As recently as a year ago, getting access to the Internet from anywhere in Europe was a challenge even for the computer-literate. CompuServe offered Internet E-mail with its $9.95-per-month online service, but reaching the World Wide Web or anything beyond was daunting and expensive. Suddenly, however, dozens of access providers that had been catering to corporate clients are targeting consumers.
The action is hottest in Germany and Britain, where personal computer sales are soaring. In Britain, the easiest route to the wonders of the Internet is through Pipex Ltd., the country's largest access provider. Pipex, which boasts 600 corporate customers, began offering a service on Mar. 20 for consumers called Pipex Dial. The $24.15-a-month service includes the NetScape Web browser, an E-mail software package called Mail-It, and an Internet utility called Ping, which allows you to test whether the computer you're trying to reach is working. The program uses a point-and-click system, so the uninitiated can take a maiden voyage to the Web by following prompts and clicking on the icons. Pipex is also developing a software program that will allow users to run an Internet session on a laptop anywhere in Europe.
By far the biggest Internet organization in Europe is Germany's EUNet. Like the World Wide Web, it was an academic tool created by university researchers to serve their fellow scientists and students. In 1992, the service went commercial. "We believe the Internet market for small subscribers will explode in the next couple of months," says Stephan Deutsch, marketing manager for EUNet Deutschland. The Dortmund-based company installs the software and modem, if necessary, and provides education, including a handbook on how to use the Internet.
CALL AUNTIE. A rush of slick new online services starting later this year in Europe, such as Microsoft Network, Deutsche Telekom's Datex-J, and Europe Online will multiply Internet options. All will offer point-and-click access to the Internet as a standard feature and software for Web browsing.
But Internet-access companies insist that their Web servers can do more than those of the online services. "Pure Internet is where we started," says Julian Ellison, networking manager of the BBC Networking Club. Club members pay $40 for a starter kit and $19.32 a month (with no access charges) to dial up a British Broadcasting Co. bulletin board called Auntie, which also acts as a gateway to the Internet.
One way to get Internet access is to shop for a computer or operating system that has it built in. Last November, IBM began packaging dial-up access to the Internet in its OS/2 Warp software. The program is doing well in Europe and is included in an estimated 40% of the PCs sold in Germany and Scandinavia. The OS/2 Warp price includes three hours of Internet browsing time, and IBM operates an international help line for beginners. When Microsoft's Windows 95 ships, it is also expected to have Internet access built in.
Once online, you can find some 60,000 European businesses hawking their services on the Net. Market researchers forecast that the number of cyberspace merchants from Iceland to Naples will double by yearend. Even the British budget was posted on the Internet within hours of its release--with a full analysis by accountants Ernst & Young. At this rate, the Internet could evolve into the first true prototype of a borderless Europe.