May 1995


No other computer topic seems to get as much press coverage as the Internet. Yet most people seem to have only a vague idea about what it is and how it can be used. We will try to shed some light on the subject while avoiding technical details.

The Internet is a global network of computers. Each computer connects to one or more other computers. The computers keep track of how to connect to one another. The result is that any two computers can communicate, although it may take many "hops" between computers to get a message to its proper destination.

Many different kinds of computers are used on the Internet, but they share a common method of communicating with one another. This method is called TCP/IP. If you want to connect to the Internet, your computer must use TCP/IP also.

In addition to TCP/IP, the Internet has many other standards which allow dissimilar computers to exchange information. There are e-mail standards (POP, MIME), file transfer standards (FTP), document display standards (HTML), modem communication standards (PPP, SLIP), and others.


Here are some of the things you can do:

1. E-mail

You can send mail to anyone who has Internet access. Mail addresses look like this:

The user's name ("hallem") comes before the @ symbol, and the computer which accepts that person's mail ("") follows.

The Internet mail system has some peculiar features. You can "attach" files to a message, but the mail system can only handle plain text ("7-bit ASCII"). Binary files, such as programs or word-processing documents, require conversions. There are several standards for such conversions, and they usually work.

Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure that your e-mail reached the proper destination. You send it and hope it arrives, but there is no equivalent of "return receipt requested."

2. File transfers

A great deal of information is available on the Internet at no cost, including computer software and photographs. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) lets you copy files from someone else's computer to your computer.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find the file you want. If you have an Archie client program on your computer, you can connect to an Archie server, which will search for files by name. Other programs are also available to search for the information you need.

Many files are in a compressed format to reduce the time needed to copy them. After you get the file, you need the right software to decompress it. Two common compression methods are "zip" (files ending in .zip) and "compress" (files ending in .Z), but there are others as well.

3. Gopher

A menu system called gopher is often used for text-only information. Each menu item leads to another menu or a text document.

4. The World Wide Web (WWW)

The Web is a means of presenting information to Internet users. If you are familiar with the help system in Microsoft Windows, you will find that Web documents are quite similar to Windows help files. You see information on the screen, which may include text, graphics, and links to other information. Each link is shown as underlined text. You click on a link to go to a new "page" of information.

What distinguishes the Web is the nature of each link. You might go to another part of the current document (like the help system), or to another computer anywhere in the world. You just click on a link, and the software (a "Web browser") makes the proper connection to the next computer.

Not everything on the Web is linked to everything else. People who create Web pages put in the links they think will be useful. To go to a specific Web page, you can enter its URL (Uniform Resource Locator), which looks something like this:

This example is the URL for Compaq Computer Corporation.


Commercial on-line services (such as America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe, and GEnie) provide an indirect connection to the Internet. You connect to the service over a modem, and they provide Internet access. The only special software you need is the software for connecting to the on-line service.

Advantages of an on-line service include a low monthly minimum charge, ease of setup, and the other features of the on-line service (if you want them).

To get a direct connection to the Internet, you need an Internet access provider. This is a company with a computer connected to the Internet. They provide an account on their computer and the software for your PC. You still connect over a modem, but now your PC is directly on the Internet. All Internet features are available, once you figure out how to use them!

The advantages of a direct connection include faster speed, more capabilities, and a lower hourly rate. As an example of the cost, Primenet offers 150 hours per month for $24.95 (for personal accounts). You pay for the phone call (free from a home PC), but the Internet itself has no usage charges.


A fast modem is essential for an Internet dial-up connection. Next time we will explain why many computers cannot take full advantage of a fast modem.

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