Netcruiser is an all-in-one connection to Internet

Normal human beings, the kind who still think "harem" when someone says "Unix," have limited choices of ways to gain access to the Internet. This is obviously a temporary situation, since everybody who has ever used electronic mail is now either starting an Internet business or writing a book about the Internet, and Internet software will probably be stuffed in cereal boxes before too long.

But for now, there are two main alternatives for getting wired without becoming a Unix administrator.


On one side are the commercial on-line information services like Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online, which are in a race to provide their subscribers with Internet access.

Think of them as marketing majors who are just now beginning to regret making fun of the nerds in college.


On the other side are the Internet service providers, who are struggling to create user-friendly faces for their previously user-hostile technologies.

Think of them as computer science nerds who are kicking themselves for not minoring in business administration.

Netcom On-Line Communications Services Inc. of San Jose, Calif., falls into the latter category, and thus stands apart from the commercial services reviewed in this column.

Long one of the leading providers of Internet connections to big businesses, Netcom has in recent months made a successful push into consumer Internet services for individuals. It now claims to have more than 130,000 customers, which makes it one of the biggest Internet service companies in the world.

At least half of those users have come to Netcom for a service called Netcruiser, a simple all-in-one package for connecting to the most popular Internet services, including the World Wide Web.

Netcom presents Netcruiser as being just as easy to use as Microsoft Windows, which is either reassuring or ominous, depending on your experience.

Indeed, the Netcruiser software is available only for computers using Microsoft Windows 3.1 and a version of DOS numbered 5.0 or higher. Users of Macintosh, Amiga and older personal computers are out of luck.

Netcom officials said the company was developing a version of Netcruiser for Macintoshes, but it declined to say in what year it might be available, never a good sign.


True to the company's word, Netcruiser for Windows appears to be easy to set up and use.

I was bit-surfing on the World Wide Web within minutes of installing the software.

The Netcruiser software itself is free, but there is a $25 set-up fee to establish a Netcruiser account, plus $20 a month for the use of one of Netcom's 200 local connections to the Internet. The monthly fee is a bargain, as it includes 40 hours of "prime time" connections and unlimited "after hours" Internet connections.

Netcom defines prime time rather expansively, as the hours from 9 a.m. to midnight in the user's time zone.

The Netcruiser software contains most of the major tools needed to take advantage of the Internet's many resources, including electronic mail, World Wide Web, Gopher, file transfers, telnet, Internet relay chat and Usenet news groups.

If the computer has the proper equipment and software for generating sounds, Netcruiser will automatically play sound files.


It also displays most major graphic formats automatically.

The tools are adequate but not as elegant as some of the other tools that are available either in stores or in the many software repositories on the Internet itself.

On the other hand, Netcruiser puts all the tools on one screen, which is more convenient than having them scattered in different parts of the computer's hard disk.

Some users, especially beginners, may not care to go to the extra trouble of finding, downloading and configuring those fancier supplemental programs.

Indeed, when Netcruiser first appeared last year there was no choice.

However, the newest version of Netcruiser, called 1.6, comes with "sockets" that give users the freedom to plug in different software modules. (In technical terms, it is Winsock-compliant.) For example, one can use the built-in Netcruiser browser to download a copy of Netscape Navigator 1.1, a much better browser that is available at no charge to individuals.


Netcruiser is not a good choice for people who want to do more advanced Internet activities, like tapping into the power of Internet "host" computers that are more powerful than the user's personal computer.

But then, one might argue that anyone who wants to run a powerful software compiler on someone else's computer is probably sophisticated enough to cope with the complexities of an Internet host account.

Netcom sells such host accounts for those who want them.

In short, Netcom's Netcruiser is a smart choice for beginning and moderately advanced Internet users who are already familiar with Microsoft's Windows software.

It is easier to use and less expensive than many other Internet options, and it offers more Internet features than the so-called consumer services like America Online.

More information on Netcruiser is available by calling (800) 353-6600.


Netcom can be found at the following location on the World Wide Web: