Those bewildering Internet providers National online services have real advantages over a local firm

THE WOEFUL e-mail-of-the-week comes from my old friend Dudley, who finally decided that this Internet thing was more than a fad and resolved to go online at home.

Now Dudley is not a computerphobe -- far from it. He uses a PC at work and home and generally manages quite well. So when he visited a store and saw a package of free disks offering what purported to be an easy way to connect with a regional Internet provider, he decided give it a try.


He followed the installation directions but couldn't get the program to run. Actually, that's not exactly accurate. He couldn't even find the program on his computer. Figuring he'd made some mistake, Dudley called the company's technical support line -- long distance -- and got a message that he'd have to wait on hold at least 30 minutes. He tried again, twice, and got the same response.

So from his computer at work he sent e-mail to company's tech support address. Three times. No reply. Frustrated, he took the disk to the head of his company's information systems department, who couldn't get it to work, either.


In desperation, Dudley went back to the store where he had found the free sign-up disks and picked up another set. This time, the setup worked like a charm. It turned out that the original disk had been damaged.

"So after two weeks of frustration, I'm now logged on," he wrote in his first e-mail to me, adding that the whole process seemed a lot harder than it should have been. Dudley's right. Getting hooked up is still harder than it should be. It's also a lot easier than it once was.

In fact, if he hadn't received a bad disk, Dudley might have sent me a message telling me how great his Internet provider was. But the fact that he had so much trouble getting help with a simple problem shows the importance of choosing an Internet provider carefully.

Fortunately and unfortunately, you have a bewildering variety of choices. The most obvious are the national online service such as America OnLine, CompuServe, Prodigy or the Microsoft Network.

If you bought a computer in the past year or so, the chances are good that software to connect you with one or more of them was already installed on your hard disk. And if you're on any computer-related mailing list, you've probably received dozens of solicitations and sign-up disks.

One of the big guys' main advantages is that they're everywhere. They maintain their own networks with local numbers in most areas of the country. That makes them a good bet if you travel with a laptop computer.

The national services also offer their own content -- news, sports, weather, entertainment, games, financial information, chat rooms and special interest groups. They're ultimately responsible for the quality of that content -- and some offer parental controls to help keep kids away from questionable material.

But the national providers also offer bridges to the World Wide Web, that gigantic electronic bazaar of information and services stored on Internet computers around the globe. Where they differ is in how they get you there. AOL and CompuServe provide you with proprietary software designed specifically to navigate their own systems, with add-on browsers for the Web. The latest incarnations of Prodigy and the Microsoft Network (MSN) are part of the Web itself and use standard Web-browsing software, but their unique content is available only to subscribers.


If you're interested in their content, AOL is fun and easy to use (its well-publicized system overloads and busy signals notwithstanding), while CompuServe offers access to many serious business databases that aren't available elsewhere. The new Web-based versions of MSN and Prodigy are a bit less developed, and they're proof that Web browsers still aren't as good at producing an interactive online service as proprietary software. But if you're primarily interested in the Web, they get you there without going through a middleman.

For users who don't care about chat rooms and online games, an account with a pure Internet service provider may be a better choice. Some of these providers, such as Mindspring and AT&T; WorldNet are national in scope. Others, including new operations by phone companies, serve a region. Still others (many of them mom-and-pop operations), may serve only one city.

You're taking your chances here. The better operations will provide you with software that makes it easy to sign up and log on. Others give you nothing more than a password and phone number. They leave it up to you to provide the software and figure out how to make the connection, a process that's about as much fun as lying on a bed of nails while somebody pokes you in the eye with a sharp stick. While their prices can be rock-bottom, help can be spotty or nonexistent, and with small operations, you may find yourself listening to a lot of busy signals when you try to dial in.

But local Internet providers can offer something the large outfits can't: personalized service. Most provide something called a "shell account," a basic pathway into their systems that gives experienced users far more flexibility in programming and communication with other computers. If you want to set up a sophisticated business Web site with an interactive catalog or online ordering, they can provide the tools or -- for a fee -- the programming talent to set one up for you.

What's best for you? If you don't know much about computers and don't want to learn about them, a national provider or a strong regional service is a good starting point. Most offer free trials that give you a chance to size them up. But if you're thinking of using the Web for business, it may be worth the effort to find a local Internet provider who can handle all your needs.

Pub Date: 2/23/97