Internet offers a variety of ways to go 'surfing'


June 06, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Once upon a time, the Internet was a cozy little club of a few million professors, students, scientists and business types linked worldwide networks of dedicated computers owned by their universities and corporations.

It wasn't easy for the average home computer user to tap into the Net's vast database and E-mail resources because it required connections -- not the electronic kind, but someone who would give or sell you an account on one of the powerful computers linked to the Internet with expensive, high-speed phone lines.

In the last 18 months, however, "surfing the Net" has become a yuppie craze as the modem-using public has stampeded onto the Internet through a variety of traditional and nontraditional on-line service providers.

Some of these on-ramps are relatively inexpensive and don't require much of a learning curve. Others can blow a hole in your pocketbook and eat up hours of cybertime while you struggle to get them working.

At the lowest and simplest level, subscribers to the major on-line information services -- Compuserve, Prodigy and America Online already have access to the Internet's most popular feature, electronic mail.

Users of all three can send mail to any Internet address and receive Internet messages in their regular mailboxes. By using Internet addresses, it's also possible for users on any service to send mail to users on any of the others. The Big Three also provide friendly, proprietary communication software that makes navigation easy.

If all you want to do is keep in touch with a son or daughter in college (a popular pastime), or exchange information with a small group of people in faraway locations, it's a waste of time and money to go any further. Be aware, though, that some services charge extra for Internet mail (10 cents per 6,000 characters sent or received at Prodigy), and others have limits on the size of Internet messages.

The next step up for most Internet users is access to the thousands of mailing lists and newsgroups that link people with common interests in subjects ranging from politics to computer programming to gardening to kinky sex.

While mailing lists and newsgroups serve similar functions, they work differently. A mailing list is just what the name implies -- a collection of individual E-mail addresses. When you put your name on a subject-oriented mailing list, anyone who sends mail to the group will automatically put a copy of their message in your mailbox. Likewise, any mail you address to the group will be sent to anyone on the list.

The good news is that you can subscribe to a mailing list from any of the on-line services. The bad news is that given the explosion in Internet traffic over the last year, a subscription to an active, unmoderated mailing list can fill your mailbox with unwanted junk -- an expensive proposition if you're paying by the message.

Newsgroups, on the other hand, are more like traditional computer bulletin boards, allowing users to post and read messages on particular subjects. The messages are stored centrally and won't clog your personal mailbox.

Unfortunately, newsgroup management requires a more sophisticated host system, and while the other services are promising newsgroup access in the future, only America Online delivers it now.

In fact, America Online has jumped well ahead of its competitors in Internet connectivity. With its friendly, dedicated software, it also provides access to a variety of searchable Internet databases and its own version of GOPHER, a standard, menu-based front end that can connect you directly with thousands of other GOPHER servers around the world.

Unfortunately, America Online is still having trouble keeping up tTC with its ballooning subscriber list, and its local nodes are often busy -- a source of constant irritation to the people who are paying for the service.

Also, AOL's Internet connection is still buggy and prone to errors that can hang up your PC. But its Internet service has improved dramatically over the past few months and it's headed in the right direction. It's also relatively cheap, since it's part of AOL's standard charge, $9.95 a month for the first five hours and $3.60 an hour after that.

If you're one of the three people in the world who hasn't received an AOL software disk in the mail, you can get one by calling 1 (800) 827-6364.

Even the best general on-line information services don't provide full Internet connectivity, particularly access to FTP (File Transfer Protocol), a scheme that allows users on one system to transfer files to and from other systems. These files are among the Internet's great treasures, ranging from vast libraries of shareware computer programs to collections of graphic images.

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