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Hotline revisited

Benj Edwards | April 1, 2013
For most people, the Internet is synonymous with the World Wide Web, which long ago became the most popular use of the global computer network. But many earlier Internet systems and services still lurk in places where few modern users visit. With a little patience, modern users can revisit them as if they were touring historical communities or isolated villages of the physical world.

For most people, the Internet is synonymous with the World Wide Web, which long ago became the most popular use of the global computer network. But many earlier Internet systems and services still lurk in places where few modern users visit. With a little patience, modern users can revisit them as if they were touring historical communities or isolated villages of the physical world.

One such archaic Internet service is Hotline, a client/server bulletin board system (BBS) that runs over TCP/IP created by Hotline Communications. The software originally launched in 1996 and enjoyed a half decade of intense interest, especially from the Macintosh community (the platform on which it originated), before fans began to look elsewhere.

The Hotline system consists of three parts: servers, clients, and trackers. Anyone with an Internet connection can host a Hotline server for free; it's software that provides for multi-user chat, message boards, and file transfers. Clients are special programs users run to connect to Hotline servers. And trackers are special servers that exist to facilitate connections between clients and servers; they keep an active list of available Hotline servers that wish to be listed on the tracker.

At the height of Hotline's popularity in the late 1990s, users could connect to thousands of Hotline servers that suited every imaginable user interest. Many of them catered to underground tastes, providing pornography, MP3s, and warez (pirated software) with almost free reign, which attracted the lion's share of media attention during Hotline's heyday. But beneath the sensational headlines, strong communities formed through Hotline that led to lifelong friendships and emotional support groups.

As Hotline grew in popularity, the rest of the Internet did too. The Web became a more robust medium that could encompass just about any form of online interaction without the need for application-specific client/server software. Meanwhile, robust P2P file sharing options (like Kazaa and Gnutella) appeared, taking away one of the biggest draws to Hotline. Around that same time, a bitter legal struggle among the company's leadership soured many loyal fans on the software.

Due to diminished interest, most Hotline servers became ghost towns by the early 2000s. Over the next decade the number of servers dwindled down to nearly nothing; today, perhaps less than 20 English language Hotline servers remain worldwide.

And you can connect to most of them. If you know how.

How to connect

Hotline Communications went out of business in 2001, so the last official versions of the Hotline applications do not run well on modern systems. In their place, Hotline fans have created their own Hotline client/server replacements that you can download and use for free.

For Mac OS X users, I recommend Nostalgia as your Hotline client of choice. Unlike many older clients written in the PowerPC era, Nostalgia supports OS X Lion and Intel Macs. It also supports multiple connections in a single application instance and has an intuitive Mac-like interface.

 

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