It's More Than a Basic Communications Package

A-Talk for Windows NT
California-based Felsina Software, Inc., has added to its line of communications software with the introduction of A-Talk For Windows version 1.6 including a PowerPC edition. This Windows NT-compatible package contains a host of useful features aimed at the network environment, including network dynamic data exchange (DDE) and Microsoft Mail/Lotus cc:Mail/Notes support, a scripting language, and Microsoft Office compatibility--Office's look and feel, drag and drop, common dialogs, on-line context-sensitive help, and TrueType fonts.

As any good communications program does, A-Talk emulates a variety of terminals, such as Digital Equipment's VT52/100/102/220, Tektronix' 4010/4014 with full graphics emulation, TTY, IBM's ANSI 8-color, Zenith's H19, and even CompuServe's VIDTEX terminals. Protocols supported include Xmodem, 1K-Xmodem, Ymodem Batch, Zmodem, Kermit, WXmodem, Ymodem-g, Kermit Server Mode, and CompuServe B+.
A-Talk also works with over 230 modems and supplies a method for setting up custom modems.

Installation and Start Up
A-Talk uses the standard NT Setup utility and installs easily and quickly. However, when you launch the program, be sure that your modem is already installed and plugged in. I tried launching A-Talk without a modem. However, the program's error trapping failed to notice its absence, so when I entered text into the terminal window or dialed a phone number, the application hung. Felsina reports that this is actually a problem with NT, which you can verify by hanging the Terminal utility with the same trick.

Once the product was installed, however, the look and feel of A-Talk were what I expected from a standard NT application. In addition, A-Talk integrated easily into the new Explorer GUI for Windows NT 3.51 (PowerPC native version). The dialog boxes, menus, buttons, and toolbar are consistent with Microsoft Office, so the commands and functions are easy to locate and use.

In VT100 emulation, you can dial your first number in several ways: via direct modem commands (e.g., atdt x-xxx-xxx-xxxx), through the Dial Phone dialog, or by setting up automated logins using A-Talk's Phone Book or the scripting language. The Options menu contains the communications settings; you can select one of four comm ports (for using multiple modems on a server), set the communications speed (from 110 bps to 115,200 bps), and configure for parity, handshaking, etc. You can store multiple settings files for later use, and a Journal function enables you to automatically create a log with the dates, times, system names, and telephone numbers of your connections to host computers.

The operation of A-Talk is similar to that of the Terminal utility included in the standard release of NT, but A-Talk is somewhat more versatile and powerful.

Text Handling and File Transfers
Text handling in A-Talk has been optimized for use on pay-per-use bulletin board systems (BBSes) and on the Internet. By implementing a variety of file-transfer protocols and several text-capture utilities in the program, A-Talk enables you to perform time-consuming tasks, such as writing and reading email, off-line without wasting connect-time dollars.

If you need to create a log of your work or if you want to take a more interactive approach to your Internet/host services, you can adjust the history (scroll) buffer to increase the number of stored pages in your session, thus providing a real-time record of your actions. You can then print, view, or edit this file at a later time. If you're not concerned with connect time or you have a fast printer, you can do a direct text-to-printer capture and record your session in that manner.

File Opens and Saves work just like they do in any other Windows NT package, allowing you to save selections of text from the terminal window and then either create new files or append data to existing ones.

Script Language
Scripts enable you to automate login routines, transfer files via modem, and transfer information to and from hosts with DDE as if you were typing the commands and responses into your terminal. One of A-Talk's nice features is its integrated script editor, which uses the standard Windows interface.

The A-Talk script language is composed of English-style commands and syntax and includes comment lines. For example:

#Comment: DDE Execute makes an instance of Excel load

AMORTIZE.XLS

LOAD "excel"

INITIATE ch1 "Excel" "Sheet1"

EXECUTE ch1 "\[open(\"library\ amortize.xls\")\]"

TERMINATE ch1

A number of scripts are included with the program to use with generic hosts, for example, for CompuServe and email access you can edit them with the script editor. There is also an Auto Script function that you can use to record your login procedure for later use.

Mail Support
If your computer or network supports Microsoft Mail or Lotus cc:Mail, then so will your installation of A-Talk. Facilities are included to allow you to enter your email login name and password which, if you select Send To--depending on your email system--sends you to the appropriate messaging interface. All standard functions are supported, such as attaching a downloaded file.

In addition to the CompuServe script included with A-Talk, there are also user-created scripts made available to facilitate a kind of "automail" feature when you're on CompuServe. (These scripts can be found at http://www.crl. com/~felsina and at GO ATALK on CompuServe. You can also find program updates, technical support, a library/forum, and evaluation software at these sites.)

However, there is no email viewer built into A-Talk. You have to use the Receive Text function to get your mail as a text file and view it later with an appropriate editor.

Network Support
A-Talk contains network DDE protocol support, which enables you to share information between applications that are running on different computers on a LAN and to download information, such as stock quotes, from other network sites.

You can't use A-Talk to actually execute a program on another machine and display the output on your local workstation. However, this feature enables you to run the same program (for example, Excel) on two or more different computers and display the same information on all the screens, with real-time updates of changes made on the host/server.

This feat is accomplished either by LAN or by modem. If you are using a LAN, a direct connection is necessary. If you are using a modem, you can dial into the appropriate server and supply file access for yourself and others on your LAN (both ends must be running A-Talk, set up by the system administrator). Don't confuse this function with the network file and program sharing supplied by Windows NT's Remote Access Server (RAS).

A-Talk can function as either a server or a client in one or more network DDE conversations, so some security measures are necessary. They are provided by password and group-level access privileges: Request (read: client asks for information from the A-Talk screen), Poke (write: client updates the A-Talk screen), Advise (read: client establishes a hot link with the A-Talk screen), Execute (execute: client invokes an A-Talk command), Start Application (execute: client starts A-Talk if it's not already running). Two different passwords can be specified to define, for example, two different levels of group access.

Some Other Key Features
A-Talk also has some nice features which set it above other, more old-fashioned communications programs. These features include support for multiple modems (on one machine) and multiple users (with multiple running licenses). This ability and the network DDE implementation also make some other handy tools available to you:

  • Network resource sharing: If you have multiple serial ports on your workstation or a multiport card such as a Digiboard--you may need a software patch for older boards, and you should check your Registry setup (contact Felsina for further information)--you can run multiple A-Talk instances. Each one can have a different host connection over a different modem. If you use a server instead, you'll need a third-party modem-pool manager.
  • File sharing: You can use your modem's auto-answer capability to share files. A-Talk includes a script that enables you to set up your own mini-bulletin-board system--use the MINIBBS.ATK script--for uploading and downloading files.
  • Real-time text communications: There is also a Talk mode with a split view in A-Talk which enables real-time text communications. However, it was not completely clean on my test system, and A-Talk crashed several times.

Few Things Missing
Overall, A-Talk is a useful and well-designed piece of communications software. The documentation is excellent, the interface is simple and easy to use, and A-Talk's advanced networking features for information sharing should be quite useful in a business environment.

There were only a few things missing that would make the package more complete and more capable of fitting into a heterogeneous network (e.g., FTP/Telnet tools and functions, SLIP support, and multiple simultaneous sessions/log windows). Felsina reports that these features, and more, will be included in the next release of A-Talk for Windows 95 (due out by press time) which will ship concurrently with a new version of A-Talk for NT. However, speech synthesis will no longer be supported.

A-Talk for Windows NT
Requirements: 16MB RAM, 5MB disk space
Contact: Felsina Software, Inc.
Phone: 213-669-1497
Fax: 213-669-1893
Price: $159.95