If you bought a computer or modem within the last year, you probably found yourself unwrapping a lot of literature -- and sometimes even software -- designed to lure you into the electronic lair of one of America's three giant on-line information services.
Prodigy, America Online and CompuServe are scrambling for your business, and thanks to new software that takes the voodoo out of telecomputing, Americans are responding to the on-line call in record numbers.
By various pre-holiday counts, almost four million people subscribed to the Big Three and a variety of smaller services. Given the number of Christmas computers sold this year with try-me-out on-line software, I wouldn't be surprised if their numbers swelled significantly over the next few months.
Still, I get a lot of questions from users who are confused about the hype. So here is a little explanation.
Available with a local phone call in most areas of the country, on-line information services can take you to a virtual smorgasbord of news, information, features, weather reports, games, bulletin boards, restaurant reviews, stock market services, travel information, shopping galleries, airline reservations, encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, downloadable software and hundreds of other services.
Almost every week you'll find something new.
More important, these services can put you in touch with other people -- lots of them. If your spouse is tired of talking politics, you can argue on-line with thousands of die-hard Republicans, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, utilitarians, vegetarians -- they're all out there. You can send electronic mail to a correspondent across the street or halfway around the world. Or you can join a real-time chat with one, two or a dozen other users simultaneously. With a new, plugged-in administration in Washington, you can even send a letter to the president without licking a stamp.
Plenty of help
If you need help with some obscure endeavor, chances are you can find it on-line. Software publishers use on-line services to deliver technical support, and you'll find plenty of regular users with computer expertise who are happy to answer your questions.
But on-line services aren't just meeting grounds for computer hacks any more. Groups with a wide variety of interests use them to exchange information, opinions and help. Over the years -- and I've been logging on to various services for a decade now -- I've found plenty.
For example, last year my older boy was working on a science project involving grape juice stains and laundry detergents. To measure how well the detergents cleaned a stained white cloth, he needed an ambient light meter. I learned that this differs from VTC your garden variety light meter because it measures the light that falls on an object, rather than the light reflected from it.
You don't find these in every photographer's gadget bag. Nobody I knew had one. I took one look at the prices in the photo catalogs and asked my son if he wouldn't mind switching to another science project -- like growing a few bean plants. But he was insistent, so I logged on to CompuServe's photography forum and left a message asking if anyone knew where I could find an ambient light meter cheap.
The next night I found a reply from a kind user who told me to look on Page 22 of the Radio Shack Engineer's Mini-Notebook (Cat. 276-5012). Yes, he supplied the catalog number and page. I went to the Shack, found the Mini-Notebook, and sure enough, there was a diagram for an ambient meter that was easy to assemble and cheap.
So I bought the parts -- about $20 worth -- and persuaded the clerk to show me how to put them together. I'm not a hardware kind of guy, but my son and I had it assembled in an hour. To my amazement, the meter worked like a charm, and the science project was a success.
Last summer, my wife and I had a couple of weeks without the kids for the first time in a decade and decided to take advantage of it with a little splurge. Our travel agent suggested a cruise, and we picked a ship called the Dreamward that looked great in the color brochures.
Of course, all ocean liners look great in the brochures, and this was a relatively new ship. Our agent didn't know anyone who had sailed on it. So I logged on again, found a cruise section in the travel forum's library and conducted a search for the keyword Dreamward. It turned up three reviews -- two from travel magazines and one from a user who had just spent a week on board. They were all favorable and had useful tips on choosing cabins and dining rooms. We had a wonderful vacation.
Then there was the time the new mulch around my house blossomed with patches of the most disgusting yellow fungus I'd ever seen. We're talking major-league yuk here. The gardeners in the neighborhood had never seen anything like it.