Web Wandering

WebWandering: Shopping and ISDN

Michael Newcomb

Welcome to the beginning of what I hope will be a monthly column--at least as long as PC Report lasts--about things found on the World Wide Web. Everyone else is doing it... why shouldn't we? There's lots to see out on the Web, but half the battle is finding something useful or even mildly interesting.

Each month, this column will feature a set of Web addresses grouped by theme. For example, this month, I have chosen to list a bunch of on-line shopping pages and ISDN resources. I also plan to include Internet surfing tips and "Web Basics" links which can be helpful when you are trying to find something specific amid the chaos of the Net. If the tips seem to lean rather heavily towards Windows 95, that is because I find Win95 to be the best platform to date for Web browsing.

Before we start, one important convention: all links (Universal Resource Locators or URLs) are assumed to be prefixed with "http://" unless otherwise noted. All the resource locators in this article were tested at press time. However, the Web is full of broken links and disappearing pages, so your mileage may vary.

October 1995 Table of Contents

Internet Tips

Microsoft Plus for Win95

If you are a Windows 95-based Web surfer, be sure to purchase the Microsoft "Plus" pack for Win95. This addon includes a variety of Internet-related utilities, the most interesting of which may be Microsoft's powerful 32-bit multithreaded Web browser.

One of the Plus pack's other useful features is its demand PPP dialer. The Dial-Up Networking applet supplied with Win95 must be started manually when you want to connect to the Internet; the demand dialer will start up and connect you as soon as any application requests information via TCP/IP.

For example, if you launch Netscape and click on a button or URL that is "outside" your computer, Win95 will automatically launch the Dial-Up Networking applet and connect you to your Internet provider. The Plus pack applet also stores passwords across Win95 sessions, something the original applet did not do.

If you need to use a Terminal Window to initiate your PPP connection, the Plus pack can make your life much easier. One of the tools in the pack is a Dial-Up Scripting Tool, which can automate connecting to your provider. Though not as powerful as the scripting languages in dedicated communications programs like HyperAccess, the Dial-Up Scripting Tool can perform the simple wait-and-respond tasks needed to log on to Internet providers.

The only downside to the Plus pack is its tendency to deconfigure your existing PPP setup. If you had a working Internet connection, you may need to recreate it after installing Plus. For this reason, I would suggest that you write down your parameters (especially the TCP/IP Protocol properties in the Network dialog box) before installing the pack.

Automatic Login

The release-candidate version of Win95 includes a Dial-Up Networking applet that correctly supports the Universal Password Protocol for PPP. If your Internet account is "dedicated" to PPP, you should now be able to connect without opening a Terminal Window. Automatic login was very problematic under earlier versions of Win95, but the commercial version seems quite solid. Internet providers are also becoming more conscientious about supporting the autologin protocol--if you currently open a Terminal Window to log in, try going without and see if you get a connection.

Norton Gotcha

Many companies raced to release software on the day that Windows 95 shipped. One of the vendors that shouldn't have rushed was Symantec: their Norton Navigator for Win95 has a distinctly unfinished feeling. Navigator includes lots of great ideas marred by way too much sloppy execution. I won't harp on Navigtor's weird screen-redraw habits, slow copying, or heinous "background" delete protection (it makes everything else seem to run in the background).

Navigator promised a very nice feature for us dedicated web surfers: the ability to "see" FTP sites as Navigator folders. Theoretically, you should be able to copy files to and from FTP sites just as easily as on your local hard disk. Combine this technology with Navigator's powerful disk tools like "compare directories" and "synchronize folders," and you should have an unprecedentedly easy way to do things like maintain your own Web site on a remote machine.

Unfortunately, almost none of this works, at least in the initial version. For example, I was unable to make Navigator perform a non-anonymous login, a vital step for accessing many private FTP sites. When the Navigator's FTP feature does manage to connect, it does any number of regrettable things. For example, it may not show all the files actually found on the FTP server. When "putting," it may send illegal characters in filenames, making the files almost impossible to access or delete.

Until Symantec gets its act together I would suggest using a more conventional FTP utility. I have had good luck with WS_FTP, a shareware FTP program that can be found on CompuServe and on many Internet software archives.

Web Basics: Searching

One of the Internet's most serious flaws is its lack of an "official" directory. Since nobody "controls" the Internet, there is no central registry of the resources available on the Net. Web pages are constantly appearing, disappearing, and moving. If you store a bookmark to an interesting Web page one day, it may be invalid the next. People can be just as elusive: if a person changes his Internet mail address or home system, you have no reliable way to find him.

Commercial on-line services like CompuServe can track members and supply searchable "official" directories. They can also arrange their services into orderly menus, check uploads for viruses, and place reasonable limits on behaviour in on-line forums. The Internet abhors all such attempts at civilization.

Over the years, Net hackers have developed a variety of tools to help you find what you want on the Internet. These tools generally fall into one of two categories: brute force or managed.

