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x'0B' (11). MNET:CAUCUS, Confer at the Merit Network

posted May 26, 2014, 8:02 PM by Jeff Ogden

x'0A' (10). Confer 40th Reunion - 2015

posted Mar 11, 2014, 5:59 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Mar 13, 2014, 7:04 AM ]

There is talk about holding a "Confer 40th reunion" in 2015 in Ann Arbor. The conversation started with a status post from Maya Bernstein and is continuing in a group with the name "Confer 40th Reunion - 2015", both on Facebook.

Maya's original status post:  https://www.facebook.com/maya.bernstein/posts/10152194144934088 (not everyone will have access to this post).

The Confer 40th reunion group:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/262713337242874/  (requires you sign in to Facebook and join the group).

snapshot from a Facebook status
                        . . .

9. CONFER is also the Ferrari of computer conferencing (Byte Magazine 1985)

posted Jun 12, 2013, 9:15 AM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 7, 2014, 9:44 AM ]

A page from the article "An Overview of Conferencing Systems" by Brock N. Meeks in Byte Magazine, Volume 10, Number 13, December 1985, page 184:

Byte Magazine page 184

8. A History of Online Information Services: 1963 - 1976

posted Jun 12, 2013, 5:59 AM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 7, 2014, 9:47 AM ]

I was looking for information on AUTONOTE based on a mention in

A History of Online Information Services: 1963 - 1976

Charles Percy Bourne, Trudi Bellardo Hahn
The MIT Press

Chapter 3: Further Experimentation and Prototypes in Universities, Mid-1960s to Early 1970s page 92:

Chapter 3, page 92

and got this reply:

On Jun 12, 2013, at 12:49 AM, Mike Alexander wrote:

Yes, I remember it.  Karl Zinn's papers at the Bentley contain "Autonote User's Manual, July 20, 1971" in box 20.

I also found this in the User:Planning archives.  It only mentions Autonote in passing, but is interesting for other reasons:

Jan05/86 22:42
75:10) Karl Zinn: Confer has been used in dozens of different
classes in the last ten years.  The important difference this fall,
as pointed out by Maya (#9), was initiative of students along with
commitment of resources for undergraduate classes.
   Finally CRLT can recommend and support practical and widespread
use of this tool in which we have made (relatively) major
investments over the last 15 years.
- - - - -
Jan06/86 11:52
75:11) Christine Wendt: Fifteen?  But K4QQ:RP.CONFER wasn't even
born until   1975!
- - - - -
Jan18/86 15:08
75:12) Karl Zinn: Chris, my response to #11 is somewhat delayed by
long hours helping new classes get started with Confer this term.
(Anyone else volunteer to help out?)
   My interest in conferencing was ignited in '64 by a visit to Doug
Engelbart at SRI.  Anyone remember the big screen (video
projection) demo he did at FJCC in San Francisco a few years later?
   The "major investment" by CRLT began about '71 with Project
Extend's use of various facilities on MTS for communications among
community college users of MTS.  I'd have to check my notes to name
all the various things we tried.  (Anyone k now about Autonote?)
Mostly we adopted conventions for using shared files (relatively
cheap and easy) for mail and joint authoring.  I recall one of the
early proposals for Merit (back when it was MERIT, and really a
"research information triad") was done through such "conferencing"
   I didn't have time to find my notes on the history of MERIT,
MICIS, IUCIUC and the CRLT proposal to the state ('64, I think)
when Research News did an issue on Merit, but I know they are still
   Bob's contribution in 74-75 (and continuing through the present!)
was to make something reliable, economical, functional, easy-to-use
and responsive to the evolving needs and interests of users!  Bob
has given us "the Ferrari of computer conferencing." (Byte, Dec 85,

Finding that Byte article might be interesting.


[Byte Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 13, December 1985 is available at https://archive.org/stream/byte-magazine-1985-12/1985_12_BYTE_10-13_Computer_Conferencing#page/n140/mode/1up. -Jeff]

7. Photos

posted Dec 10, 2010, 9:30 AM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated May 11, 2014, 11:32 AM ]

Click on photos to enlarge.

