On-line services enter next generation

January 31, 1994|By John Markoff | John Markoff,New York Times News Service

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The fashionable joke floating around the Internet last week was that the "information superhighway is just like CB radio, but with more typing."

There is no disputing that computer networks and on-line services -- spurred in part by Vice President Al Gore and his promotion of the "national information infrastructure" -- are currently the nation's biggest craze.

At Demo '94, a personal computer industry conference held here each year, a new generation of on-line services was on exhibit last week. The offerings won't be commercially available until later this year, but many of the technologies have already emerged in experimental form on the Internet, the global network of networks used by more than 15 million people.

And last week there were fresh indications that the Internet is gaining commercial momentum, as major publishers begin to offer commercial services over the net.

The first generation of on-line services, which emerged in the late 1970s, was based on connecting one's "dumb" terminal -- a personal computer using terminal-emulator software -- to a mainframe computer. Problems included a slow response time and a monitor display limited to simple screens of text.

The second generation -- services like those from the Prodigy Services Co. and America On-Line -- has used the increasing power of the personal computer to speed up interaction and give a simpler and more graphic interface to the user.

The next generation of on-line technology, exemplified by the Interchange service that the computer trade publisher Ziff-Davis announced last week, is starting to emerge as computers grow even more powerful and communications links become even faster.

The new systems promise to change the way users interact with remote central computers and, more significantly, are beginning hint at an experience that rivals traditional print publishing.

"This is truly the third generation in on-line technology," said Stewart Alsop, editor of Infoworld, a rival personal computer newspaper that has agreed to be distributed over the new Ziff-Davis service.

"It begins to remove the notion of remoteness that came with earlier services."

Indeed, the old mainframe-to-dumb-terminal model of tele-computing appears to be giving way rapidly.

Earlier this month, General Magic, a Mountain View, Calif., software developer, unveiled Telescript, a communications language that will provide the foundation of AT&T's Personal Link on-line service, scheduled to begin later this year.

With Telescript, a computer user does not need to connect to a remote service at all. Instead, a program called an "agent" travels from the user's computer through the network, looking for information or even making purchases, based on commands given by the user.

Ziff-Davis is the largest publisher of computer magazines, and the Interchange service, which will be commercially available for Windows-based personal computers in the fall, offers its readers a way to read their favorite publications on-line, as well as the ability to join communities of other personal computer enthusiasts and to download software and other information.

By itself that doesn't appear to be any more than what is available on existing on-line services, including Ziff-Davis' own Ziffnet, which is accessible through CompuServe.

But the Interchange system moves a step forward in taking advantage of the client's personal computer. It offers the ability to view true "compound" documents that include graphics and images, rather than simple windows of scrolling text.

It also offers multitasking, which means that you can start to download a document or a program in one part of the system and then browse through information in another part of the system.

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