The technical part of the Sezam project engaged only a few people, but the rising and the expansion of the system involved thousands of participants... very active participants. They were not just ordinary customers who download files - they sent thousands of messages with questions, answers, arguments... Each one of them could tell his own story about the beginning of Sezam. Here is the story about the initiation and the growth of the biggest BBS in this region, as I saw it.
I humbly admit I was late in the world of communications - I got my first modem in 1989. I already knew at the time that modems and communications were something very interesting, but I hadn't the slightest idea how to use them in Yugoslavia. Finally, Zoran Zivotic and I got ourselves modems in order to ease and speed up the exchange of files for the project we have been working on together. I was immediately fascinated - the next time I went to the editor's office of Racunari, I suggested to get a modem for the office as well, so we could send our articles to the editor instead of bringing them personally. The reactions to my suggestion were very undetermined, but the rock has started to roll down...
The file transfer by the modem is a nice and very useful thing, but is only a small part of what is called computer communication. I found the phone number of the VIC BBS in Nis, and carried on to explore. Several small BBSs existed in Yugoslavia, mostly in Croatia and Slovenia, and I called each one of them. I started to send and get messages, chat with other users and sysops, download files... The best thing was the feeling, which Jerry Pournelle often describes in his articles in the BYTE magazine: whatever you want to know, someone on the BIX will explain it to you. Of course, the number of users on Yugoslav BBSs was far from the number of BIX-ians, but the syndrome "someone knows it for sure" was already in the air.
The communication with various BBSs was such a good experience that we finally thought, "Why wouldn't we make such a thing...?" In this case "We" were Zoran Zivotic and myself. Through several conversations with Jovan Regasek, the Editor-in-Chief of Racunari, we have been suggesting that the opening of a BBS would be the action of the year for the magazine. If successful, it could have been compared with the boom that the special edition Racunari u vasoj kuci provoked in 1984. Word by word, we ended with the article announcing the new BBS for the November 11. That article sealed up our destiny - we literally had to produce a BBS, so we have chosen the deadline date to appear far in the future.
Since the initiators of the adventure were Zoran and I, we had to carry the main burden of the project. We spent hours in telephone and modem consultations about the conception of the future BBS. None of the available BBS programs satisfied our expectations and requirements, so we had to take another challenge and try to develop the whole BBS application by ourselves. The basic concepts were quickly accepted: Sezam was to support the work in menus and the command mode.
The command mode was conceived as the main user interface - we thought that the users accustomed to DOS would rather type the simple command, than go through five menus and answer dozen of questions. At the beginning we didn't precisely determine the syntax of certain commands and the looks of the menus. We had to implement the mail subsystem first. Zoran Zivotic took in charge the major part of the work. He was also the author of the main application for running the Sezam - at the time it was called BB.
The first version of the program was ready for testing in an amazingly short period of time, 5 or 6 days! Later on, the development of the application went on somehow peacefully - discussions about the concepts, adding commands, testing, comments... even bugs were rare and mostly harmless.
The first official version of the BB program was installed on an AT computer in editor's office on October 25, at 14 PM, when the trial period of the Sezam has finally started. We planned for Sezam to be opened at first only for its administrators, later on we intended to open it for the administrators of other BBSs, and, at the end, on the November 6, to start with the real trial work and welcome all interested users. But, following days turned out to be quite different from our expectations...
Sezam functioned successfully for a few days, so we decided it was time to call the administrators of other BBSs to access our new system. We have sent private messages to many systems, and, on October 27, Sezam was opened for new users. We expected a few more peaceful days for final adjustments of the system and preparations for the invasion of real users. But, it turned out that owners of modems in Belgrade were far more interested in Sezam than we ever expected. Some of them used to call during the night just to check out whether the system is installed. In no time, we had twenty users - we opened the UsersManual conference and constantly analyzed the system log, to isolate frequent problems that occurred in the users' first contact with our system. So each user got some valuable advice...
It turned out that people got used to Sezam much faster than we expected. The number of messages in SEZAM conference increased, even without our assistance. As everything functioned well, we dared to loudly announce the trial work of the system. On October 29 we sent public messages to all Yugoslav BBSs and got prepared to see the reactions. Apart from the fact that the Sezam line was constantly busy, all other reactions were more than favorable. There were, naturally, many comments about the conception; we even had an intensive discussion about it in our conference as well as through private messages. We accepted numerous suggestions and changed many things in our program. Generally, there was a lot of work to be done, but we succeeded to maintain the system without many problems. The November 11 was the opening day - the system accepted new users and messages working in its full capacity.