Two photos from the 2004 reception for Robert Bartels.
Bob Parnes is on the left, Kitty Bridges is on the right, but who is the follow in the middle?

Meet:Students t-shirt (front and back):

Sunday in the Park with Parnes

First annual USER:OPENFORUM and USER:FORUM picnic at Delhi Park, Sunday, 13 July 1986.
This is a color version provided by John Dorsey (13th from the left in the front row) of a B&W photo that appeared on page 3 of the U-M Computing News, University of Michigan Computing Center, v.1 #2, 11 August 1986
Group photo from Confer Picnic July 1986
L to R, front row: Hershey, Betsy and Trevor Sell, Rachelle Lesko, John and Charlie Gray, Laurie Burns and Carol Gray, Jon Sell, Roy Leban, Ada Finifter, Richard Wiggins, John Dorsey, Maya Bernstein, Spot, Shifrah Nenner, Jeff Ogden, Beaumont, Gregory Rittinger.
Middle row: Kathy Aupperle, Howard Chu, Pat McGregor, Susan Harris, Laura Bollettino, Judy Shapiro, Debbie Fisch, Lee Redding, Cynthia Abel, Cindy Valerio, Vicki Neff and Molly, Tom Valerio, Paul Scott.
Top row: Al Anderson, Harry Clark, Charles Roth, Bob Parnes, Dennis Holt, Suzanne Schluederberg, Christine Wendt, Ed Vielmetti, Eric Sobocinski, Bob Rasmussen.

Two more Confer t-shirts, softball and basketball this time:

Front, the back is blank:
Photo of the front of a CONFER % 5 t-shirt

Photo of the front of a Confer % 64 t-shirt

Photo of the back of a Confer % 64 t-shirt

6. Existing mentions on Wikipedia

posted Nov 20, 2010, 7:07 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Nov 29, 2010, 6:51 AM ]

1995: WebTeach, a web-based asynchronous communication system using chronological threads in the 'Confer' style originally developed in the mid 70s by Robert Parnes, was first used in 1995 in the Professional Development Centre at UNSW.
The Michigan Terminal System (MTS), a computer time-sharing operating system developed at the University of Michigan, included a program called CONFER developed by Robert Parnes that gave it the capabilities of computer conferencing.[82]
In the early days collaboration between the MTS sites was accomplished through a combination of face-to-face site visits, phone calls, the exchange of documents and magnetic tapes by snail mail, and informal get-togethers at SHARE or other meetings. Later, e-mail, computer conferencing using Confer and Forum, network file transfer, and e-mail attachments supplemented and eventually largely replaced the earlier methods.

Programs developed for MTS
: Confer II, one of the first computer conferencing systems. Confer was developed by Robert Parnes starting in 1975 while he was a graduate student and with support from the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT).[41][42]
  • MTS system architecture 82 KB (12,613 words) - 14:17, 19 November 2010
    At least three different implementations of e-mail were available under MTS at different times:
    • *MAIL from NUMAC, but not available at all MTS sites;
    • CONFER, the computer conferencing system written by Robert Parnes at UM; and
    • $MESSAGESYSTEM from the University of Michigan Computing Center.[3][27]
    CONFER and *MAIL only sent and received mail to and from "local" users.

5. Where was CONFER installed?

posted Nov 19, 2010, 9:31 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Mar 3, 2014, 8:28 PM ]

In addition to the information that follows, see the following discussion items elsewhere in the MTS Archive:

From: "Bob Parnes"
Date: November 17, 2010 1:59:31 PM EST
To: "'Jeff Ogden'"
Subject: RE: can you help me identify someone in a photo?

