Internet popularity soars so does need for guidance

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

December 13, 1993|By PETER H.LEWIS

The phenomenal growth of the Internet, a worldwide web of connected computer networks, was underscored earlier this year in a New Yorker magazine cartoon showing two dogs sitting at a computer.

The bigger animal, paws on the keyboard, turns to the smaller and says, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

And yet, many executives may find themselves howling at the complexity of the Internet, which was not designed with business in mind.

Originally intended to serve the academic and research communities, the Internet has until recently been the playground of computer enthusiasts, government researchers and educators who have been willing to learn the intricacies of the Unix operating system and who have been patient enough to dig through its labyrinthian depths to find, amid the millions of pages of electronic data, the bits of information they needed.

According to research supplied at the Internet World '93 conference in Manhattan last week, the Internet is attracting 150,000 new users each month, who join a population estimated at 15 million or more.

The Internet World conference drew 3,500 people.

One indicator of the Internet's allure for businesses was the smallmob surrounding Mary J. Cronin, whose new book, "Doing Business on the Internet" (Van Nostrand Reinhold), was one of the two most popular books at the show. The other was "The Internet for Dummies" (IDG Books), which "sold out in about two minutes," one visitor said.

Scores of people stayed on after the conference to attend workshops billed as "Internet Hands-On," which were supposed to give novices the chance to explore the Internet with expert supervision. The workshops proved so popular, however, that most people had no more than a few minutes at the keyboard.

The business trend was clear in one small hands-on group as the novices introduced themselves to one another and told why they were there:

* "I'm in a worldwide strategic product development group for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia, and my job is to

analyze future trends."

* "I'm with IBM, and we're looking at the Internet as a way to access supply information and distribute product information."

* "I work in systems at a brokerage firm in Jersey City that would like to offer brokerage services on the Internet."

What the Internet is all about, basically, is this: It has become the postal service, telephone system and research library of the electronic age, allowing millions of people to exchange information virtually anywhere in the world and at any time, usually in minutes, using commonly available technology.

The source of the Internet's appeal is that anyone on the Net can post and retrieve information, but the practical result -- often frustrating to businesses accustomed to logical hierarchy and order -- is that there is no defined or enforced structure for posting that information. As a result, even experienced Internet users often wind up chasing their tails when they try to fetch information.

For example, a company might want the text of the recent North American Free Trade Agreement and an analysis of its impact on, say, the auto industry. Such information exists on the Internet, but one is likely to hear a giant sucking sound as the Internet user is drawn ever deeper into the network in search of it.

It is relatively simple and inexpensive to gain indirect access to the Internet's electronic mail services through popular on-line information services like Compuserve, America On-Line and MCI Mail, which are known as Internet "gateways."

But woe to the executive or computer novice who wants to tap directly into the rich depths of the Internet.

Despite all the recent hyperbole praising the Internet as the precursor to the national data highway, establishing a direct connection to the Internet is about as easy for a novice as traveling a muddy road on a pogo stick, with traffic signs written in Unix.

It will almost certainly get easier as more commercial Internet service providers spring up to meet the growing demand from businesses, and as increasingly powerful computers and software make it possible to hide the Internet's Unix command system behind graphical, point-and-shoot interfaces like Mosaic (a free software program developed with federal financing by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications) or even Microsoft Windows.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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