Summer 1993

Collaborating over the wire

Software / hardware: Modems

Modems have been around for years, but a number of recent developments have made them worth considering for the designer. First, cheap units that allow for information exchange at speeds close to that of a local area network are now widely available. Second, software has been developed that does what the graphical user interface has done for computers: translate barely intelligible modemspeak into user-friendly icons, buttons and menus. Modems can be used for the three primary applications of remote control communication in the graphic design world: file exchange (including mail); database access; and screen sharing.

Files are exchanged to receive copy from a client, to return artwork for correction, and often to get the completed job to a third party for output. Those familiar with networking Macintosh computers will know the simplicity of using aliases – icons pointing to files and folders stored elsewhere – to make connections to files stored on other computers. Apple’s AppleTalk Remote Access (ARA) software now allows this system to operate over a modem line: opening an alias of a file on a remote computer will dial up that computer (which must also be running ARA), set a connection speed and allow the user to work as if the two computers were on a local network.

This development extends the possibilities of file exchange, in that users can work at home or on the road and still have access to files on the network at their base. it also allows documents to be worked on collaboratively between remote sites, in which case the immediacy of being ‘live’ can make work more productive. Users planning to work on the road – which usually means out of hotel rooms – should be aware that there are different standards for telecom connectors abroad. In the future, public telephones will probably be fitted with telecom sockets which will accepts a modem connector – expect a rash of businessmen on the street corners furtively fiddling with their notebook computers.

A bulletin board is a remote dial-up database that allows information and software exchange. Bulletin boards can be used to question a software producer about a problem with a new piece of software (most manuals list electronic or E-mail addresses of the producer); to post a message in a forum to make contact with a locally based consultant; or to mail to a colleague’s electronic mailbox. Alternatively, upload the latest QuarkXPress bug fix from the DTP forum library, pausing to add a few free XTensions to your shopping list. And when you really want to go shopping, visit the electronic mail, where even the minor fetter of trading hours is removed from the drive to ruin your credit rating.

The largest such on-line database for personal computers is CompuServe, which can be accessed most easily via Macintosh and IBM compatible versions of its Information Manager. This software comes with many modern packages, or on joining the service. Bulletin boards have even greater addictive potential than computer games and are a more expensive habit, given on-line charges and telephone bills. They are also password protected – treat your account number and password like a cash card and PIN number: keep them apart.

Screen sharing is the ability to view another user’s screen on the host computer. Its primary application is in allowing a client to see ‘live’ the effect of changes made – to copy, colours, typography, picture cropping – without the job having to be proofed out and then faxed or sent to the client by courier. The most popular software for this is Farrallon's Timbuktu / Remote. The program originated on Macintosh and is now available for IBM compatibles although remote screen sharing can only be effected from a Timbuktu / Remote-equipped Macintosh. Connection – which must be with a computer also running Timbuktu / Remote is made via a dial-up window in the same manner as with ARA; both programs require a script, which identifies the speed and transmission standards of the other user’s modem. Scripts for the most popular modems come with the software for others will usually be available from the hardware manufacturer.

Paralleling these developments in analogue communications is ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network),the future digital standard for telecommunications. ISDN allows file transmission at speeds up to four times greater than conventional modems can achieve, making the transfer of high resolution images commercially feasible. An obvious application for ISDN is in picture libraries, which stock images could be digitised, previewed on-line, an the desired high-resolution original uploaded. The downside of IDSN apart from the hardware’s higher price tag, – is that there are as yet no hardware standards with the result that connection can only be ade between users with the same equipment. The other drawback is the cost of line installation and rental, although this has to be set against the lower on-line charges that result from the faster information transfer.

The developments outlined above are already having a significant t impact on the way that graphic designers work. Being able to overcome geographical distances can change the nature of collaboration between designers, as well as providing the more obvious benefit of being able to work remotely with clients. London-based Assorted Images, well known for their work in the record industry, has such an arrangement with Protocol, a Manchester company with a large base of corporate clients. The collaboration has allowed Protocol to pitch for a difficult range of work and Assorted Images to extend its client pool.

Linking personal computers into a digital circuit, via modern or ISDN, points toward some important developments for graphic design and designers. If more information is more accessible to consumers on-line, then the quality of the interface between database and user becomes paramount. The need for the intelligent application of graphic design skills in the related field of reproduced digital databases such as CD-ROM is already painfully evident. Implications for the design studios can be seen in the effect personal computers have already had – a reduced need for shared resources (printers, faxes, telephones, photocopiers) and more potential independence. But the full realisation of this potential does not depend solely on technological developments.

Those wishing to go remote should start by purchasing a high-speed , Hayes-compatible modem (preferably with fax facility, and by joining a bulletin board service, such as CompuServe, which has a program to simplify navigation. This will give access to technical support, file transfer to other users on the same service, and the opportunity to upload any software required for the modem. A direct line out (like a fax line, one that doesn’t go through a switchboard) is required, although a modem can share a line with a fax or telephone if the appropriate line switching hardware is acquired. And when you are up and running, watch your phone bill and online charges: one is conscious of cost when talking on the telephone, but the only reminder of being on-line with a modem will be a heart-stopping bill at the end of the quarter.

Nico Macdonald, production consultant, London

First published in Eye no. 9 vol. 3, 1993

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.