Where’s the Information On-Ramp?

[Granby Drummer Masthead]

Copyright © 1995 Rob Levandowski, all rights reserved.

Last month, I discussed why you should care about the Internet‹the fabled “information superhighway” that has gotten so much press recently. So now that you’re convinced that you need to get on-lineŠ how do you actually do it?

There’s more than one way. On a real highway, you can get from one place to another in several ways. You can take the bus; you can drive the family car; or you can hop into your roadster and go!

Getting the right garage

If you don’t have a computer yet, you should think about what you’ll need to buy in order to get online. There are currently two major types of personal computer: the IBM-PC-compatible computer, and the Macintosh/MacOS compatible computer. Supporters of each type have raised the art of debating pros and cons to the level of a virtual religious war. In the interests of fairness, I’m a happy‹and somewhat biased‹Mac user.

The advantage of the IBM PC-type system is that it has widespread acceptance in the business world. For a long time, managers couldn’t go wrong if they went IBM. Today, IBM itself is a bit player in personal computers, but IBM-type computers have the majority of the market. You can get a basic IBM PC clone for a very low price.

The disadvantages to the IBM PC clone may not be obvious. They are more difficult to set up and use, and a new computer user may be totally baffled by them. (The new “Windows 95” operating system claims to help fix this, but the consensus where I work is that it’s a lot of PR fluff for now.) Also, the supposed price advantage evaporates when you start adding options. A cheap IBM PC clone is like a stripped Chevy, where the least expensive Mac is more like a mid-range Buick: a higher starting trim level.

The number one advantage of the Macintosh is ease of use. Macs were designed as appliances‹you don’t need to configure a toaster, you just plug it in and shove some bread into it. Macs come with most of the options already built in, and setup generally consists of plugging it in and shoving a disk into it.

Mac critics have often cited high cost as a disadvantage, but the cost of Apple’s computers has come down considerably in recent years. Also, there are now several companies that sell Macintosh clones which are as good as Apple’s computers, but cheaper. Some people also find Macs to be “less flexible.” This is like criticizing a modern car because you can’t do repairs and alterations to the engine yourself‹most people would rather just drive the car than get under the hood.

Whichever kind of computer you buy, you’ll want to get the following features:

  • a hard drive of at least one gigabyte (1 Gb) in size, to hold all that free Internet software;
  • plenty of RAM (16 Mb or more);
  • and a 28.8Kbps v.34 modem. If you have a 14.4Kbps modem already, it will let you access the Internet, but it will be slow. If you have a modem that’s slower yet, don’t bother with the Internet until you get a faster modem. (Picture driving a Yugo up Mount Washington: you’ll get there—eventually.)

Online services: taking the Info-Bus

If you subscribe to any technically-oriented magazine, you’ve undoubtedly gotten at least one floppy disk for one of the major online services. America OnlineCompuServe, Prodigy, and others have all launched massive advertising campaigns, claiming that they’re the easiest way to get on the Internet.

These online services are very much like a city bus. They’re easy to use, and you don’t have to drive. However, your choices are limited, and you have to pay the fare.

These services usually advertise a low monthly fee. However, this fee only covers certain services, or only covers a certain number of hours of use. Ten hours a month may seem like a lot of time to explore, but that’s about twenty minutes a day. Some services offer even less “free time” each month. After you use this time, you start paying an hourly fee, which can add up quickly.

Also, many of these services sacrifice power for an “easy to use” interface. For example, while America Online has “World Wide Web access,” you must use their software which is not fully compatible with many Web sites. Other services may censor Internet information that they consider not to be “family oriented”‹but that may mean that some things you consider perfectly innocent aren’t available to you because of some corporation’s sense of lowest-common-denominator morality.

(Since this article was first published in the Drummer, a good case in point has occurred. Recently, CompuServe censored a large number of Internet groups for their users, removing access to groups that the German government considered sexually oriented. Among the groups removed were a group about breastfeeding and a group for people with sexual impotence who are seeking support and guidance. These groups were not removed only for German users, but for all CompuServe users worldwide.)

