Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 167 / AUGUST 1994 / PAGE 56

What you need to know about the Internet. (worldwide computer and information network) (Compute's Getting Started With: Online Communications)
by Richard O. Mann

The Internet seems to be almost a myth or legend. In fact, it's the closest thing we currently have to a true information superhighway. It connects 15 to 17 million users in 125 or more countries around the world on a bewildering array of 1 million or more individual computers of every type imaginable.

It has grown from a loose confederation of government and research computers 20 years ago to today's ungoverned interconnection of computer resources. Nobody owns, operates, or controls the Internet, although the volunteer-staffed Internet Society tries to encourage the net to move in appropriate directions.

How Can I Hook Up to the Internet?

Access to the Internet can be hard to line up. University, government, and some large corporations' employees can often wrangle a direct (hard-wired) connection to the Internet through a local network. If you can accomplish this, you'll have a freer access to net features than with a dialup connection.

Individuals and small companies most frequently connect through paid service providers, DELPHI being the most well known national provider. If you live in a large city, you may be able to find a less expensive local provider.

What's Out There on the Internet?

Aside from the ability to E-mail to 17 million people, you also have access to millions of files stored on networked computers, over 4000 specialized discussion groups, global news almost the instant it's written, and a bewildering array of databases and other information sources. (Want to search the Library of Congress catalog? It's there.) The question isn't whether the data you need is on the net--it's whether you'll be able to find it and get at it.

The discussion groups, called newsgroups on the Usenet, vary from the sublime ( guitar for classical guitar music) to the outrageous (alt.cows.moo.moo.moo for, you know, cow noises). If you're interested in it, there's a Usenet newsgroup about it with discussion from all over the globe.

How Hard Is It to Use the Internet?

Look at it this way: If 17 million people are using it, how hard can it be? Unfortunately, it's downright difficult. Not impossible--just difficult. It uses a UNIX command system that's cryptic at best. There's no online help or any other recognition of the fact that everyone there doesn't already know exactly what he or she is doing.

The best way to learn the arcane lingo of the net is to buy a book that teaches you the ins and outs of the net. I contacted the publicists of two publishers, asked if they had any Internet titles, and immediately received 15 books--as popular as the Internet is right now, there's no shortage of published assistance. Of the 15 titles, Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide by Brendan Kehoe (PTR Prentice Hall, 515-284-6751) is the most succinct and interesting. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Internet by Peter Kent (Alpha Books, 800-428-5331) offers layman's-level instruction in an amusing setting, along with a disk of files listing Usenet news-groups and other resources that would be too bulky to print in the book. Michael Fraase's The PC Internet Tour Guide and The Windows Internet Tour Guide (Ventana Press, 800-743-5369) are entertainingly light reading with keystroke-by-keystroke instructions for basic Internet functions and disks containing programs that ease net navigation. You might also take a look at netguide: What's on in Cyberspace! (Random House, 800-733-3000, $19.00) and The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog (O'Reilly & Associates, 800-998-9938, $24.95).

Should I Sign Up?

If you're toying with the idea of getting an Internet account, buying one of these books will show you right away if the net is a place you're going to like. If you're willing to put the effort into it, the Internet can be a rewarding adventure.