Hi Jeff,
     . . .
     As to locations of Confer-MTS, my recollection is that they had been installed at UM, UMB, WSU, Alberta, and HP. I submitted a proposal to have it installed at NASA (somewhere in California  but I can’t remember where now), but it didn’t get funded. A Unix version of Confer was created and installed at WMU, and that got back ported to Michigan at some point. The Unix version was also used by the Research Library Group for a while. I don’t have any recollection of MSU having licensed MTS or Confer. I suspect Rich could provide a definitive answer to that one.
Best regards,

From: Jeff Ogden
Sent: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 4:53 PM
To: bob
Subject: Re: can you help me identify someone in a photo?
 . . .
Rich remembers MTS being installed at MSU to run Confer at Paul Hunt's instigation), Paul was the MSU CIO at the time.  Two other MSU staff members don't remember MTS being installed, but they are bowing to Rich's memory as am I.
I'm pretty sure that MTS was installed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.  I thought it was to run Confer.  But perhaps it was just a trial setup.  I'll dig around a bit more to see what is written down and what others remember.

On Jan 29, 2012, at 9:27 PM, Bob Parnes wrote:
Hi Zoe and Neda! There was definitely a version of Confer that was
created for the VAX environment at Western Michigan University. I
remember driving back and forth to Kalamazoo many times to discuss
and guide the creation of Confer V there. I am pretty sure Confer V
was created before Confer U. Ron Schubot did a lot of the prodding
and tech support to make it happen at WMU, and he did have the
support of his computer center director.
Norm Grant at WMU wrote all the Confer V code in an amazingly short
time, as I recall.

 . . .

On Jan 29, 2012, at 10:07 PM, Bob Parnes wrote:

  The "V" in Confer V was not a numeric indicator as was the II in
Confer II. Rather it was used to indicate the VAX [VMS] version, just like
the "U" was used to indicate the UNIX version. Had I known there
would be other Operating System versions back in 1975 when I started
work on Confer, I might have called the second version (it got named
just a few months after I created the original draft I called Confer)
Confer M rather than Confer II.

  But calling it II made sense at the time. The II designation happened
after I figured out how to add responses to items. I wanted to signal
to some faculty who had seen the original primitive "first draft"
that I now had something more substantial to look at.
Thanks for all your hard work in preserving our little corner of

  Oh, by the way, there never was a Confer III or Confer IV. I just
kept updating Confer II and providing a last change date for it
instead of releasing new roman numeral versions.


From: Jeff Ogden
Sent: Monday, January 30, 2012 3:51 PM
To: Bob Parnes
Cc: 'Zoe Gurevich'; 'Neda Gholizadeh'
Subject: Re: news from the MTS archiving / preservation / resurrection project
Thanks Bob.
. . .
And just let me verify a few things:
  • The work done at WMU resulted in Confer V for VMS?
  • The work on Confer U was done by ITD staff at UM?
  • You did all of the work on Confer II and provided general guidance on Confer U and Confer V?
  • Should we mention anyone in particular by name in the historical accounts? Right now we mention you, Karl, and Merrill Flood.

From: "Bob Parnes" <bob@bparnes.com>
Subject: RE: news from the MTS archiving / preservation / resurrection project
Date: January 30, 2012 4:44:48 PM EST
To: "'Jeff Ogden'" <jeff.ogden@umich.edu>
Cc: "'Zoe Gurevich'", "'Neda Gholizadeh'"

  . . .
     You are correct on the “few things” you asked me to verify. To amplify on the last thing, Merrill Flood is the one who got me started thinking about Computer Conferencing with lots of initial under-the-radar support from some faculty at the School of Education including Fred Goodman and Lee Collett (but many others including Carl Berger I suspect as well). Karl Zinn was quick to identify the potential significance of what I was undertaking and he then quickly managed to find a position and funding for me at CRLT where I could get a grad student salary from CRLT to support his efforts to disseminate what I was doing to the University and beyond. That is, CRLT did not pay me to develop Confer; that was all done on my own time. Karl’s great skill was recognizing good projects and helping to get them nourished and disseminated. Merrill was able to plant the seed in the first place that I then turned into a project. Fred Goodman and Lee Collett were my mentors inside the School of Education; without their mentoring it is unlikely that a school of education would have put up with what I was doing there as a PhD candidate. There were many others who joined in along the way. The folks at Merit, especially Chris Wendt, deserve special mention as well in convincing me that, early on, I was on to something  worthwhile with their adoption of Confer to support their efforts. And, of course, the Computing Center was generous with their support of Confer once it got going.

