Of all the sprawling streets and neighborhoods shaping the global Internet, the ever-expanding World Wide Web is becoming the chic high-rent district. The Web is the Internet's dashing side, complete with sound, nifty graphics, even video. Visitors can sample music from Windham Hill or buy a bottle of wine. They can download tax forms or read transcripts from the O.J. Simpson
trial. Businesses are also going gaga over the Web. Thousands of companies are creating so-called home pages (posted on computers known as servers), containing product information, pictures, and promotional come-ons.
Making it all work seamlessly is a new breed of software called Web browsers, which help people explore the Web. Browsers exploit a powerful software technique known as "hypertext." Web pages and documents contain links or shortcuts that can whisk you between a variety of information sources. With a browser, you click a mouse on words, phrases, or photos that have been highlighted. By doing so, you can retrieve and display those documents or digitized pictures without needing to learn complicated commands in the arcane UNIX operating system.
For example, from the home page at the Interactive Employment Network, you can choose such hypertext links as career fair calendar, salary guides, and resume writing tips. As your computer retrieves these links, it may be reaching out to servers located halfway around the planet. At times it seems so, too: If you don't have a fast modem connection of at least 14,400 bits per second and lots of memory, you'll be doing more waiting than browsing.
Browser programs are rapidly becoming more accessible. Many programs for Macintosh and Windows can be downloaded for free. And in January, Prodigy became the first major online service to offer a browser to members.
The granddaddy of multimedia browsers is Mosaic, a concoction of the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois. Introduced in 1993, Mosaic was made free to anyone who wanted to download the program off the Net.
Mosaic spawned a gaggle of imitators, some with direct lineage. Last year, the University of Illinois signed an agreement with Naperville (Ill.)-based Spyglass to develop and distribute commercially enhanced versions of Mosaic. One such scion, called AIR Mosaic, is packaged in Seattle-based Spry's Internet in a Box ($99). Users can choose from a list of service providers--companies that connect you to the Net--preselected by Spry. This makes it easier for novices to get up and running. Choosing a service provider on your own is best left to those who are more comfortable with PCs: You'll have to fill in the IP address, netmask, and domain, among other techie terms.
DIFFICULT JOB. Indeed, all browsers are relatively trouble-free once you're connected to the Net. But some, such as SuperHighway Access for Windows, can cause migraines during installation. The problem: making sure the software is in sync with the service provider.
Meanwhile, Netscape Communications, co-founded by the developer of NCSA Mosaic, unveiled a powerful browser of its own last year, called Netscape Navigator. The program is free over the Net; folks who want a warranty and upgrades must fork over a $39 registration fee. Most Netscape users require separate software to connect to an Internet access provider. But Netscape is being bundled as part of The Transom, a New York commercial online service.
Indeed, browsers are distributed in myriad ways. Some are being packaged with books on the Internet. Others are being built directly into operating systems. IBM includes WebExplorer in its new OS/2 Warp. The browser has helpful buttons and pull-down menus but will not work outside the Warp environment. Microsoft plans to include a Spyglass browser in its upcoming Windows 95 operating system.
Other service providers supply customers with proprietary browsers. Since these programs--Prodigy's or Netcom's NetCruiser--are maintained by the same companies that provide Net access, they may represent the simplest way for neophytes to start navigating the Web. Besides, the programs are free with service membership, and connecting is relatively painless. The downside to the Netcom and Prodigy approach is that you are giving up the flexibility to try out different service providers. Moreover, for now, most Prodigy subscribers can only sign on at a top modem speed of 9,600 bits per second--so retrieving data is agonizingly slow.
Each browser analyzed by BUSINESS WEEK and National Software Testing Laboratories, both owned by McGraw-Hill, does a nice job at handling its most basic function: namely to help keep track of where you've been during a surfing session and to let you mark sites so you can find your way back again. The programs let you place a "bookmark" or add a site to a "hotlist." That means you won't have to remember the Web address, or URL (for uniform resource locator). These are lengthy strings of characters with http:// always at the beginning.
Still, subtle differences distinguish one browser from another. Speed is critical, and the best browsers in our tests use clever techniques to hurry things along. When you're waiting for a huge file to arrive with Netscape, you can watch the graphics materialize and scroll down the screen before all the bytes of data have shown up. Netscape also keeps you well-informed on the status of a download: It details a running count and percentage of the bytes transferred. A red bar graph also updates you on the transfers.
GOOD BRAKES. All the browsers in our tests let you click on a stop command, which comes in handy when a download is taking forever (or if you're having trouble connecting to the server containing the data). To zip things up, the browsers also let you bypass the graphics and download only text.
Some browsers (or their service providers) do better than others in pointing users to sites that might be worth visiting. Or they'll direct you to some of the best search tools (Lycos, WebCrawler, among them) on the Web. Internet in a Box takes you to the Global Network Navigator home page, which contains links to more than 600 Internet services including the NCSA Mosaic What's New list, and the Whole Internet Catalog, a directory by
The Prodigy home page provides links to the popular Yahoo List Web catalog and includes What's New and Hot Spots lists. On one recent visit, I was led to NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavor site and to CyberMalls, where I could drop in on Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Come to think of it, given the time it takes for some files to get from a far-off Web server to your computer, java might be just the thing to keep you browsing along.