And the capacity was 'impressive'. IBM PC AT with 1 MB of RAM, a 40 MB hard disk and a 2400 BPS Discovery modem without MNP error correction. During working-hours, computer was used for magazine editing, but after 4 PM the afternoon and night life of Sezam began...
The first months of Sezam were marked by numerous software changes - Zoran introduced PAD and EXEC, in order to stimulate the users to work off-line and reduce the system overload. The most interesting messages from Sezam conferences were regularly published in the Racunari magazine - quite a few users were attracted and decided to buy modem and join. The system was becoming more and more interesting and the progress was inevitable. The first serious debates on Sezam were: the religious war between PC and Atari ST owners, the quarrel about the language used in domestic computer magazines, not to mention the hot atmosphere in the political conference FORUM...
The successful development encouraged us to take another step forward. With the Sezam's first anniversary coming, we decided to transform our BBS to a professional communication system. That meant the introduction of subscription fee, which is always a very dangerous moment. Even though Sezam was attractive to all its users, the question was if the users were attracted enough to pay 800 dinars (115 DM) per year for the membership. We had to offer something completely new, and we decided to introduce the new dial-in lines.
After two months of trial work on two telephone lines, we were assured that the hardware and the software were working properly. So we decided to go for the real thing - the commercial work on three dial-in lines. We didn't forget the legal aspect of our project, so we signed the contract with BIGZ on June 29 and Sezam was commercially founded. Zoran and I became the owners of 49% of the future system, and BIGZ procured the equipment, the work-space and three telephone lines, holding the rights to 51% of ownership.
The equipment was assembled and initiated on the October 1, 1990. It was the first of three critical periods in Sezam's history that gave us the most headaches (the second was on December 19, 1995, and the third was on November 1, 1996). Our project was exposed to the market estimation, so we could have succeeded or be gone forever. Luckily, our worries were in vain - over 300 users decided to subscribe, and after October 15, despite new lines, Sezam was almost as busy as in previous days of trial work.
The Chess Olympic Games in Novi Sad gave contributed to the growth of the system - Sezam was the official information service for the Olympics. That was the great opportunity for Sezam, so we got some new equipment, but what was more important, we were richer for a new experience and numerous technical facts we could have never gotten otherwise. We finished the most difficult part of the job on November 7, 1990, when we have retired our old server and replaced it with Compaq DeskPro 386 / 25 MHz, with 4 MB of RAM, and 330 MB hard disk. We also replaced dLINK network operating system with Novell NetWare 2.15, whose performances were more appropriate for the planned work on 15 PCs.
When the Chess Olympics finally ended, we realized that going back to 3 telephone lines is out of the question. So Sezam got 6 lines, which was enough until the end of May 1991. At that time, it became almost impossible to get connected without an hour spent in dialing. We had an invasion of new users and we got the new Sezam-Tanjug service that distributed Tanjug news to embassies, domestic and foreign journalists, and many other users. The BIGZ Company was cooperative at the time, so on October 25, 1991, Sezam started to work on 10, and in February 1993 on 15 telephone lines. Sezam became one of the biggest BBSs in Europe according to all adequate criteria (the number of dial-in lines, the number of users, and the contents). Sezam made its first step towards the information superhighway in May 1993 - the UUCP email exchange with the rest of the world was established, thanks to dr Bozidar Radenkovic and Pavle Pekovic.
The introduction of 15 dial-in lines and the UUCP email exchange were the last beneficent things that happened to Sezam in the BIGZ environment; the years of crisis were coming... First of all, we had a horrible inflation that invalidated all the incomes, and didn't bypass Sezam. We couldn't even think about improving our system. The 14400 BPS modems were becoming a standard, and Sezam still worked on 2400 BPS. Our equipment was getting old, and wasn't functioning properly. We couldn't even procure enough money to change damaged network cards and PSUs. Sezam was stagnating in every way, and the fact that, at the time, the whole country stagnated was not much of a consolation. It was pretty clear that we had to work on an alternative way out of the crisis. As a result we worked out the idea of founding an independent system in private property... and SezamPro was founded.