     This feels like I’m writing the acknowledgement that I should have written in my dissertation, but didn’t mostly because I did not yet then have the wisdom of hindsight.


4. Arab-Israli Conflict Simulation

posted Nov 19, 2010, 8:43 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 2, 2014, 8:50 AM ]

"Institutional Gaming through the use of Computer Conferencing", Fredrick L. Goodman, In Empowering networks: computer conferencing in education, Michael Waggoner (Ed.), 1992, pp. 101-126

Arab-Israli Conflict Web site: http://aic.conflix.org/

Arab-Israli Conflict Web site, Interactive Communications & Simulations, University of Michigan-Flint and Ann Arbor: http://ics.soe.umich.edu/main/section/2

"Politics and Computers" in U-M Computing News, University of Michigan Computing Center, pp. 3-4, v.1, #8, 10 November 1986
The use of Confer by Fred Goodman and Edgar Taylor of the School of Education, and Raymond Tanter in Political Science at U-M, in their courses Poll Sci 471, "American Foreign Policy Process" and Poli Sci 353, "Arab-Israeli Conflict."

3. Other items

posted Nov 19, 2010, 8:28 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Nov 29, 2010, 6:50 AM ]

Conferencing: In concert with Kari Gluski, PAM for communications and Carol Kamm, project leader for web services, U-M Online has been investigating web based conferencing options. The initial plan called for replacing confer (due to expense) by September. Following active research for scaleable web based conferencing, the team concluded the September goal was not doable. As an interim solution, Confer developer Bob Parnes was contacted. He has agreed to lower his fee from $2.00 per subscriber to 25 cents. With the lower fee, U-M Online can afford to stay with Confer until a suitable web based alternative is available.

PLATO Notes is the progenitor of:

  • Lotus Notes
  • DEC Notes (aka VAX Notes)
  • NetNotes/WebNotes
  • Notesfiles (used on PeaceNet and the other IGC/APC networks)
  • tin and tass (Usenet newsreaders)
Here are some other first-generation conferencing systems that emerged in the early to mid-1970's:

  • EMISARI (1971, Murray Turoff, U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness.) This was a special-purpose system used for 90 days to coordinate the Nixon administration's wage-price freeze. It is generally recognized as the first computer conferencing system.
  • PLANET (Jacques Vallee, Robert Johansen, and others at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California.)
  • Confer (1975, Robert Parnes, University of Michigan.) Confer is the parent of Caucus, PicoSpan, and YAPP.
  • EIES (1976, Murray Turoff, New Jersey Institute of Technology.)

Centralized Forums

Centralized forum software originated on mainframes in the early to mid-1970's with systems like PLATO Notes, Confer, and EIES. These were designed specifically for group discussion, and they treat messages as part of an ongoing conversation with some inherent structure. Discussions are stored on one central computer, and each new message is assigned a place in the discussion structure immediately upon being posted. Over the years this line of software has evolved sophisticated features for managing and participating in conversations.

Within this arena, there is another identifiable subgroup of products whose designs have been derived from Confer, a system originally developed in 1975 by Robert Parnes. I call these products "WELL-style" conferencing systems, because the WELL has been very influential in spreading this design. There are a number of features that tend to appear in WELL-style conferencing software, but the most readily identifiable feature is that it structures discussions as linear chains of responses, and displays each discussion as a continuous stream of text.

