One of the hardest things about writing a column is judging what the audience wants. Generally, you only hear from readers who have an ax to grind, often about something only very tangentially related to the column topic. Recently, I have heard a couple of requests for really introductory information on the Internet, so that will be the topic of this month's column. I intend to cover the most basic Internet facts, provide an introduction to using the Netscape browser, and list a set of shareware and freeware Internet tools.
Frames allow multiple HTML documents to appear in separate sections of the browser window. For example, a page designer could lay out one window for a navigation bar and another window for document text.
Unfortunately, frames are implemented using an extension to the HTML language that is currently specific to Netscape. This widens the gap between Netscape and other browsers, making it more likely that pages that rely heavily on the extensions will display incorrectly not only on other vendors' Web clients but also on earlier versions of Netscape.
As soon as an HTML extension is released, Web page designers immediately begin to abuse and overtax it, which in turn brings out the worst in the Netscape beta code. The next couple of months promise plenty of instability in cyberspace.
Java is a C-like scripting language that is designed to encourage interactive Web pages. A stock-ticker page, for example, might use Java to scroll stock prices horizontally across the bottom of the browser window.
I'm not sure whether the introduction of Java will be a boon or a nightmare for Internet users. Up until version 2, the act of browsing a web page couldn't get you into disastrous trouble. Netscape might crash, or you might have trouble with a "helper" application, but it wasn't possible for a malicious Web page designer to damage your system the moment you enter his page.
Java changes all that. Browsing a page that contains a Java script can cause that script to execute on your system. This is a major, major step. In all previous incarnations, web pages that launched scripts could only cause code to execute on the host system. Opening some document types could cause a "helper" application to be launched, but you generally had to install the helper first. Further, these helpers were usually created by reasonably reliable sources.
No longer. Now the code is in the web page itself, and you have no idea what it's doing. Both Java's designers and Netscape claim that there are security features to prevent scripts from doing damage, but Netscape's security promises have been hollow before. Several serious Java-related breaches have already been reported, and the browser is still very new. Can we really expect that all those hackers out there on the Net are honest and friendly?
There's also the issue of what the security limits really are. Suppose a Java script transmits a copy of your directory tree to the host. Is that a breach? What if it scans your hard disk looking for credit card numbers and uploads anything that matches the right digit pattern? What if it merely reports your hardware configuration? Or what applications you have installed? And those examples don't even begin to cover what a script might do by writing to your system.
In addition to frames and Java, Version 2 adds a new mail client that's capable of retrieving as well as posting Internet mail, along with a different, though perhaps not better, newsgroup reader. Future support is promised for a "plugin" structure that would allow you to install extensions to the browser that operate seamlessly within it, much as Photoshop plugins do.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not to allow Java on your system--or even whether to try the new browser this early in its life cycle. Fortunately, Netscape is offering a version of the browser that has no Java support, so if you are leery of this feature, you can download the non-Java browser. As usual, you can find the browser via home.netscape.com or at ftp sites like ftp2.netscape.com.
Generally, the "Verifying user ID and password" message box should only show for about five seconds after your modem has connected to the provider. If it is staying up longer than that, you probably have the wrong settings in your Server Type dialog.
To check these settings, open the Dial-Up Networking window (usually Start / Accessories / Dial-Up Networking), then right-click on the icon that represents your Internet connection. Open the Properties dialog box and click "Server Type."
The Server Type dialog customizes the networking settings for a particular connection. Win95's default assumptions, though they may well work, are generally not optimal for a dial-up Internet connection. For best performance (especially for quickest log-in time), you want only the "Enable Software Compression" box checked in the "Advanced Options" section. In the "Allowed Network Protocols" section, make sure only TCP/IP is checked.
Unfortunately, though, there is no easy way to make the demand dialer change what connection it uses. If you change providers, or want to connect to a different phone number, you're out of luck. The demand dialer always wants to use the first provider it was connected to. There is a way out of this quandary, but it means using wandering into the dark underbelly of Win95: the Registry Editor.
The Registry Editor is a tool that allows the more courageous type of Win95 user to alter information stored in the Windows 95 Registry, the database that contains nearly all the settings and profile information used by your system. The Registry Editor is automatically installed in your Windows 95 directory during the setup process, but it is not added to your Start menu. You may well want to create a Start menu item for the Registry Editor, because it can come in handy more often than you might think.
If the Registry Editor is not on your Start menu, you can select Start / Run..., type "regedit" in the "Run Program" dialog box, and click "OK." You will see something that looks very like an Explorer screen, with a tree of cryptically-named "folders" in the left window and lists of data items in the right.
