Solving the mysteries of online

I'VE BEEN ONLINE for so long that I can't imagine life without a modem. My household has two Internet accounts and subscriptions to three online services. My business cards advertise my e-mail address and home page. I take the online world so much for granted that I got a dose of a culture shock when we visited friends in London and I realized that there are normal people who don't know anything about it. As it turned out, William and Julia were buying their first computer. Now these are educated, successful, middle-aged professionals -- but neither had ever really used a PC, let alone a modem. And, despite being thus deprived, they'd not only survived, but prospered.

"It was getting a bit embarrassing," William said. "Everybody kept asking me for my e-mail address and I didn't have one. So now I'm doing it. But I don't have the foggiest notion of what I'm up to. No one can really explain the differences between the Internet and the World Wide Web and America OnLine and the Microsoft Network and all these other places. Do you ever write ** about that?"


Actually I do, but it's usually something like, 'Point your Web browser to such-and-such." This assumes that readers know what a Web browser is. Or what the Web is. Or what the Internet is, for that matter. So for the Williams and Julias -- who undoubtedly outnumber people like me by 10 to 1 -- here's a brief explanation: First, the Internet. Basically, it's a gigantic communications system developed over the last 20 years by the military, government agencies, universities and businesses who wanted their computers to exchange information.

Eventually, everyone agreed on a set of protocols for passing information and an addressing system that would identify each computer on the network -- the digital equivalent of a phone number. With government financing, a backbone of high-speed communication lines was set up to link those machines.


Once the Internet was established, researchers could share information and computers. A biologist with data in Maryland could send them to a colleague in Oregon. An engineer in Missouri with a slow computer could log onto a fast computer in California and run programs to crunch his numbers.

Better yet, some smart folks figured out a way to send messages directly to any individual with an account on any Internet computer. Thus, e-mail was born. Outside of academia and government, nobody paid much attention, because the only way you could use the Internet was to have an account on a computer that was connected. That meant sitting down at a terminal hooked to a big mainframe. Even then, you had to be pretty geeky to make everything work. Finding information, retrieving it and displaying it required different programs, most of which required that you learn some strange version of computer Esperanto.

So the general public took a different route. As personal computers and modems took off in the 1980s, commercial online services such as CompuServe, The Source, GEnie, Prodigy and America OnLine sprang up to give ordinary people access to electronic news, stock prices, information, e-mail and chat. They were easy to use, and you could log on from home or the office. The downside was that that you were stuck with your service provider. AOL users couldn't communicate with CompuServe users, and Prodigy subscribers couldn't talk to AOL.

Things began to change rapidly in the early 1990s. The breakthrough was the development of the World Wide Web by scientists at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. They thought the Internet was too hard to use, too, and they envisioned a system with information that could be located and viewed on any computer using one simple program. In other words, they wanted to turn the Internet into a do-it-yourself publishing system.

So they developed standards that would allow host computers (known as "servers") to send documents called "pages" to people with programs that could request and display them. These programs became known as browsers. Any page can contain "links" that send you to another page -- on the same computer or on a computer halfway around the world. You can skip from page to page, following a trail that expands like an infinite spider's web.

So the World Wide Web consists of millions of computers on the Internet that can deliver Web pages to people with browsers such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. The browsers themselves have become much more sophisticated, and now they can display Web pages that include graphics, audio and even video clips.

All of this made the Internet much easier to use, and ordinary people took notice. Commercial services sprang up to provide computer users with dial-up access to the Internet, so you no longer had to be affiliated with a university or large corporation.

America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy began to take notice, too. While they still offer their own content, they now provide e-mail connectivity through the Internet and full access to the World Wide Web.


So if you're wondering about how to get connected, it doesn't matter that much. E-mail is everywhere. Generally, you'll get faster Web response by using a dedicated Internet provider, whether it's a local company or national provider such as NetCom or AT&T.; But if you want the organized content of an AOL or CompuServe, you can sign up with one of them. Give it a try.

Pub Date: 8/31/97