With most online services, you do not need to worry about telephone charges, as they have local telephone numbers in most populated areas. However, before you consider any online service, you should make sure that you have “unlimited local” telephone service from your phone company, so that you don’t end up paying per minute for the local phone calls.

While these services may be a good way to get a taste of the Internet, I wouldn’t recommend them for the serious Internet traveller. Think of it this way: if cars didn’t pollute and weren’t expensive—who would ride the bus?

SLIP into the family PPP connection

The alternative to the online services is the “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. These are usually local companies, often divisions of computer stores or consulting firms, which offer Internet connections.

An account from an ISP may involve a bit more setup than an online service. These accounts come in two flavors: SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol), and the newer PPP (Point to Point Protocol). Both of these services are ways to get Internet data to squeeze through a standard computer modem. Both work well, but PPP works slightly better.

You’re going to need the appropriate software for your computer. Most ISPs will help you out, either recommending or providing the necessary programs. You may need to purchase part of the Internet software (the “TCP/IP driver”) if it didn’t come with your computer’s operating system software. Windows 95 and MacOS 7.5 both include TCP/IP software. You’ll also need a SLIP or PPP program, which your ISP can get for you, probably free of charge.

The best ISPs offer a flat monthly rate, regardless of how much you use the account. Beware of ISPs that use the “umpteen free hours” scheme like the online services‹you’ll use more time with an ISP, because there’s so much more to do. (You’d spend more time on the road having fun if you were driving your own car instead of riding the bus.)

One major feature offered by some ISPs is a “static IP address,” which means that your computer’s Internet address stays the same each time you log on. This will let you run your own information servers, but it’s more expensive for the ISP. Many ISPs offer dynamic IP addresses‹your computer’s Internet address changes each time you log in. However, all ISPs will issue you an e-mail address that won’t change, regardless of whether you have a static or dynamic IP address.

The other things you should consider in choosing an ISP are: Will you get a “shell” account on a UNIX system? Will you get full access to the USENET news system? Does the ISP have a place for you to set up a FTP or WWW server? Is it a local call to the ISP‘s modem?

Breaking the I-way speed limit

The “sports cars” of Internet connections are still expensive in most areas. Like a Dodge Viper or a Porsche 911, you pay extra for high performance, but it’ll sure feel more invigorating than the family Subaru.

One little-known technology is ISDN, or Integrated Services Digital Network. ISDN is a new telephone standard that’s slowly gaining acceptance. With an ISDN line, you can have a telephone line and a very high speed computer connection, or just one extremely fast computer connection, over one phone wire. However, ISDN can be expensive, and many phone companies charge several cents per minute for local ISDN calls. ISPs also usually charge premium rates for ISDN service. You won’t want to give up your regular phone line, either, because ISDN won’t work if the power goes out.

The other exciting development is the cable modem, which is being tested by several cable television companies around the nation. With a cable modem, you can use the massive data capacity of the cable television system to connect up to the Internet. Cable modems should exceed ISDN‘s speeds by a very healthy margin, and they promise to be very inexpensive‹they’ll probably be built into your cable TV decoder box, and connect to your computer’s high-speed Ethernet port. Contact your local cable company to see if they are planning to offer this service soon.

Where’s the showroom?

The major online services advertise in virtually all of the computer magazines. You can find information about the services in your favorite one.

You’ll probably find ISPs listed in the Yellow Pages. Depending on your phone company, they may be listed under Computers, Internet, Telecommunications, or some combination thereof. In fact, your phone company may also provide Internet service!

In order to get ISDN service, you’ll need to contact your phone company to see if it’s available in your area. (Make sure you sit down for the price quote.) They should be able to recommend IISPs that offer ISDN connections.

Get your motor running, head out on the high-way…

Next month, I’ll tell you about some of my favorite Internet sites, and give you instructions on how to find them yourself. I’ll also give some helpful hints on how to track down the information you need without becoming Information Roadkill.

This article was originally published in the December 1995 issue of The Granby Drummer.

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