

The idea of anonymity in Notes was controversial when first
proposed, but the issue was resolved by leaving it to the
discretion of each notesfile director.  If a director chooses to
allow anonymity, then anyone posting a note or response in that
notesfile is given the option of making it anonymous.

An anonymous note is truly anonymous.  Not even the notesfile
director nor the system staff can determine who posted it,
because the user ID is not saved anywhere.  The word "anonymous"
appears in the header where the user ID would normally be.

PLATO Notes avoids some of the problems that have plagued
experiments with anonymity in other conferencing systems.  It is
not possible to masquerade as someone else, because Notes does
not allow the use of pseudonyms.  The only identification that
can appear in the header is the author's actual user ID or the
word "anonymous".  The fact that anonymity is the choice of each
user is important, too.  Someone could post an anonymous note
saying "I'm David Woolley and I kick my dog every morning," but
everyone reading it knows that the author specifically chose to
make this note anonymous, so the identity claimed in the text is
not to be taken seriously.

Most notesfile directors do not permit anonymity, but it is very
useful in some situations.  Anonymity can be abused, but a
notesfile director can delete offensive postings.  The version of
Notes now used on NovaNET even allows a director to review
anonymous postings before they become publicly visible.


Director Messages

Another privilege that notesfile directors have is to flag their
postings with a "director message", a single line of text which
appears above the standard header.  Directors often use the
message to flag official postings, such as statements about
policy or notices that an inappropriate note was deleted.  The
director can specify what the message should say, but a single
message has to suffice for all situations since there is only one
director message per notesfile.  Typical messages range from the
serious ("OFFICIAL MESSAGE") to the humorous ("Not Operating With
A Full Deck").

A director can toggle the message on or off for any posting, even
those written by other people.  For example, in a notesfile used
to report problems, a director might set the message to "FIXED"
and use it to flag problems that have been resolved.


"Term-Comments"

One of the ways that Notes supports PLATO's educational purposes
is through a feature called "term-comments".  While running a
program, a user can press TERM and type "comments", and then type
a note to the program author.  Such comments are collected in a
notesfile that the author has associated with the program.  Each
note is tagged with a header indicating the exact point in the
program where the comment was made, so if a note reports that
"entorpy is misspelled on this page", the author knows exactly
where to look for the error.


Linked Notes

Around 1975, Control Data Corporation set up its own PLATO system
in Minneapolis and began turning PLATO into a product.  By 1985,
over 100 PLATO systems were operating at sites around the world,
about 60% of them running full-time.  Some of them were linked
together with dedicated lines so that files and notes could be
exchanged easily.  Both Group Notes and Personal Notes were
modified to support intersystem links in 1978.

A notesfile can be linked between any number of systems.  From a
user's viewpoint, a linked notesfile is exactly like any other,
except that the notice "Linked Notesfile" appears on the index
display, and in the headers of some postings a system identifier
appears after the author's user ID.

When a note or response is posted in a linked notesfile, it
appears immediately in the local copy of the file, and is put in
a queue to be broadcast to all systems which share that
notesfile.  The Notes software does its best to keep the file
identical on all systems, although it can't guarantee that
responses in a given chain appear in exactly the same order
everywhere.  There can be a delay of several minutes to an hour
before a response is posted on linked systems (or even longer if
one of the systems is down for an extended period).


Star Structured vs. Tree Structured Conferencing

Although Notes has evolved in many ways over the years, one thing
that has never changed is the star structure of its notesfiles.
One or two PLATO users wrote experimental versions of Notes using
tree-structured (or "threaded") notesfiles, but most people who
tried them found them hard to use and the idea did not catch on.

My own feeling is that a star structure is much more conducive to
ongoing discussion.  Human conversation is inherently
disorganized, and a tree structure attempts to impose too much
discipline.  Conversations often tend to fragment and dissipate
quickly in a tree.  Some people seem at home with a tree
structure, but in my experience more people find it rather
foreign and overly complex.

With a star structure, each base note and its chain of responses
resembles a conversation that we might have with a group of
people gathered around a table.  The conversation might drift or
develop multiple threads, but if that becomes a problem, it is
easily dealt with by simply starting new base notes to carry on
divergent threads.  A notesfile director can suggest this, but
often the participants do it themselves.


Multiplayer Games

There are myriad games on PLATO.  Some are for single players,
but the most popular ones involve two or more players at separate
terminals.