Describing the operation of the Registry Editor in detail is really beyond the scope of this article, so I will just give the steps needed to change the demand dial connection. When the Registry Editor opens, the "folder" tree will be closed, with "My Computer" highlighted.
Click on plus sign next to the "folder" marked "HKEY_CURRENT_USER." I know, I know, the name makes no sense. Blame Bill--after all, everyone else does. Within this folder you should find a folder called "RemoteAccess." Click on this folder, which will cause a list of data items to appear in the right window.
One of the items will be "InternetProfile." This is the connection that the demand dialer will open when you request something from the Net. To change it, double-click on the word "InternetProfile." A small dialog box will open, showing the current value. Change the field to reflect the name of the connection you want the demand dialer to use.
Spelling counts! If you spell the name of the connection incorrectly, the demand dialer will stop working. In fact, you might want to keep the Dial-Up Networking window open as you work to make sure you spell the new connection's name correctly.
Once the connection name is correct, click "OK." You should see the new value appear in the Registry Editor's right window. Close the Registry Editor, and voilà! The next time you request something from the Internet, Win95 should automatically connect to the new provider.
Without going into too much detail, the Internet is a huge network that connects thousands of computers all over the world. In concept, the Internet is just a really bloated version of the LAN you use at work, except for the fact that there is no central authority to regulate its operation.
Much as with a corporate LAN, the physical Internet itself is not terribly interesting: it just provides a connection between machines. The services and data on those thousands of interconnected machines are the reason people want to use the Internet, just as you might connect to a printer in another office via your corporate LAN.
The basic procedure for using an Internet service is to establish a connection to the Internet (analogous to logging in on your corporate LAN), then start client software to use the service. Each Internet service has its own type of client software. Some client programs, such as Netscape's Navigator, provide access to several different services; there are usually a large selection of commercial, shareware, and freeware clients for each service.
The most popular and useful Internet services are:
The Internet is most likely to be actually useful to you if you work in academia, or if you have an obscure interest or hobby. For example, if you collect French eighteenth century glass paperweights, there may not be enough people in your area to form a club. The teeming millions on the Internet may well help you form a world-spanning virtual community of French eighteenth century glass paperweight collectors. If there are enough of you, you might even launch a newsgroup called "rec.hobbies.paperweights."
For the beginning PC user, I would strongly recommend considering an on-line service rather than direct connection to the Internet. The major on-line services, such as CompuServe, the Microsoft Network, America Online, and Prodigy, provide (or soon will provide) full point-and-click access to most Internet services without the hassles of setting up and managing your own connection to the Internet.
The on-line services also provide vast amounts of content that are not available over the Net, mostly because they have a simple and secure way to charge their customers. CompuServe, for example, has unparalleled technical support forums hosted by all the major software and hardware vendors. It also provides access to a number of powerful fee-based databases, such as IQuest.
On-line services generally provide excellent connectivity to the Internet mail system, so you will be able to send and receive e-mail, though possibly at a higher cost than "real" Internet mail. Further, mail from one CompuServe subscriber to another (for example) is far more secure than mail that travels over the Net, and CompuServe directly supports the transmission of binary files.
In fact, if you spend only a couple of hours per month surfing the Web, it may actually be cheaper to do it via an on-line service. This sounds like heresy, but it's simple economics: TIAC, for example, charges about $25 per month for 100 hours of access, even if you use only two hours. Individual hours may cost more on an on-line service, but it may be cheaper if you use less of them.
If you are like me, you have probably received a couple of dozen "free trial" disks from on-line services; if you want to dip your toe into the Internet, you might want to give one of these a try. I will mention in passing that America Online users are likely to encounter some hostility on the Net, especially in the Usenet groups; etiquette blunders by some AOL members when the service first connected to the Internet have earned AOLers a reputation for fecklessness.
Your Internet provider generates the "Internet dial tone" you will use to connect to Internet services. You can choose either a local or a national provider; Table 1 lists some examples of both. The November issue of PC Report contains meeting notes that go into more detail about providers and the Internet in general.
|Provider||Type||WWW Page||Contact Number|
|America Online||Online Service||www.aol.com||(800) 827-6364|
|CompuServe||Online Service||www.compuserve.com||(800) 848-8990|
|Internet MCI||National||www.internetmci.com||(800) 955-5210|
|North Shore||Local||www.shore.net||(617) 593-3110|
|Prodigy||Online Service||www.prodigy.com||(800) 776-3449|
Your provider (especially if you choose a local company) may also be able to give you help in setting up your Internet connection. If you are a beginner, tell the provider this before you sign up and ask him what level of assistance you can expect. At a minimum, the provider should offer you a disk containing a self-installing TCP/IP stack and some client software for Internet services.
