by Eric Wilson
How would you like to have the world's best encyclopedia's at your fingertips? And constantly updated with 3-D illustrations, animated features like watching the Shoemaker-Levy comet make its impression on Jupiter, and the treasures of the world's great museums in dazzling colors? And if that's not enough how does getting news before even CNN reports it? Intriguing? Good because this is only the start.
And even if your interests are in the exotic vein, such as raising polka-dotted hamsters that telepathically communicate with Elvis and you just can't seem to get a local interest group going, you're in luck. You can satisfy your thirst for knowledge, find like minds and if you wish get opinions you never dreamed of in subjects you never knew existed. All it takes is a computer, modem, phone line and a modest monthly fee to be linked to the Internet.
The Internet? Yes. The "Net" is the fastest growing source of information collections in the world. Fascinating, exhilarating, sometimes frustrating and infuriating, the Net has another adjective for many potential users--intimidating. But it is possible to separate that word from its perceived relationship. And also separate it from the myriad ways in which one can access the Net. There is a bewildering array of net service providers and access software on the market. While they may differ in the details of what they offer, all have the same basic function, to link your computer to the Net.
Let us begin by reviewing what you need. First you must want to have access. Being blackmailed into it clearly takes all of the pleasure out. Next, as already mentioned, you need a computer, modem, phone line to the modem, and communications software. A modem with a 28.8 baud rate is highly recommended unless you are endowed with the patience of a saint.
If you are still unsure about whether you really want to get involved a good way to start is by joining an on-line service like America On-Line (AOL) or Compuserve. Linkage to one of these is commonly included with the software that comes already installed in newer computers. If yours didn't come with any call the toll-free technical support number for the service. Your friendly telephone operator can assist you in getting that number. Request a copy of the service's communications software (it's free), then keep the technical support number handy in case you have trouble getting everything set up.
Once you're into the service, you will be able to browse a series of menus for news, files you can download, mail order goodies, and tons of reference items. And for the insatiable, almost all on-line services now provide a direct link to the Internet. For occasional Net users this is often sufficient. Most services charge $9.95 on up per month for 5 to 10 hours of connect time. And recently most have gone to umlimited connect time for a flat fee, usually $19.95 to $29.95 per month. However the web browsers that are included are not the best and you'll have to put up with a deluge of advertisements.
At this point you're better off considering a dedicated Internet Service Provider. There are literally thousands around the country, all offering different rates and features. To find one that covers your area you can start by perusing ads in flyers and net related magazines at a local computer store. An excellent source is the "Boardwatch" quarterly listing of providers. This lists costs, services and of just about every commercial provider in the country.
Jot down a few phone numbers then call some providers. If you're put on hold for a month or so, assume that the service isn't quite up to handling more customers and go to the next one on your list. Most will send you free software and instructions for installation. Sometimes this will include a net "browser" such as Netscape. Fees will vary, but $12.95 to $30 per month for unlimited connect time is the common range.
HOWEVER, be sure that your selected provider has a toll free number for your modem to dial into. Otherwise you could rack up some horrendous phone bills. If the provider does not have such a number, cross them off the list.
A second approach is to go ahead and buy a "browser", such as Netscape, which is currently the most popular one one the market. It's easy to install and comes in Windows 3.1 and 95 versions. Part of the setup includes selecting a service provider. Your other choices are inventing a witty user id and password for yourself. It is highly recommended that you keep a notepad with you during setup and that you write down any esoteric codes such as POPD address, SMTP codes, etc. These won't make a whole lot of sense but are crucial should you ever have to reload Netscape.
If all goes well, once you have finished your modem will dial your new provider. You will have to provide some means of paying for their kindness, so have a preferably not expired or maxed out credit card handy. Someone else's credit card is even better. Don't worry about everyone on the net knowing all your financial dealings, everything will be so electronically camouflaged that even your bank will have trouble deciphering it.
Finally, you're ready to do some serious net cruising. Do note that in Windows95 you may have to click on the icon for your provider then click on CONNECT before you can get Netscape or other browsers. This actually is an advantage if you want to bounce between Netscape, email and chat programs without having the annoyance of each one individually dialing into your provider.
Netscape and other browsers have several built in "Bookmarks" that will take you to some excellent sites. You should also purchase either a printed or CD-ROM copy of an "Internet Yellow Pages" to get more ideas of what's available. Do keep in mind that the Net is an unregulated forum and that sites come and go all the time. So try not to get too emotionally attached to any particular one.
Above all you will have to be patient. You will learn with a little practice tricks to find information of interest. Think of "search engines" such as Yahoo as library file cards. For example, if you type "Marilyn Monroe" you will get a listing of sites that contain information about her. But if you are too specific, e.g., "Marilyn Monroe In Some Like It Hot" you will likely draw a blank screen. The search will be looking for a title or site description with all of that in it, which is unlikely.
Also be aware that the Net's ever growing popularity can cause temporary bottlenecks and slowdowns, especially in the evening. Be prepared for occasional delays. And everyone does get "the boot" once in a while. If this happens to you, just get a soft pillow to sit on and log back on. It is best to wait until late, say around midnight or weekends, before you download large files to your computer. There's fewer people on at that time so you have less competition.
But be bold. Experiment, go to sites based on an an esoteric search word, join newsgroups and make yourself heard, download useful and fun software, and if you are just a bit outgoing, you will soon discover new friends. It's all waiting for you.