When Prodigy unveiled its World Wide Web browser last month, it gave hundreds of thousands of users their first real glimpse of the Internet and undoubtedly left more than a few of them confused.
This is not Prodigy's fault. In fact, Prodigy deserves credit for being the first to give its customers the freedom to roam, with software that seems remarkably free of bugs. Prodigy's two major competitors, America Online and CompuServe, promise to have their own Web browsers available within the next few months.
But moving from the friendly, structured confines of a commercial on-line service to the anarchy of the Net can be be as unsettling as it is entertaining. Judging from the questions I've been getting, a lot of people don't understand that once they make the jump, they'll find themselves plunked down somewhere on the electronic road to Oz without a very good street map. And once they've spent some time and money satisfying their curiosity, they may find themselves heading right back to Kansas.
To understand why, consider the major differences between on-line services and the Internet. On-line services are essentially huge computer databases set up to serve paying customers. The services provide or control the content -- news, weather, stock market quotes, electronic mail, bulletin boards, special-interest forums and libraries of computer software.
While the free-spirited may chafe under this system of benevolent despotism, it does have an advantage -- structure. It's fairly easy to find what you want.
If you're a camera buff, there's a photography group or forum. If you want to take a cruise to the Bahamas, there's a travel club. If you're downloading software, you can search for programs you want and find descriptions of what's available. You can be reasonably certain that the programs you download have been checked for viruses. If you subscribe to Prodigy or America Online, you can also put some limits on your kids' ability to explore and keep them out of areas with adult content.
Although no computer system is completely safe from hackers, on-line services are also relatively secure. The very nature of their core business -- charging you for the time you spend on line -- requires that they control the gateways to their systems. If you purchase something in one of their electronic malls, they have a responsibility to protect your credit card information.
In other words, you and the on-line service have a business-customer relationship.
The Internet, on the other hand, is owned by everybody and nobody. It's a worldwide network of computer networks maintained by hundreds of thousands of people at thousands of universities, businesses, libraries, government agencies and even private homes.
It was designed from the outset to be a free-wheeling, open environment. The only real governing body is a group that sets technical standards. The owner or manager of each computer attached to the Net decides who can have access and what his or her system will make available to others on the Internet.
Because the Net was set up by researchers who wanted to exchange and publish their information, it was designed for easy access. The universities whose computers serve as the Internet's backbone have historically been defenders of the free flow of ideas and information, so there's little, if any censorship. With literally millions of electronic doorways and an underlying architecture whose software and hardware standards are public knowledge, security is at best rudimentary.
As a result, the Net is a wonderful, mind-boggling ocean of information, ideas, discussion and just plain craziness. With the advent of the World Wide Web and browser software that frees users from the bizarre command language of the Unix operating system, the Net has literally exploded with new consumers of information and with new publishers.
The Web itself is fascinating -- and many believe it will set the standard for the information highway of the future. It consists of computers attached to the Internet running software that allows users to publish and read so-called "hypermedia" documents. These contain not only text, graphics, sound and video clips, but also links to other documents and Web sites anywhere in the world.
If you can point your mouse and click the button, using a Web browser is a no-brainer, and publishing information on a Web site isn't much harder. With a couple of clicks, you can flip through the Justice Department's crime statistics, download a picture of the Playmate of the Month, retrieve a tax form from from the IRS, find out if your branch library has the latest Tom Clancy novel, download a sound clip by your favorite underground band or actually do some serious academic research.
The problem is finding what you need, or filtering out information you might not want the kids to see. Ultimately, no one is responsible here, and many Web sites and other Internet resources are maintained by volunteers. A site may be available one day and down the next. The individual computers that host Web sites may be overwhelmed and unable to respond, or so slow that they're useless.
Nor is there any central index or table of contents. While a variety of search tools is available, their indexes may be out of date, and they're often difficult to use. It's easy to be overwhelmed by too much information, or to miss what you want to hit.
There's no question that the Web is a wonderful place to browse. Ultimately, however, many users who access the Web from commercial on-line services may decide that it's easier to get what they really need in a hurry from the people they're paying to provide it.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.