You are probably asking yourself what a TCP/IP stack is. This is jargon for the piece of software that takes messages from client software running on your PC and translates these messages into the protocol used by the Internet. You can actually run several different Internet clients on your system at once (Web browser and newsgroup client, for example); the stack will parcel out the messages to the proper program automatically.
Windows 95 users already have an excellent TCP/IP stack, though it is not installed by default. The September issue of PC Report contains detailed instructions for connecting Win95 to the Internet. If you purchase the Microsoft Plus Pack for Windows 95, you will get the Internet Wizard, which will get you on the Net in record time. The Plus Pack also includes a version of Microsoft's Web browser.
Windows 3.x users will need to install a third-party TCP/IP stack. There are several choices available, some as shareware; the most famous (or infamous) is called Trumpet.
Another option is the "Internet in a box" style application suite. Available from several vendors, these kits include everything you need to connect to the Internet, including clients for all the most popular Internet services. This may be the best choice if you are new to the on-line experience. Win95 users are at something of a disadvantage here, because few if any of the suite manufacturers have released their Windows 95 clients, though they are all full of promises.
The user name and password identify you to the host system and will be required to log in. Your user name is also the name of your mailbox, and may be the name of your Web page if your provider supports Web page creation.
For example, I am a customer of Bedford's TIAC (The Internet Access Company). My user name on TIAC's system is "miken." Therefore, people can send e-mail to my TIAC mailbox by using the address "firstname.lastname@example.org." The logic of this address is fairly obvious: for Internet mail purposes, TIAC's system is called "tiac.net;" I am user miken "at" tiac.net.
TIAC allows its customers to create World Wide Web pages for free. You can figure out my Web address from my user name: TIAC's Web host machine's address is "www.tiac.net," so you can reach my Web page (where PC Report online is stored) at http://www.miken.com. This cryptic address, called a URL or Universal Resource Locator, is what you use to point a Web browser at a particular page. Read on for more information on how to decipher URLs.
To use an Internet service, you dial up and connect to your provider, then launch a program (called a client) on your machine that connects to the service via the provider's hardware. For example, if I want to check my mail on TIAC, I dial up TIAC with my modem, then run a mail client called Eudora Pro. The mail client retrieves my mail from TIAC and sends any outgoing mail messages that I may have created since I last signed on. Eudora handles all the vile details of getting and sending mail with a few simple clicks of the mouse.
While the connection to TIAC is established, I can go on to browse Web pages, retrieve files, and so on, all while Eudora manages my mail.
Table 2 is a list of Internet tools. All of the programs in the table are available either as free "light" versions or as shareware or freeware, so you don't have to spend any money to get started. Where possible, I have indicated the home archive or web page for each product. If you like these programs, please make the effort and register them (if they are shareware) or purchase the "full" versions of the commercial products. This is the only way we have to prevent the oligarchy that runs the commercial software world from taking over the Net too.
|Client Type||Name||Web/ftp Site||Description|
|Web Browser*||Netscape Navigator||http://home.netscape.com|
|The standard--for now.|
|The original mass-market Web browser. Netscape was formed to profit from this research project.|
|Web Browser||Internet Explorer||http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/iexplorer.htm||Behind but gaining. Development tools crude as yet, but some fascinating technology.|
|Ftp||WS_FTP||http://csra1.csra.net/junodj/||Freeware, with versions for Win3.1 and 95/NT|
|Freeware version of commercial product Eudora Pro|
|Usenet News||Forte Free Agent||http://www.forteinc.com|
|Freeware version of upcoming Forte Agent|
|IRC (Chat)||MIrc||ftp://ftp.cdsnet.net/pub/mirrors/papa/winsock--l/Windows95/IRC/mirc372.zip||Freeware Internet Relay Chat|
|IRC (Chat)||Netscape Chat||http://home.netscape.com|
|New product from the would-be Microsoft of the Net. Buggy but promising.|
Many Internet providers will "mirror" (keep local copies) of popular tools like those listed in Table 2. TIAC, for example, maintains an ftp archive that contains a wide variety of Internet client software mirrored from other places. You may want to ask your provider if he has a directory of tools for your OS platform.
Table 3 lists some places to look for other Internet tools. You will notice that several of these sites refer to the acronym "Winsock"; this is the jargon term for a standardized Windows interface to the TCP/IP stack. Once your Internet connection is established, you should be able to run any application that conforms to the Winsock standard. One of the biggest advantages of the Internet is your ability to pick and choose your own set of clients for the Net's services.
|The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software||http://www.tucows.com|
|Consummate Winsock Apps||http://cwsapps.texas.net/|
|Junod's Software Page||http://csra1.csra.net/junodj/|
|Dylan Greene's Windows 95 Home Page||http://www.wam.umd.edu/~dylan/win95.html|
The existing standard was a markup language called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). Originally, HTML was designed to use ASCII files to display simply-formatted documents and graphics on a variety of hardware and operating system platforms. However, once the Web began to take off, HTML's horrific limitations began to show.
