The Cleavers Enter Cyberspace

Is Middle America ready for the Internet? The worldwide web of some 45,000 networks has been an underground movement of sorts--a cyberspace hangout where researchers, students, and techies spend hours tapping into data bases and discussing the most esoteric of subjects in electronic forums. But with Internet doubling in members during the past year--to 15 million--demand is spreading to ordinary consumers. Still, Internet is pretty hard to navigate. "You have to learn a rather arcane language of commands," says Howard Funk, an associate with the Internet Society, a user group.

That's where the more user-friendly consumer networks see dollar signs. In November, Prodigy, the No.1 on-line service, will offer its 2 million members a simple electronic mail "gateway" to Internet. And America Online, the fastest-growing service, will offer its 350,000 members some of the Internet's more advanced features. That will put the generally well-heeled suburbanites on these services in touch with folks they might not meet otherwise.

KEY LINKUP. For Prodigy, a money-losing joint venture between IBM and Sears, Roebuck & Co., the linkup represents a big opportunity. President and CEO Ross S. Glatzer calls Internet "a Wild West show" that will never become the backbone of a national data superhighway unless it's usable by mere mortals. That view is shared by America Online as well as 1.3 million-member CompuServe and 400,000-member GEnie. All offer Internet E-mail gateways. Bill Moroney, director of the Electronic Mail Assn., a trade group, predicts such links may become the most popular way to tap into Internet.

And not just for E-mail. Later this month, Vienna (Va.)-based America Online will let members join Internet's 4,000 bulletin boards where people debate everything from Beavis and Butthead to NAFTA. AOL users can also log on to Internet's electronic libraries.

Even those consumers with technical fortitude had no way to join Internet until recently. Most people must get accounts from companies, research labs, or universities that pay service fees--averaging $40,000 per year for a company. The only big service that has let the unaffiliated roam freely is Delphi Internet Services Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. Recently acquired by News Corp., the 100,000-member network says it's trying to make Internet friendlier for subscribers, who pay $20 per month.

But bringing the masses to Internet poses some issues. Foremost is pricing. While Internetters are accustomed to swapping scores of E-mail notes per day, Prodigy provides just 30 free messages per month and plans to charge 15 for every Internet message thereafter. "That's not what your standard Internet user now enjoys," says Funk.

Still, the consumer influx represents a huge addition to what is already the world's biggest electronic community. And it's hard to predict what the combination might yield. Stephen C. Dennett, Prodigy's manager of E-mail, expects big demand from Prodigy members with kids in college on Internet. So, expect a tide of E-mail from parents nagging their kids to visit--followed by a wave of replies asking for money.