Confessions of an Internet virgin – includes related article on accessing the Internet – Tutorial
I like to think of myself as a technologically hip kind of guy. I know my Macs from my Compaqs, my cache from my trash, and I installed a multimedia upgrade kit without calling technical support even once.
So, obviously, I must be pretty darn savvy when it comes to this Internet thing. Anyone who reads newspapers or magazines knows the Internet is hot. It’s cool. It’s the future. It’s now. Granted, after reading a dozen stories in a dozen publications, you still might have no idea of what the Internet is, but you know it’s important.
Well friends, truth be told, until just recently, I had never ventured so much as a digital pinky toe onto the Internet. That’s not to say that I haven’t been a credit card-carrying member of the online community. I first subscribed to CompuServe about 12 years ago, accessing it with an Atari 800 computer and a modem that required you to wedge the phone receiver into two rubber cups. Since then I’ve acquired additional accounts on America Online, Prodigy, and MCI Mail.
But I still hadn’t made that Internet connection, not even in the limited ways offered by the major online services. Why not? Because the online services provided me with e-mail and technical support for computer products, in addition to clip art, games, and other resources for downloading. Every article I read agreed that the Internet is chaotic and relatively complex. And my standard operating procedure says that when the hype runs high, my bottom-line interest level is likely to be low.
But the longer I delayed, the more I put my status as computer guru in jeopardy. That’s why, with my curiosity piqued and my reputation at stake, I volunteered my services as a representative of the uninitiated. I did what most people do when they’re just starting out: read some articles and books, spoke with some knowledgeable friends, then spent hours cruising the Net.
What I found was an intriguing mixture of exhilarating opportunity and annoying complexity. Even the best software/service provider combination can’t entirely remove intricacy from the equation. In the anarchic spirit of the Internet itself, then, let’s be unconventional and ask the concluding questions up front. As a small-business owner, do you need the Internet? Nope. Unless your business deals specifically with computer technology, there’s nothing on the Net that you can’t do without.
Do you want to access the Internet? Will it help you run your small business better? I think it will, less because of the information available on general small-business issues (taxes, health insurance, and so on), and more for the resources relating to your very specific business and its target markets. Small businesses thrive by finding comfortable niches for themselves, and thanks to the Net’s sheer size, just about any niche you can think of has a home on the Internet.
The real appeal of the Internet for me, though, transcends my role as a small-business owner. I also love jazz music and Beakman’s World on TV. I care about political issues, and I’m a fervent computer game player. Each of these facets of my personal profile are nurtured by resources on the Internet.
The internet is a multifaceted mess, but with a little patience and not too much of a cash outlay, you can find useful information and, equally important, a group of individuals who may be scattered across the globe but meet online to share a common interest. As you may have gathered, I’m hooked.
First Things First Technologically speaking, the Internet is an interconnected network of computers located all over the world. At last count, there were nearly four million computers connected to the Internet through government agencies, educational institutions, and companies. On a practical level, you can connect at any point on the network and access files stored elsewhere.
The problem is that different kinds of information are spread out all over the place. There are a variety of ways to search through this unholy mishmash, some more effective than others. There are also books devoted to listing the locations of Internet goodies. The bottom line: Commercial online services are still far easier to use.
Communicating over the Internet is also complicated by your need for different programs, with different sets of commands, to access different types of information. The program that lets you read your e-mail, for instance, won’t let you download files or read messages posted in certain discussion groups. Happily, Internet access programs are becoming easier to manage.
As for the good-taste police–well, if you’re going to have Internet access, you’ll have to decide how to keep Little Johnny from cruising the areas where nude pictures and curse-filled stories are posted.
What’s Available? There is a daunting variety of ways to get at goodies on the Internet–many easily available through the commercial online services, such as America Online, Delphi, Compuserve, and Prodigy, or via slightly more complicated connections to an Internet access provider (see “Nothing Succeeds Like Access”). However, I had a revelation during my initial forays onto the Net: You don’t have to understand all, or even most, of the available tools to start making good use of the Net’s resources. With that in mind, let’s agree not to be comprehensive here. Instead, we’ll look at a few tools I’ve found useful in exploring the Internet. In “Entrepreneur’s Roadmap,” we’ll point out many valuable business resources you can access using these tools. After that, you can expand on your Internet smarts in many ways by reading explanatory material online or picking up an Internet tome at your local bookstore or library.
