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Easing Your Way Onto The Net

Technology & You


At a trade show a while back, I picked up a packet from Performance Systems International (PSI) that promised instant Internet access. The software--Internet Chameleon from Netmanage Inc.--installed easily. But it took hours of frustration and a couple of calls to PSI's tech support to get my account up and working.

The moral is that for all the hoopla--here and elsewhere--surrounding the Internet, actually finding your way onto the Information Superhighway remains surprisingly difficult. And the sluggish performance you get on the graphics rich World Wide Web, with generally available dial-up connections of 14.4 kilobits per second (KBPS), may leave you wondering what the excitement is about.

UP TO SPEED. Although new software promises easier access, the most valuable thing you can bring to an Internet encounter these days is a sense of diminished expectations. Thus prepared, you can choose from several options. Most users would probably do best relying on commercial online services. Prodigy Services Co. and America Online Inc. offer similar deals. Both include Web browsers in their software. Both charge $9.95 per month for three hours and $2.95 for each additional hour. The big difference: AOL (the home of BUSINESS WEEK online) offers 28.8 KBPS service in most large U.S. cities, while Prodigy offers 14.4 or less. CompuServe Inc. has yet to fully integrate the Internet into its regular services, so Web browsing requires a separate call. The service costs $9.95 per month for three hours plus $2.50 per additional hour. Only about a dozen major cities now offer 28.8 connections.

If you're more adventurous, there are advantages to going with an Internet service provider. For one thing, it may be cheaper. As an example, PSI (800 827-7482) offers its InterRAMP service for $9.95 per hour plus $1.50 for each hour after the ninth. It may be easier to get 28.8 KBPS--or if you're really willing to try out the cutting edge, 64 KBPS digital ISDN service--through an Internet provider.

If you go this route, you'll usually have the freedom to choose your own software. For example, you might want to use Netscape Communications' popular Web browser rather than the ones America Online or Prodigy build in. You may prefer Qualcomm's Eudora to an online service's clunky E-mail program. Or you might want to download software off the Net and experiment with Internet relay chat, a service that allows you to talk directly with other users.

DIAL-ON-DEMAND. It's easy to find a service provider, from international companies such as PSI to any of the hundreds of local outfits that have sprung up. Local users groups are a good source of information. The trick is finding the right access software. One feature you'll definitely want is dial-on-demand, which automatically calls your provider when you fire up your Web browser or other Internet software.

InternetSuite from Quarterdeck Corp. (310 392-9851) is probably closest to the sort of software that nontechie consumers need. The $80 package automates account setups with more than 50 service providers. It comes with a solid set of Internet programs, including a good Web browser and tools for remote login and file transfer. It also allows you to add your own tools, such as the Netscape browser. You may still have to do a bit of fine-tuning, but the process is almost as automated as setting up a CompuServe or AOL account.

Quarterdeck is leading the way toward an Internet that is no longer the province of programmers and engineers exclusively. As that thinking spreads, the reality of Net access may catch up with the hype.BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM

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