Examples of WELL-style Web conferencing software include:

  • Backtalk
  • Caucus
  • COW
  • Motet
  • Web Crossing
  • WELL Engaged
  • YAPP

Examples of other centralized forum software for the Web include:

  • Allaire Forums
  • Big Mouth Lion
  • HyperNews
  • NetForum
  • Podium
  • Post-on-the-Fly Conference
  • TALKaway
  • WebBoard
  • WebNotes
  • WebThread (by Emaze)
MTS Fostered Creation of Computing Community, by Susan Topol,
Information Technology Digest, Volume 5, Number 5, 13 May 1996, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, pp. 1, 27-29.

According to Bob Parnes, architect of the Confer system, "MTS was our system; it belonged to the University, not to a corporation."

Confer became a common means of communication as students organized their own conferences and CRLT staff members convinced instructors to set up course-related conferences.

"MTS and Merit/UMnet allowed many people to communicate electronically for the first time both one-to-one — using e-mail — or one-to-many — using e-mail, newsgroups, and conferencing," said Christine Wendt, then computer systems consultant for Merit. "So many people today are impressed by the Internet and the World Wide Web, but after more than 15 years of conferencing and e-mail using MTS, I have a feeling of 'been there, done that.'"

E-Mail and Confer

In the mid-1970s, the next great computing revolution on campus further expanded the U-M MTS community. Bob Parnes, then a graduate student studying experimental psychology, was attending a seminar in which Professor Merrill Flood was discussing the new concepts of e-mail and electronic conferencing and their use in decision making. Flood had a magnetic tape of a prototype system and approached Parnes about getting it to run on MTS. Parnes declined, but offered instead to attempt writing a similar program for MTS.

Because of a graduate teaching assistant strike, Parnes was temporarily relieved of his teaching duties and had some extra time to devote to his experimental system, which he called "Confer." MTS served as an excellent development environment for Confer, which was built on top of the MTS file structure and exploited its filesharing features. According to Parnes, "I don't think I could have written Confer anywhere but on MTS."

Confer played a tremendous role in enlarging the electronic community at the University and in removing the traditional geographic borders of the classroom and campus. Said Parnes, "Confer enabled a lot of people to talk together who wouldn't have otherwise."

The U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching was an early sponsor and proponent of Confer and saw great promise in it for expanding learning environments. Those working on the Merit Network were also excited by the potential for Confer, and they created the MNET:Caucus conference to help users get quick answers to their questions and take some of the load off their consulting staff. It turned out that the participants — both consultants and users — learned a lot from each other through the conference. MNET:Caucus, a statewide conference, later became the first campuswide computer conference.

Not only did Confer offer the opportunity for various forms of group discussion, it also served as the first e-mail system on campus. The MTS message system (or "$MESSAGE") was introduced in 1981. Written by Jim Sterken, $MESSAGE allowed MTS users to send and receive e-mail. Gavin Eadie and Jim Sterken then enhanced the message system to include remote mail — the ability to exchange e-mail with users on other systems. The early e-mail exchange was done over Mailnet. Mailnet was eventually replaced by BITNET and the Internet.

Although $MESSAGE eventually surpassed Confer as the e-mail facility of choice on campus, the computer conferencing portion of Confer continued to thrive. Parnes went on to form his own company — Advertel Communication Systems, Inc. — which markets and supports Confer.

A Century of Connectivity at the University of Michigan, Nancy Bartlett, et al., Bulletin No. 55, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, December 2007.

1975: Ph.D. student Robert Parnes developed an innovative conferencing software program called CONFER as “an alternative to face-to-face-communication” for partial fulfillment of his doctoral degree in philosophy. The first CONFER was called K4HS:RP.Confer.

Confer Conferencing System
``Confer'' is the name of a conferencing system written in 1975 by Robert Parnes at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was a predecessor to the Picospan and Caucus conferencing systems. Confer pioneered many of the design features in Backtalk. [Backtalk is a conferencing system developed by Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss.]