Games were certainly not a priority when PLATO was designed, but
it turns out that its architecture supports multiplayer games
superbly.  The crucial features are:

	* shared memory areas
	* standardized terminal
	* high resolution graphics display
	* central computer processing of every key
	* fast key response
	* ability to abort display output

Rick Blomme wrote PLATO's first two-player game in the late
1960's, a simple version of MIT's Spacewar.  Possibly the most
popular game in PLATO history is Avatar, one of several
dungeons'n'dragons games.  Empire, a multiplayer game based on
Star Trek, is another favorite.  Other multiplayer games range
from Airfight (a precursor to Microsoft Flight Simulator), to
Wordwar (a spelling and speed-typing game) and card games such as
contract bridge.

Most games were written by unpaid programmers.  The only reward
they could hope for was the prestige of having written a popular
game.  Some game authors now receive royalties, but it amounts to
only a few cents per hour of use, often split between a number of
co-authors.  A number of games that originated on PLATO have been
recreated commercially as video arcade or personal computer
games.


The On-Line Community

The sense of an on-line community began to emerge on PLATO in
1973-74, as Notes, Talkomatic, "term-talk", and Personal Notes
were introduced in quick succession.  People met and got
acquainted in Talkomatic, and carried on romances via "term-talk"
and Personal Notes. The release of Group Notes in 1976 gave the
community fertile new ground for growth, but by that time it was
already well established.  The community had been building its
own additions to the software infrastructure in the form of
multiplayer games and alternative on-line communications.  One
such program was Pad, an on-line bulletin board where people
could post graffiti or random musings.  Another was Newsreport, a
lighthearted on-line newspaper published periodically by Bruce
Parello, aka The Red Sweater.

With the abundance of special interest notesfiles made possible
by Group Notes, many on-line personalities developed.  One of the
best known was Dr. Graper (actually a student at the University
of Delaware named David J. Graper).  He began posting wild,
surrealistic stories in a public notesfile where they were not
exactly appropriate, but they were so hilariously entertaining
that people clamored for more, and eventually someone created a
notesfile called Grapenotes as a platform for his ravings.

The early PLATO community was concentrated in Illinois and
consisted mostly of people in academia:  educators turned
instructional designers, and students hired as programmers.
Later it grew to include more people from business, government,
and the military as Control Data marketed PLATO as a general-
purpose tool for training.  It also grew geographically,
spreading across the United States and around the world.  The
building that housed CERL became something of a Mecca to the far-
flung PLATO community.  Many people traveled to Urbana to see the
lab and meet those of us who worked there.  It was odd to meet
people face to face after getting to know them on-line.  My
images of people based on their postings in Notes sometimes
turned out to diverge wildly from reality.

The growing PLATO community also developed all of the problems
that are now well known in on-line communities, such as flaming,
men impersonating women as a prank, etc.  Free speech was the
general rule, but there were a few much-discussed incidents in
which political postings in notesfiles were officially quashed
for fear of jeopardizing PLATO's funding.  Nobody on PLATO had
ever experienced an on-line community before, so there was a lot
of fumbling in the dark as social norms were established.

Over the years, PLATO has affected many lives in profound ways.
So many real-life marriages have resulted from on-line encounters
that such stories no longer seem remarkable.


Usage Statistics

The CERL PLATO system logged 10 million hours of use between
September, 1978 and May, 1985 (a period for which the most
complete statistics are available).

About 3.35 million of those hours (over one third) were spent in
Notes.  About 3.3 million messages were posted. By the end of
this period there were about 2000 notesfiles.

No figures are available for time spent in Personal Notes, "term-
talk", or Talkomatic.  But some numbers are known for games.
Avatar alone accounted for about 600,000 hours, and Empire
claimed another 300,000 or so.  All told, games probably
accounted for about 20% of PLATO usage during this period.

Few statistics are available for the many Control Data systems,
but none were as large as the CERL system.  An educated guess is
that CERL accounted for about 25% of all PLATO usage worldwide.

The numbers are incomplete, but it is probable that people
interacting with other people represented at least half of all
PLATO usage.  This is remarkable considering that the designers
of PLATO never envisioned that communication between people would
play more than an incidental role.


The PLATO Diaspora

Control Data ran into serious trouble in the late 1980's, and
sold or closed many of its businesses.  At the same time,
microcomputers were becoming a more cost-effective platform for
education than PLATO with its mainframe-based architecture, and
many of the Control Data systems were shut down.

Today the PLATO name is owned by Minneapolis-based TRO, Inc., but TRO
no longer runs any mainframe PLATO systems.  Control Data's PLATO has
been renamed CYBIS.  Control Data Systems supports about a dozen CYBIS
systems at university and government sites. There might still be some
former Control Data customers running PLATO on their own.