Unsurpassed communications. The ability to exchange information and opinions with people around the world, quickly and inexpensively, is probably the most revolutionary aspect of the Internet. There are basically two kinds of communications resources.
* E-mail is the most comprehensible Internet feature. Not that long ago, there was no way for subscribers on different online services and the Internet to send e-mail to each other. Now that all of the major online services (and an increasing number of private bulletin boards) offer Internet mail support, life is much easier. If someone on the Internet wants to send me a note at my America Online (AOL) address, they just address it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The “morg” part is my address on America Online, and the “aol.com” part is America Online’s address on the Internet.
* Online discussion groups. This kind of information exchange takes place through two forms of Internet communication–newsgroups and mailing lists. These are also available through many commercial online services. Investigate an area dedicated to entrepreneurs, for example, and you might find messages from a university business professor, a window washer, and a guy selling shady get-rich-quick schemes. As long as you keep the source in mind, though, you can come up with great ideas, hard-to-find information, and advice from knowledgeable individuals.
Though the name is misleading, newsgroups are actually online locations where people who share a common interest can send notes back and forth. They’re just like an online service’s forum or special interest group (SIG)–but on the Internet there are more than 7,000 newsgroups. Artificial intelligence? Adult education? Sustainable agriculture? Lucid dreaming? Tonya Harding? No problem–each has its own newsgroup on the Net.
Mailing lists are another way to exchange information with fellow enthusiasts. Instead of going to a newsgroup area to find messages, though, the messages come to you in the form of e-mail. Before signing on to a mailing list, however, think about how much e-mail you can handle. Generally, each message is automatically forwarded to everyone on the mailing list. For large mailing lists, traffic can build up quickly and can cause problems. If your electronic mailbox gets stuffed full of fluff, your business and personal messages will be lost in the overflow. Some mailing lists, on the other hand, are moderated, meaning that someone filters the flow, then picks and chooses what’s worth sharing.
Information and computer resources. A growing number of companies, educational institutions, and government agencies are placing resources on the Net for free public access. You’ll also find a wide variety of programs and data files available for downloading, including utility software, graphics, and sounds. There are a few ways to access these riches.
* Gopher is a popular, easy-to-use tool for locating add downloading files on the Internet. When you find a Gopher listing for a file you’d like to receive, the Gopher will “go for” the file somewhere on the Internet and deliver it to your computer. Gophers are usually organized into menus and submenus–you work your way down until you find the specific file you want to access.
You can also search Gophers using a tool called Veronica. Just enter the word or phrase you’re after and let Veronica explore the titles of documents in Gopherspace for you. I tried searching for both mainstream topics (desktop publishing, health insurance) and somewhat more specialized information (doughnuts, termites) and came up with solid hits in every case.
* WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers), unlike Veronica and its Gopher searching function, actually looks through the contents of online documents for the information you request. This can take forever. Consider WAIS’s less-than-friendly command structure, and you’ll understand why I’m not a big fan–but for in-depth research, I might grit my teeth and use it.
* Telnet lets you connect to a distant computer and access it by remote control. You can use telnet to connect with the New York Public Library computer, for example, and search its card catalog just the way you would if you were sitting at a terminal at the main library branch.
In fact, library access is a prime reason people use telnet. For my purposes, though, I found that another access system called FTP was simpler to use and put more useful information at my fingertips.
* FTP (file-transfer protocol) lets you move files back and forth between your computer and thousands of information-packed mainframes (called FTP sites) around the world. Through many online services, I could connect to FTP sites and, using DOS-like commands, move through the mainframe’s directory structure until I located a file that sounded promising. Admittedly, it isn’t always easy to tell what constitutes a promising file (names such as 93CQA.EXE and DKXMTO.EXE are common), but many FTP sites include indices or informative README files. Once you’ve found the file, you type GET followed by the file name and it’s on its way.
Just as Gopher has Veronica for searching, FTP has Archie to search file names at FTP sites throughout the Internet. If you’re going to use the Internet, you’re just going to have to get used to cutesy–or cryptic–names.