2. CONFER references

posted Nov 19, 2010, 7:53 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Jun 2, 2014, 8:32 AM ]

From the MTS Bibliography at http://archive.michigan-terminal-system.org/bibliography:
Other references:
  • In the Karl Zinn papers at UM's Bentley Historical Library: Dissertation, Learning to CONFER: The Interplay of Theory and Practice in Computer Conferencing, Robert Parnes, 1981 (box 1, 2 folders)
  • Confer at the ISTA congress, Karl L. Zinn, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in ACM SIGCUE (Special Interest Group on Computer Uses In Education) Outlook, v11, i2, April 197, pp. 13-19
Abstract: Computing and telecommunications were used during the Second International Congress of the International Society for Technology Assessment (ISTA) to facilitate the discussion and contribute to the Congress report. In particular, the telecommunications activity was designed to enhance interaction on substantive issues and convergence on conclusions and interpretations. Only incidentally were we conducting an experiment or trial (with support from NSF) for a community of potential users of computer-aided conferencing.

See also: http://nro-dd.sagepub.com/lp/association-for-computing-machinery/confer-at-the-ista-congress-BIC1lhJAJy

  • Glossary,  pp.231-234 In Empowering networks: computer conferencing in education, Waggoner, Michael, Editor, Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA, 1992.
p. 232, Confer: One of the first better known systems, Confer was developed in the mid-1970s at The University of Michigan by Dr. Robert Parnes. It has been described as one of the most sophisticated of all the systems.  Its development has been closely tied to the MTS operating system (see below) which has to date limited its portability to other types of computer systems.

p. 233, Michigan Terminal System (MTS): A proprietary operating system developed at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It is the operating system for Confer. Several universities around the world are users of this unique computing environment.
  • SIGCUE (Paper Session)
    Karl L. Zinn, Robert Parnes, Helen Hench, Thomas A. Dwyer, Harold Abelson / Stuart D. Milner
    October 1976
    ACM '76: Proceedings of the 1976 annual conference
    Publisher: ACM
    Full text available: PdfPdf (23.37 KB)
    Additional Information: full citation, abstract, index terms

    Abstract: A provocative session on computer-based learning and communication environments will be sponsored by SIGCUE. Presentations on innovative uses of computers in education will include: computer-based conferencing as a resource and medium (Karl Zinn, et ...

  • "Using Computers to Teach Writing", in U-M Computing News, University of Michigan Computing Center, v.1 , #7, 27 October 1986
    Richard Meisler, Lecturer in U-M's Department of English, uses CONFER on MTS to effectively teach students how to write.
    Permanent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015038722222?urlappend=%3Bseq=152
  • Computer-Based Teleconferencing and its Impact on Command and Staff Relationships within the United States Army, John Nicholas Leski, Jr., Materials Reliability Division, U.S. Army Materials Technology Labratory, June 1989. MTL TR 89-50 / AD-A210 122.  URL: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a210122.pdfhttp://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a210122.pdf
    • Abstract: This thesis considers how computer-based teleconferencing, as a new communications
      technology, is changing the way the United States Army performs its
      peacetime staffing functions and may be altering traditional command and staff
      relationships. It describes the Army's use of teleconferencing and attempts to
      forecast how this technology will shape headquarters' functions (the preparation
      of staff studies, plans, and policies) in the future. This thesis examines "white
      collar" productivity within the Army and attempts to analyze how personnel who
      use teleconferencing view their work. Concepts explored are: teleconferencing
      and its impact on overall job effectivene ss; teleconferencing and staff officer
      efficiency; teleconferencing and its impact on information access; and teleconferencing
      and its impact on responsibility, authority, and organizational
      structure. A survey was conducted on-line within the ARMY:FORUMNET system. Survey
      respondents represent a cross-section of the Army ranging from general officer
      to sergeant (N=203 respondents). Results show that computer-based teleconferencing
      is having a positive effect on staff procedures and command and
      staff relationships. Users report teleconferencing has increased their overall
      job effectiveness and has made their jobs easier.

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