CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Clearing up some confusion about on-line life

Originally published Monday, April 7, 1997

Cathi Schuler

As the numbers of people using the Internet and World Wide Web increase exponentially, so does general confusion as to the very basics of on-line connectivity. I'm frequently asked questions such as: "Do you prefer Netscape or America Online for your Internet provider?" or "Can I use Yahoo! instead of WorldNet to get on the Web?" These questions are usually posed as casually as: "Paper or plastic?"

In fact, Yahoo!, America Online, WorldNet and Netscape are all elements of the on-line world, but comparing them in such a manner is like comparing roast beef to Tuesday, or tennis to toothpaste. Contributing to this confusion is the Web itself, which has grown so friendly and easy to navigate that people often aren't quite sure what they're using or how they got there.

A good understanding of on-line life requires that all components are clearly distinguished from each other and not just jumbled together like apples and oranges.

America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe and Microsoft Network are all examples of commercial services. When you subscribe to any of these services, you move into a fully furnished mansion with seemingly unlimited rooms and activities. Your every need is anticipated and the management takes care of all details. You do nothing. Just move in and pay your $19.95 monthly rent.

Each room in these sprawling commercial estates represent the various content areas such as leisure, sports, business, reference, e-mail and more. Access to the Internet and World Wide Web is just one of the many options that commercial providers offer their users who can view the Web through one of the "rooms" in America Online, for example. The word "through", however, is the keyword that distinguishes a commercial service provider from an Internet Service Provider. A connection to America Online or similar commercial provider is not a direct Internet connection.

If you'd like to construct your own customized Internet home, rather than subscribe to a fully equipped turnkey operation you must build from the ground up, starting with a direct Internet connection. AT&T WorldNet, NetCom, and, locally, InReach Internet are among the thousands of Internet Service Providers that offer you a direct connection to the Internet for a monthly fee. These are merely connections or sockets, however, and only bring power to an empty lot.

Once powered with an Internet connection, you must frame your custom home by installing browser software. Netscape, Microsoft Explorer, NCSA Mosaic and Quarterdeck Mosaic are all examples of applications that enable you to see or "browse" the contents of the Internet and World Wide Web. Browsers are not on-line services, but merely instructions that allow your PC to communicate directly with the Internet. These basic applications are often supplied by your ISP when you first sign up for direct access. While you must pay a fee for Internet access, the rest of the house can usually be built for free.

Now that your house is powered with Internet access and framed, its time to build the rooms and select your individualized furnishings or favorite Web sites. Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo. com), CNet's Search.com (http://www.search.com/), Internet Sleuth (http://www.isleuth.com/) orAltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com) are among the millions of websites that you can designate as bookmarks or favorite places when customizing your own Internet access.

The possibilities are virtually unlimited.

A great many of today's Web sites, like Yahoo!, organize Internet content by category on their opening pages, a la commercial services style, so users often believe erroneously that a Yahoo!-type site is akin to America Online. Yahoo! is only a Web site, whereas AOL is a commercial on-line service. Apples and oranges.

To make matters more confusing, you can access Yahoo! and similar sites through America Online without a direct Internet connection because AOL offers Web access as one of its services.

So, do you build your own custom connection, or buy into a turnkey commercial service? It's strictly a matter of choice.

A commercial on-line service is certainly easy, especially for beginners. The downsides, however, include slow service and intermittent access problems. If you find yourself using a commercial service only for the Internet access, then it's time to subscribe to an Internet Service Provider and customize your own online preferences rather than subscribing to some preset configuration.

Regardless of your choice, keep a clear distinction between commercial providers, Internet Service Providers, browser software and Web sites.

They all work in harmony, but is unique and contributes differently to the on-line universe.

For a complete listing of Internet Services providers, consult The List, published by IWorld.http://thelist.iworld.com/

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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