HTML--even with its current extensions--is almost unbelievably primitive when compared with the sophisticated word processors and DTP programs found on today's computers. Even simple things like tabs are not permitted. By catering to the lowest common denominator, HTML places draconian limitations on formatting. For example, you can't assume that any particular font is present on the remote system, so you are stuck with a choice of only two fonts: one proportionally-spaced and one monospace. It's WordStar 1.0 technology in the age of Word for Windows 7.0.
The Web is currently the scene of an epic battle almost as confusing as Bosnia. Each time Netscape releases a set of proprietary extensions to HTML, Web page designers immediately adopt them and begin using them in ways Netscape never intended. This makes Navigator crash, irritates users, and causes Netscape to pump out a never-ending stream of beta revisions, each with a new set of features and bugs.
Netscape is pedaling as fast as it can to stay ahead of some very heavy footsteps thundering not far behind. Any hot market is subject to invasion by Microsoft, and though they're currently behind, nobody thinks that Bill's footsoldiers can be outrun forever.
Netscape is also battling to stay ahead of the Pet Rock syndrome. The Web is fun at first, but both document publishers and Web surfers can attest to the "been there-done that" syndrome. After a while, all Web pages start to look pretty much alike. For the moment, the only way to create really original Web pages is to build them as bitmapped graphics, but neither the Internet nor the typical home surfer has the bandwidth for this to be practical over the long term. If the Web doesn't become compelling quickly, it could lose momentum and fizzle out.
You may have read about Netscape's stock offering, which made the company worth billions overnight. Considering that Netscape is losing money at a brisk pace and that it gives away its principal product, this is a major sign of hype outpacing real worth. There are also lots of warning signs ahead: the Internet's infrastructure regularly overloads during the period when East Coast and West Coast business hours overlap; the on-line services, especially the Microsoft Network, are starting to offer document technology that is far beyond HTML; and security breaches continue to make a mockery of the promise of electronic commerce on the Net.
Corporations have leapt onto the Web, but so far nobody is making any substantial money there. Navigator is currently hot, but it has yet to be proven that Internet users will pay for it, or for any other service that appears on the Web. People are used to getting Internet services for nothing or next to nothing. If they start having to pay, they will become discriminating and demand much more. When your browser costs nothing, you can indulge its bugs and put up with the nonexistent technical support. If you have to pay, then you want service.
The same dilemma confronts content providers. Would you pay even 50 cents to spend an hour downloading the on-line version of a newspaper you can buy for a quarter at any newsstand? With the Net's horrible security reputation (deserved or not), how much on-line shopping are people ever going to do?
The motto is, I guess, "enjoy it while it lasts." The corollary to the motto is, "check the Netscape beta directory regularly."
To begin using the browser, simply start up your Internet connection, then launch Navigator. By default, Navigator will automatically jump to Netscape's home page. Figure 1 shows an annotated version of a typical Navigator display.
When Navigator is retrieving a document, it always goes through the same sequence. First, the Netscape icon in the upper right corner of the window starts "animating." Next, the status line shows the following messages in sequence:
The Location box shows and accepts web page addresses in a format called Universal Resource Locator (URL). The URL format can be extremely cryptic, but it is more or less standard. As an example, let's examine the address where the on-line version of PC Report is stored: http://www.miken.com.
The Location box drop-down menu contains a list of documents that you successfully jumped to from the Location box.
You will notice that some things in the window are underlined or outlined in blue (by default, though this color can be changed). Anything so highlighted is a link to another document or service. Clicking on a link will jump to this destination; allowing the mouse to hover over the link will cause the link destination to appear on the status line. Links that you have visited will appear in a sort of dark blue.
This is the essence of Web surfing: looking at documents, following the links on them, and bookmarking the best so you can come back later. It doesn't sound like much, but you can waste enormous amounts of time surfing; it's very hypnotic.
Be sure to use the right mouse button in the viewing window. Clicking on a link or a graphic with the right mouse button will summon a context menu that provides all sorts of useful commands, allowing you to do things like bookmark a link without actually visiting it (useful if a host is down), save a graphic to your local hard disk (no wonder Web pages tend to look alike!), and so on.
Considering Netscape's recent security trouble, the broken-key icon is rather ironic. You can decide for yourself how much faith to place in the little icon: a broken key means you're definitely not secure; a solid key means you might be secure.