IMSATT Corporation, a Control Data spin-off based in Falls Church,
Virginia, has recently begun offering a CYBIS-based service called
Homer.  It is targeted at home users and is available over the
Internet.

At the University of Illinois, where it all began, PLATO has been
renamed NovaNET.  The U of I system racks up about 1.5 million
hours of use per year, and is now operated by a private company,
University Communications, Inc., of Tucson, Arizona.

The CYBIS systems still use the original PLATO Notes software.
On NovaNET, a team headed by Dale Sinder rewrote Notes in 1991.
Among the new features are multi-page notes and better search
capabilities.  But all of the key features of PLATO Notes,
including the star structure of its notesfiles, have been kept.

Personal Notes has also been replaced on NovaNET.  The new
version uses a star structure to provide a level of organization
that was never possible before.  Each user's mailbox now looks
and works much like a group notesfile, with the user as its
director and write-only access for everyone else.  The new
Personal Notes also sends and receives Internet e-mail.


Lotus Notes and Other PLATO Progeny

As an educational/multimedia system, PLATO has many offspring.
Its most successful direct descendant is TenCORE, a DOS-based
authoring system.  Macromedia's Authorware, an authoring system
for the Macintosh and Windows, is also firmly rooted in PLATO.

As a communication system, PLATO has numerous other descendants.
Many people who experienced the on-line PLATO community were
inspired to replicate it on other platforms.

Lotus Notes is the best-known example.  It was developed by Ray
Ozzie, Tim Halvorsen, and Len Kawell, all of whom had worked at
CERL in the late 1970's.  It would be an exaggeration to call
Lotus Notes a clone of PLATO Notes, because Ozzie expanded the
concept to include powerful capabilities that were never
contemplated for PLATO.  But many of its basic features were
modeled after PLATO Notes.

Here are a few other descendants of PLATO Notes:

* DEC Notes (previously called VAX Notes), a product of
Digital Equipment Corporation originally written by Len
Kawell.  It is widely used on DEC's EASYnet and on Starlink.

* NetNotes, a client-server conferencing system designed as an
improvement on DEC Notes.  It is a product of OS TECHnologies
Corp. of Townsend, Massachusetts.

* Notesfiles, a public domain UNIX version of Notes written by
Ray Essick and Rob Kolstad.  In the early 1980's it contributed
significantly to the rise of USENET.  Though eventually eclipsed
by the News software, it is still used at many sites worldwide
both for local conferencing and as a news reader.  A modified
version is used on PeaceNet, EcoNet, and most of the other member
networks of the Association for Progressive Communication.
Notesfiles can be obtained on the Internet at
hilltop.bsdi.com:/pub/notesfiles.Z.

* News readers tin and tass.  The tass reader, written by Rich
Skrenta, was modeled after the Notesfiles software mentioned
above.  Iain Lea's tin then evolved from tass.

* COCONET's "Discussion" feature.  COCONET is a UNIX-based
software platform for running interactive multimedia on-line
services, written by Brian Dear and largely modeled after
PLATO.  It is a product of Coconut Computing, Inc., of San
Diego.

* Notefile, a Notes clone written in ALGOL for the Burroughs
B6700 by John Eisenberg at the University of Delaware.

* FORA, a multi-user chat and messaging system for DOS
written by Jim Bowery.

* The Connection, a XENIX-based BBS program written by Greg
Corson.

* READ, a conferencing system based on the PDP-10 written by Rich
Braun.

Computer conferencing is just now hitting the big time, not only
with Lotus Notes, but with large consumer-oriented services like
America Online and Prodigy, and more sure to follow.

Among the on-line services I have seen, the WELL has best
succeeded in building a community comparable to PLATO's.
Ironically, the WELL has its roots with EIES and Confer;  as far
as I know, its founders were unaware of PLATO.

But the WELL is an intentional community.  PLATO was an
accidental one which emerged spontaneously in an environment that
had been created for other purposes.  In 1970 few suspected that
a human community could grow and thrive within the electronic
circuitry of a computer.  PLATO demonstrated that this is not
only possible, but inevitable.



Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Al Avner, a veritable fount of statistics.
Additional information was provided by Rick Blomme, Jim Bowery,
Rich Braun, Greg Corson, Brian Dear, Sherwin Gooch, Mark Goodrich,
Rob Kolstad, Dave LePage, Kim Mast, John Matheny, Dale Sinder, Joe
Sneddon, Dan Tripp, and John S. Quarterman's book, The Matrix.
Thanks also to John Quarterman for encouraging me to write this
article.