Sophisticated weapons are not the only technological firsts of the Persian Gulf War. Here at home, people are using personal computers equipped with modems to communicate with GIs serving in the gulf, get the latest news, share opinions and help mobilize support for or against the war.
For the first time, combat troops are getting electronic letters from home. CompuServe, GEnie and Prodigy are offering one-way electronic mail service so that people in the United States can send messages to troops in the gulf.
GEnie and Prodigy transmit the messages to Saudi Arabia, where they are laser-printed, stuffed into envelopes and taken to military post offices for delivery. CompuServe prints the letters in the United States and delivers them to the Army post office in New York, which airlifts them to the gulf.
The letters often reach Saudi Arabia within hours. A Prodigy subscriber reported that one of her messages was delivered to a serviceman the same day. Most of the others were delivered within two days. One GI received his message 11 hours after it was written, according to GEnie President William Loudin.
GEnie, a General Electric operation, is offering the service at no cost to anyone with a PC and modem, regardless of whether they are a subscriber. CompuServe and Prodigy make it available to members for free.
To send letters via GEnie, set your communications software to 7 data bits, 1 stop bit and even parity. Turn on local echo and have your modem dial (800) 638-8369. As soon as you see CONNECT, type HHH followed by the Return key. When the U prompt appears, type LETTERS (return) and follow the instructions on the screen.
Regardless of which service you use, messages must include the recipient's name, rank, unit or ship and (optional with Prodigy) Social Security number. Anyone interested in taking advantage of GEnie's "Letters from Home" offer should call (800) 638-9636 for recorded instructions. For information about Prodigy, call (800) 776-3449. CompuServe can be reached at (800) 848-8199.
The on-line services also provide up-to-the-minute war news. On-line access to late news may not seem important in this era of 24-hour TV and radio news, but the level of detail and the ability to choose the stories you wish to read can provide you information that's not available on TV. All the services also allow you to print stories and, with the exception of Prodigy, to save the information on your hard disk.
All three services have done an excellent job of keeping subscribers updated. CompuServe posts reports from United Press International and Associated Press. GEnie compiles and edits stories from UPI, Reuters and various foreign news agencies. Prodigy, which also displays maps and other graphics, has its own newsroom, where editors compile information from wires and other sources.
CompuServe has added a "Gulf Crisis Menu" that serves as a gateway to war-related news and features. Prodigy features war-related headlines on its sign-on screen, with in-depth features available from a special topics menu. GEnie members can go to the NewsGrid section for war information.
The services also offer forums, or bulletin boards, where users can exchange information and opinions about current events. Participating in such a forum is like attending a national town meeting. More than 1,000 messages were posted on Prodigy's Closeup bulletin board the first night of the U.S. attack on Iraq.
CompuServe and GEnie offer military forums where armchair generals--many with actual combat experience--debate military strategies. GEnie's religious and ethics forum serves as a debating ground about the war's moral issues.
The Well is a Sausalito, Calif.-based on-line service that appeals to computer professionals and others with an interest in communications. The service now has a Middle East forum that is being used to debate policy issues, inform users about events and provide information about what people are doing to promote or protest the war. For information about the Well, call (415) 332-4335.
The anti-war movement is also using computer communications technology.
PeaceNet, a San Francisco-based service that can usually be accessed with a local phone call, links peace activists throughout the world. PeaceNet provides details on recent and upcoming demonstrations, along with information about other anti-war activities in the United States and abroad.
Subscribers can use the service to send electronic mail to activists in the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union and other countries. The service is being used by professional organizers, church groups and peace groups. For information, call (415) 923-0900.
Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the authors cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, P.O. Box 620477, Woodside, Calif. 94062, or contact the L. Magid account on the MCI electronic mail system.