If you've been reading a lot about the World Wide Web but don't know how to find it, there's a new on-ramp that should make access much easier.
The Compuserve Information Service has added a Web browser to its software, giving existing and new customers a quick and painless route to the Internet's most exciting and fastest-growing feature.
Prodigy subscribers have had Web access for more than a month, and Compuserve's move leaves America Online as the only service among the Big Three without a Web Browser.
AOL officials say their customers should have that capability soon.
If you're wondering what the fuss is about, many believe the Web will set the standards for the information highway of the future.
Technically, the Web consists of thousands of computers running software that allow users to publish, find and read "hypermedia" documents containing text, pictures, sound and even video clips. Just as important, Web "pages," as they're known, also contain links to other Web pages.
By clicking on an underlined title or graphic with your mouse, you can literally roam the world, hopping from computer to computer, from source to source, without mastering arcane commands or worrying about where you are.
Most Web pages extend their tendrils to other Web pages, and if anyone could possibly draw a diagram of all these hundreds of thousands of links, they'd get something resembling a gigantic spider web. Hence the name.
Until recently, access to the Web with a modem required users to establish an account with an Internet service provider and find their own Web browsing software.
Compuserve and Prodigy have taken a lot of the sting out of the process and have set their prices low enough to be competitive with dedicated Internet providers.
Going through a major online service also gives you the advantage of access to the service itself, with its well-maintained and organized forums, message centers, electronic mail, news, financial information and software libraries.
Typically, dedicated Internet providers offer virtually unlimited access to the Net for a high up-front charge of $25 to $35 a month.
Compuserve provides three hours of Internet time as part of its basic $9.95 monthly charge, with additional Internet time priced at $2.50 per hour. That's unlikely to satisfy folks who become addicted to the Web, so there's an alternative pricing plan that charges $15 per month for 20 hours (in addition to the basic fee), with additional hours billed at $1.95. This is in addition to the basic monthly fee.
Prodigy's plan is slightly different. For $30 a month, you get 30 hours on the service, regardless of whether you're using Prodigy's features or browsing the Web. Additional time is $2.95 an hour.
Overall, Compuserve is more expensive than Prodigy because Compuserve imposes hourly surcharges for access to the forums, software libraries and databases that have long made it the choice for people conducting serious business on-line.
Prodigy is not as broad or as deep, but there are fewer surcharges. Compuserve's Web browser, which members can download online, is a good one, although it's not as well integrated with the main service as Prodigy's.
It consists of a Windows-based dialer that makes a connection with Compuserve's extensive network, and a version of Air Mosaic -- a Web browser created by Spry Inc., an Internet software publisher that Compuserve recently acquired.
Getting connected was easy. The software installed itself auto
matically, read all the settings used by Compuserve's regular access software and made contact on the first try.
This is nothing short of phenomenal in the Internet business.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the installation program renamed a critical file used by my Internet "socket" software, which was suddenly rendered useless.
Compuserve's installation routine warned me that it was renaming the file, but it didn't say that my existing program would be disabled. I tinkered for awhile, but there was no way to get the two to coexist. I finally had to write a batch program to give the critical files one name while I was using my regular Internet software and another while I was trying out Compuserve's browser. This is outrageous, but unlikely to be a problem for customers using Compuserve as their only Internet connection.
Prodigy took the opposite tack. Its browser software is integrated with the main Prodigy access program. It doesn't require a separate dialup and doesn't trample anything else on your disk. This makes it much easier to use. For casual or inexperienced users, Prodigy is still ahead on this one.