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Fronttalk Command-Line Conferencing Interface

Copyright 1996-2005, Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss


Backtalk was designed as web-based conferencing system. However, some of us old-time Picospan users still enjoy a command-line interface to a conferencing system. Fronttalk provides a command-line interface to Backtalk with a look and feel almost identical to Picospan (or to Yapp, a clone of Picospan). To the best of my knowledge it is the only open source Picospan-clone in circulation.

Though the interface provided by Fronttalk is very similar to Picospan, it's internal operation is totally different. Instead of accessing the conference files directly, Fronttalk functions as a web browser. To fetch the contents of an item, Fronttalk makes an HTTP request to a Backtalk server, then parses and formats the returned data to display it just the way Picospan would.

So there are two components to Fronttalk - a Perl client program which is the command line interpreter run by the user, and a set of Backtalk scripts that Backtalk executes to respond to requests from a Fronttalk client. The Perl program can be installed on most any Unix system and can be used to read and post to any Backtalk system that has the Fronttalk script set installed (assuming that you have an account on that system).

In the special case where Fronttalk and Backtalk are running on the same server and Backtalk is configured to use Unix logins, it is possible to configure Fronttalk and Backtalk to execute Backtalk directly instead of going through httpd to execute it. This gives better performance, and avoids the need to login to the system you have already logged into.

Fronttalk is also a fairly nice platform for people who want to modify a Picospan-like command-line interface. Because much of the functionality is in a non-privileged Perl program, non-privileged users can make copies and customize it fairly easily.


Fronttalk is approaching the point where it is ready for production use. It works well for most ordinary conferencing applications, and includes virtually all features of Picospan/Yapp.

Fronttalk has comprehensive help pages included in the distribution (12460 words in version 0.3.1). One page summarizes the differences between Picospan and Fronttalk.

It is substantially slower than Yapp or Picospan would be. This is partly because of the client-server architecture and partly because it is written in Perl. However, although the code is suboptimal, it is plenty fast enough on any reasonable server.


On the server side, you need Backtalk and the script set included in the Fronttalk distribution.

On the client side you need Perl, and libwww-perl ( libwww-perl is also known as LWP.

Since Fronttalk does not (yet?) implement an internal text entry system, you need to use an external editor to enter your posts. You could just use "vi" or "pico" or some such standard editor, but I recommend using gate. This lets you enter text in a less obtrusive environment (without clearing your screen, etc) and still fire up a full editor whenever you want. Gate is approximately equivalent to the "red" program that used to be used with Picospan on the Well.


Fronttalk is available free of charge under a standard Gnu License. You can download it here.

E-Mail Jan Wolter
Mon Oct 28 12:40:06 EST 2002

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