Test Drives on the Info Superhighway

There is a clock in my town that was built with only an hour hand because in 1710 that was all the information you needed. It's such a quaint symbol of our past that it's easy to get sentimental about the simpler (but harder) life of the colonists. Today the desktop computer is as emblematic of our own moment in time as a clock with one hand was for the early Americans, and someday it, too, will seem quaint. Meanwhile it is our most powerful information appliance, and it is everywhere. It might be more satisfying to hunt for meat or bake in stone ovens, but like it or not, we have entered an information age. Accepting this, the challenge is to take these gee-whiz machines and make them truly useful. There are many ways to improve the utility of personal computers and one of the best and easiest ways is to go on line -- to hook your computer up over the phone line to other computers and people. This used to be difficult and require arcane knowledge of hardware handshakes and error detection protocols. No more. The large on-line services have worked hard at making their systems easy to use and providing the information products consumers want. CompuServe (800-554-4079), America OnLine (800-827-6364) and Prodigy (800-776-3449) are the big three. They have all have seen explosive growth over the last year, riding the wave of hype surrounding the Internet but also because they offer good value. Everyone with a computer should at least try one of these services. You can call them for a free trial, generally 10 hours or one month's service, enough to decide if you want to subscribe for a base fee of about $10 per month. The deal is similar to a trial magazine subscription. Just remember to cancel if you don't want to continue. These commercial services, and others such as GEnie and Delphi, have created their own specialties and market niches. CompuServe has the best technical help and most sophisticated technical users. America Online (AOL) is more consumer oriented, easier to use and is attracting a lot of mass market businesses, such as Time magazine, for example, which hawk their wares on line. Prodigy, which is more family oriented and subjects users to on-screen advertising, has long been a dormant money-loser. Recently, however, it has pulled a couple of marketing coups with its Internet offerings. The reasons to subscribe to one of these on-line services are many. The ability to send and receive e-mail, computer files and faxes may alone be worth the price of admission--especially since e-mail seems to be taking the place of letter writing, a minor art long lost to the telephone. Equally interesting are the forums and libraries built around special interests and professions. You can actively participate in these on-line discussions or anonymously read the threads of other people's discussions, ex post facto. It's an easy resource for research, financial information, sports news, the arts, weather, and the list goes on. Right now, the engine pulling the on-line train is American business's I-think-I-can interest in the Internet. Almost 50,000 businesses have mailboxes or domain names on the net. Of particular interest to business is the World Wide Web. Over the last few years some 10,000 companies have set up Web home pages that act as electronic front doors to their services. These efforts are largely experimental and sit squarely on the expense side of the corporate ledger. CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy all offer some level of Internet access and services. E-mail, Telnet for remote login to other computers, FTP for file transfer and Usenet for participation in over 9,000 special interest newsgroups, are standard. Usenet is very popular and globalizes your ability to share information with others in areas of very narrow interest. To participate, you simply define which news groups you want to belong to. You will automatically receive postings from those groups, or you can post your own thoughts to be shared with others. The hottest area of the Internet for consumers is also the World Wide Web, and the big three all now offer Web service. Prodigy, owned by IBM and Sears, was first to offer full Web access and is first to offer users the ability to create their own home page. While the Web's multimedia capabilities are very sexy there are many technical improvements that need to be made before we are watching full-motion, full-screen video over the Internet. For now the turkey-call is the ability to bring up a home page on your screen and click on icons and highlighted text, which embed hypertext links to other documents, either on the local system or on remote computers around the world. With a click of the mouse you can travel in cyberspace, following your interest as it branches off in never ending tangents. It's like a high-tech version of reading the dictionary or encyclopedia. Unlike the encyclopedia, however, which is alphabetized, indexed, edited and has a table of contents, the Internet is just out there with billions of files distributed on millions of computers around the world. Finding what you want, then, is a major problem. As information consumers, we are accustomed to editorial guidance. On the Internet you are your own editor. It is the user's responsibility to find, digest and organize the data needed to create useful information. For assistance, look for software tools -- like EINet's Galaxy, a natural language directory service -- from your service provider or in the market. The on-line services provide a number of Internet sites to visit, but to go beyond this you need to do a little work on your own. You can buy Internet and World Wide Web yellow page books, for descriptive lists of public sites. And there are magazines, such as NetGuide, which are entirely devoted to helping you make the most of your time on line. Wired magazine, in spite of its print-hostile graphics, is probably the best publication covering on-line culture. Years before the commercial on-line services offered Internet access, there were, and are, direct Internet providers. Over time there will be little to distinguish the functional offerings of these two types of vendors. To compete in the mass market the direct providers are trying to distinguish themselves with a level of service and community that is more sophisticated. To begin with, they have all moved beyond providing simple shell accounts in which a user logs into the vendor's host computer, with its direct connection to the Internet, and runs character-based applications. That is not consumer friendly. Internet providers like NETCOM (800-353-6600), PSI Pipeline (212-267-3636) and North American Internet (800-952-4638) now offer graphical interfaces to their systems. NETCOMand North American Internet offer local Hartford numbers for dial-in. PSI Pipeline, the only one to offer a free five-hour trial subscription, uses a local Sprintnet number for Hartford access. If you want, instead of using the software these companies provide, you can buy a package like Spry's Internet in a Box, which bundles all the application and connection software you would need; or you can (Catch-22) download it for free from the Internet. Cobbling together your own setup is really for computer hobbyists with a high tolerance for problems. It makes more sense to begin with the vendor's software so they can provide you with assistance. Ultimately it will be the quality of their software, customer service and user community that will win or lose you as a customer. There is also the issue of communications. How fast is fast enough? 14.4 kilobytes per second modems are the current standard although they will rapidly be displaced with 28.8 kps communications. Waiting to download images at 14.4 is painfully slow. Twice as fast is obviously an improvement, but it is still not fast enough for high-quality multimedia. For that faster modems and larger capacity telephone wire -- or more bandwidth -- are needed to carry big video and audio files. It will only get easier as Microsoft, IBM and Apple are all committed to including full Internet capability in the next release of their operating systems. Microsoft is about to become an instant on-line player with the introduction of Windows 95 and the Microsoft Network. Macintosh users are again at the back of the software development bus. It is a fair bet that by the end of the year all the major players will have it together. The prize will go to the service provider that supplies not just the plumbing but the valves and filters -- the software tools -- needed to turn torrents of data into useful streams of information.

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