Welcome to the Web One name I’d been hearing about all over the place was the World Wide Web. The fastest growing facet of the Internet, the Web lets you jump to computers all over the world simply by choosing an onscreen reference in a document on your computer screen. If you’ve ever worked with HyperCard or the Windows Help system, you know what hypertext is about–you click on highlighted text or a certain graphic and jump immediately to information related to it. On the World Wide Web, though, the links aren’t just to other places in a document–they’re to other computers, which might be located anywhere from Albany to Zimbabwe.
What’s more, I’d read that the World Wide Web wasn’t some dull text-based system. It has onscreen graphics, color, and a point-and-click interface. If I wanted World Wide Web Internet access with all the bells and whistles I’d been reading about, though, it was time to investigate the access offered by Internet providers–and venture into the loftier realms of direct connections and Mosaic software.
This Must Be the Place Here’s the short and sweet version of a fairly technical topic. Most regular Internet accounts offer access to the World Wide Web–but as a text-only system. You jump to a site on the World Wide Web, and instead of seeing a graphic, you see a text placeholder where the graphic should be. If you want full access to the Web, however, you need graphical browser software–Mosaic is overwhelmingly the most popular program for both PCs and Macs–and what’s known as a direct connection to the Internet from an Internet access provider. These come in two flavors, SLIP and PPP, which are technically different but accomplish the same thing.
All the software you need to access the Web is downloadable for free from the Internet. But installing and configuring the many separate Internet software components is not trivial. Estimates range from half a day to half a lifetime–and these were from knowledgeable computer users! Happily, there’s a highly touted all-in-one solution from Spry Inc. ( 447-0300,  557-9614) called Internet in a Box. It’s available on store shelves for about $99 and includes all the software you need for full Internet and Web access as well as excellent documentation. In about half an hour I had achieved the state of the art in Internet access: a scrollable screen with handsome graphics and onscreen buttons to click my way around the world.
After a few days of cruising the World Wide Web, I realized there was no going back to inexpensive text-based Net access. The Mosaic software is a pleasure to use, and the range of information available on the Web is staggering. I went to the source for business information from the Social Security Administration, Small Business Administration, and the IRS. I read online versions of newspapers and magazines from across the country. I browsed legal advice (and lawyer jokes) from Nolo Press. And I looked up 800 numbers free of charge from AT&T’s online directory.
However, even with my fast 14.4Kbps modem and a Pentium computer, downloading the graphics incorporated for the World Wide Web’s home pages (or welcome screens) ranges from slow to s-l-o-w. Some Web site creators manage to design attractive pages that don’t take too long to receive. Others have produced pages jampacked with gorgeous graphics that take forever to download and view.
Accessing the World Wide Web can also cost a small fortune, depending on how you use the service and how you shop for an access provider. SprintNet/Interserv, the default provider for Internet in a Box, has a remarkably slick setup: You fill in onscreen forms (including credit card information), click a button, and your account with Interserv is automatically opened. Its 800 number can be accessed from anywhere in the country. The only problem: You pay $8.95 a month plus $8.95 an hour for access.
I generally use online services the same way I go shopping–I know what I want, I go find it, I pay for it, I leave. When dealing with the Internet, though, that’s the wrong approach.
The Internet isn’t like a well-run department store where you go to the hardware department, find the hammer you need, and buy it. This is an information bazaar. There are people with hammers scattered all over the place, and in between are a thousand things you didn’t realize you needed until you stumbled upon them, and a hundred vendors who weren’t there when you visited just last week. You still won’t get me to waste an afternoon shuffling through the mall, but sit me down in front of the computer, boot up Mosaic, and whoa! What happened to the afternoon?
Although Spry offers information about less expensive access providers, I moved my Internet account over to a local company called LI Net ( 476-1168). For $35 a month, I dial in to a local phone number and get unlimited SLIP or PPP access to the Internet and some local area information in the bargain. I’m happy, well connected, and have costs under control.
I still consider myself a “newbie” after a month on the Net. But you know, I’m starting to feel like a technologically hip kinda guy again.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Freedom Technology Media Group
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group