THE INTERNET'S World Wide Web is a vast electronic library, made up of millions of pages of information stored in hundreds of thousands of linked computers around the globe.
With the proper computer software and the right Internet connections, personal computer users can flip from page to page and browse from one electronic document to another just by pointing and clicking on the computer screen.
The problem is that for most Internet visitors, flipping through the pages of the World Wide Web is about as exciting as turning pages of a book or magazine once every 30 seconds or so.
(Even some people with fast modems call it the World Wide Wait.)
Some pages are fascinating, others are dreary, but nothing really happens on the pages. Browsing is a passive activity once the reader lands on a page.
Imagine, instead, a Web where each page is active and interactive, instead of static.
A simple graphic image becomes an animation. A photograph becomes a video clip.
Stock quotes and sports scores are updated on screen as the user watches.
On the interactive Web page, users can make queries or place orders, and get responses and confirmations from the computer. Pages can contain specialized software applications that perform tasks for the user.
Games and other forms of electronic entertainment will proliferate. Tutorials that show users how to use software, or program their VCRs, will become widespread.
At that point, the Web will be transformed into a powerful new communication medium, incorporating elements of books and magazines, mail, radio, television, telephone and, of course, the personal computer. The term "browser" suddenly becomes inadequate.
A major upgrade
That is the promise hinted at by Netscape Navigator 2.0, a major upgrade of the most popular software used for browsing the Web.
What Navigator delivers, other than promises, is a slightly faster browser that integrates new tools for managing electronic mail and Usenet news groups.
It has a streamlined system for jumping from site to site, and a better way to store favorite bookmarks.
It also has a new technical framework, invisible to the end user, that will eventually enable all the active and interactive features described above.
Prototype versions of Navigator 2.0 for Windows, Macintosh and Unix computers were placed on the Web in recent days and are available for downloading via File Transfer Protocol from ftp://ftp.netscape.com/.
There is a huge gap between promise and reality, of course. Users of Navigator 2.0b (the b stands for "beta") will not find many Web sites that take advantage of the new features.
It will be months, if not years, before Web sites routinely offer the active and interactive features that Netscape's new software allows.
Even so, hundreds of Web developers are already at work planning to design (or redesign) electronic documents with the "tags" that Navigator 2.0 enables. When a user of Navigator 2.0 enters a site that has been specifically designed for Navigator 2.0, the change will become apparent immediately.
In the rapidly changing virtual world of the Internet, it will not be long until Navigator 2.0 -- and any other so-called Web browsers that choose to adopt Netscape's technical features -- changes the look of the Web itself.
Once again, it must be stressed that one must traverse long and bumpy stretches of the Information Ho Chi Minh Trail to get to this new and improved World Wide Web.
It is inherently risky to trust an experimental program, but Navigator 2.0b is so compelling, and reveals so much about the future of the Web, that it is worthy of a preview.
Netscape has placed some demonstration and background files fTC on the company's own Web site (http://www.netscape.com/) that are worth investigating even if one has no interest in downloading the software at this time.
For those who want to start testing the software, there are many caveats.
First, only those computer users who have a direct Internet connection can use Navigator 2.0, ruling out those who reach the Web indirectly, through a service such as America Online or CompuServe.
Those services have their own browsers.
Prodigy is in the process of swapping its home-grown browser for Netscape Navigator, but the new version will not be available for some time.
Second, remember that this is beta software. The term "beta" is computerese for "use at your own risk, and let us know if it crashes your system."
It is prudent to make a complete backup of your system's data before loading any beta program.
If you have a previous version of Navigator, save a copy of it, too.
The software itself spans more than three megabytes of disk space, although with data compression it packs into a two-megabyte suitcase for traveling over the Internet.
No additional cost
There is no cost to obtain Navigator 2.0b beyond the fees for connecting to the Internet.
In fact, Netscape is offering rewards to programmers who can find significant flaws in the software before the code is locked up for final release.
Netscape has put a timer into the beta software that will cause it to expire on Dec. 15, suggesting that the official version will be ready well before then.
When the commercial version of Navigator 2.0 is shipped, it will be free to individuals to evaluate for 90 days.
At the end of 90 days, or whenever one's conscience kicks in, Netscape asks users to send in $50, on the honor system. In this case, $50 is a bargain even though many other fine browsers are available without charge.