In the race to give millions of on-line customers full access to the Internet, Prodigy has leapfrogged the competition by providing its Windows users with software that allows them to cruise the Net's most exciting feature, the World Wide Web.
It's not the best Web browser around, but it works, and it will undoubtedly lure hundreds of thousands of customers into an uncharted, unregulated, and fascinating world.
Cruising the Web, you can listen to an album cut from your favorite rock group, dissect a frog on-line, check out a video clip from the latest movie, view the newest pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, find a copy of Aesop's Fables, check out legislation pending in Congress, download an income tax form, search the holdings of thousands of libraries, read hundreds of publications and otherwise spend hours entertaining and informing yourself.
Until now, home and small business users who wanted access to the Web had to set up a separate account with an Internet service provider and spend an incredible amount of time tinkering with flaky, specialized communications software. Prodigy's Web browser, which users running Microsoft Windows can download at no extra charge, expands the scope of the service by orders of magnitude. A version for Macintosh owners will follow later this year.
Competitors likely to follow
Undoubtedly, Prodigy's major competitors, America OnLine and CompuServe, will follow suit. But Prodigy has done it first and done it reasonably well. Meanwhile, Prodigy customers can expect more major changes over the course of 1995 as the service gradually abandons its clunky, 1980s interface and switches to a system that's compatible with the Web.
For those who don't know what the fuss is all about, the World Wide Web was created in 1989 at the European Particle Physics laboratory to give researchers a tool to publish their findings electronically. But over the last two years, the Web has exploded into a user-friendly, do-it-yourself hypermedia publishing system that's likely to change the way many of us look at the way we distribute information over the next few years.
So, you ask, what's a hypermedia publishing system?
It's a system based on pages of text, stored on thousands of computers around the world. If you look at the raw page, it will have normal paragraphs of information, along with some very strange stuff -- a code known as HTML (hypertext markup language) that makes references to other pages as well as graphics, videos and sound clips stored on the host computer or computers thousands of miles away.
If you view that page using software known as a Web browser, it suddenly comes to life. A wonderful example, and one of the most famous pages on the Net, is known as The Froggy Page. When it appears, there are a half-dozen cute little frog cartoons, with scores of underlined references to information about frogs. Click on one and you'll hear a "ribbit." Click on another and you're dissecting a frog on-line. Click on another and you'll find a database of scientific research into the mating habits of Australian tree toads. Click on another and you're staring at a picture of Kermit.
You don't know whether the information you're viewing is on your host computer or a machine halfway around the world. You don't have to memorize arcane commands and master different pieces of unfriendly software.
The Web's growth
Over the last few years, thousands of researchers, government agencies, universities, newspapers, TV stations, libraries, politicians, record companies, art galleries, catalog houses and just plain users have set up Web pages on computers known as Web servers. The White House, Library of Congress and most government agencies have Web servers, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich made headlines a few weeks ago when he trumpeted "Thomas," the House of Representatives' Web server named after Thomas Jefferson).
While users of the major consumer on-line services have gradually gained access to Internet e-mail and news groups, they've been cut off from a world that's happily going Web crazy. But with Microsoft Corp. waiting in the wings with direct Internet access and its own on-line service built into Windows '95, the on-line market is trying to get there first.
Like most Web browsers, Prodigy's software is patterned after Mosaic, a program developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications that first unleashed the potential of the Web. The Prodigy effort, developed in-house, looks more like a good first try by a bunch of talented hackers than a finished commercial product.
But it ran without stumbling on three different computers I tried and navigated the Web cleanly. If you want to display the graphics attached to many Web Pages -- which normally slows down access over modems -- Prodigy will load the text portion of the page first, so that you can see what's there before you decide to spend time waiting for the pictures to catch up. The program also caches text and graphics from pages you've already viewed, so you don't have to download everything again if you return to the same page.
There are a few omissions. After a while, most Web prowlers like to set up "hot lists," menus of frequently used Web pages. The better Web browsers allow you to set up multiple lists, or arrange pages by subject matter (news, government, medicine, sports, etc.). The Prodigy browser supports only one list, and if you spend any time on the Web, it will soon become unmanageable.
While the software allows you to save a Web page on your hard disk (which can save time and network traffic for pages you access frequently), I couldn't find any way to get the browser to access the saved pages. Nor would the software strip out the HTML markup language and allow you to save a page as plain text.
The on-line help wasn't very helpful, and some of the Web pages Prodigy has set up to get users started are filled with too much hackerese.
Access to the Web is part of the five-hour usage package that Prodigy subscribers get with their $9.95 monthly subscription fee. After five hours, Prodigy's standard charge of $2.95 an hour applies.
How good a deal this is depends on how much you use the Web. It's certainly a great way to get started.
But if you get hooked and want to spend a couple of hours a day on the Web, you'll be better of with a direct Internet service provider.
Clarknet, the provider I use, charges $33 a month, which gets me up to five hours a day on the Net. After five hours, there's a $1 per hour surcharge. It's a matter of arithmetic.
L Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.