Brute force tools try to collect information by looking literally everywhere. For example, one type of data collector, known as a "spider" or "crawler," goes out looking for Web pages. When the spider finds a page, it indexes every word on the page and then recursively follows every link from that page to other pages. These searching tools are one of the reasons why Web page owners can often boast of "thousands of `hits' per week;" there are brute force searchers running all over the world, and each search of a page generates a "hit."

Once the spiders have located a page, they will hit it on a regular basis to see if it has changed or disappeared. Needless to say, this type of searching uses lots of bandwidth and computing power: the load increases geometrically with the number of web pages in existance.

The usefulness of a brute force search is greatly dependant on the power of its database searching software: the tool needs to take your query and match it against the "dumb" list of indexed words. Most brute force tools use a scoring system and list the first ten or so objects that seem the best match to match your query. Using this type of tool can take considerable skill; for the search to work, you need to use at least some of the words actually found in the target Web page. The searching software can't yet match synonyms or find what you want by actual meaning.

Managed searching tools leverage the intelligence of human operators to coordinate information. For example, the "Yahoo" web directory invites people to send in their links along with a category classification. Yahoo's operators then arrange the categories into sensible order. Since a human being sees each item, the directory has intelligible order; the directory entries will usually be where you would "expect" them to be.

Despite the high level of automation, all Web searchers and directories suffer greatly from burnt-out links. Even a well-managed site like Yahoo will contain many locators that no longer go anywhere. Part of the problem is the fact that Internet host systems go down very frequently, even at large commercial providers. If a link doesn't work once, it may well work later when the host system comes back up. Figuring out when a link is really gone can be difficult for automated software.It can be very hard to find what you want on the Internet. Success often depends on using the right searching tool and entering the right query. Nevertheless, the table below contains some of the tools you can use.

Web Searching Tools
Search NameURLTypeRemarks
InfoSeekwww2.infoseek.comBrute force indexingSmartest of the dumb indexers
Lycoslycos.cs.cmu.eduBrute force indexingIndex of document titles and content
Webcrawlerwebcrawler.comBrute force indexingWords found in Web pages
World Wide Web Wormwww.cs.colorado.edu/home
Brute force indexingWords found in Web pages
Jughead Gatewaygopher://liberty.uc.wlu.edu:3002/7Managed listSearches Gopher pages
Gopher search interfacegopher://veronica.scs.unr.edu
Managed listSearches Gopher pages
Virtual Touristwings.buffalo.edu/world/Managed listGeographical list of web server systems with map-based interface
Computer Companies Onlinelibrary.microsoft.com/compcos.htmManaged list of linksOne of the best ways to find computer vendors. Provided by Microsoft.
Web Search Enginescuiwww.unige.ch/meta-index.htmlManaged list of linksList of Web search engines
Yahoowww.yahoo.com/Managed list of links
NetFindgopher://ds.internic.net:4320/1netfindEmail ID databaseTries to find email addresses
Finger gatewaywww.mit.edu:8001/finger?UNIX toolReads profile information about a user. To use, you need the user's home system ID.
Archie search interfacecuiwww.unige.ch/./archieplexform.htmlFilename indexSearches for filename across a very large number of file archives
Virtual Shareware Librarywww.acs.oakland.edu/cgi-bin/shaseFilename indexFinds shareware and freeware located in several software archives

ISDN Information

The industry press has proudly proclaimed each of the last five years or so "The Year of ISDN." Actually, ISDN hardware is only now beginning to reach the point where it is actually useful. Phone companies have only just started to take digital data lines seriously. By a happy coincidence, the ISDN infrastructure is falling into place just as an application--Web browsing--that really needs high bandwidth becomes popular.

If you are interested in ISDN's potential for high-speed (128kbps) data and voice communications, the table below contains some links you might want to explore.Following the long tradition of phone companies, NYNEX has no web page, but in Massachusetts you can call their digital services group at (617) 743-1333. In New England, try (800) GET-ISDN.

ISDN Links
fiddle.ee.vt.edu/succeed/isdn.htmlInformation on ISDN
www.almaden.ibm.com/ciug/ciug.htmlIBM ISDN Page
www.raleigh.ibm.com/wav/wavprod.htmlIBM WaveRunner (ISDN Modem) Products FTP Site
alumni.caltech.edu/~dank/isdnDank ISDN Page
www.mot.comMotorola. Includes data on the Bitsurfr low-cost ISDNmodem
www.zyxel.comZyxel. Modems including some very advanced ISDN hardware
www.bellcore.com/ISDN/ISDN.htmlOfficial Bellcore ISDN site
www.atria.com/~jtk/ISDN.html(Unoffical) Q&A about Nynex ISDN service

On-line Shopping

Based on the endless hype from both the computer-related (e.g., Wired) and the mainstream (e.g., Time and Newsweek) press, you could be forgiven for believing that the World Wide Web is the future of commerce. It just isn't so. For now, at least, nobody except Netscape is making money off the Web. The reasons range from lack of money (many Websurfers are impoverished students and academics) to security concerns (there isn't any security). A more fundamental problem may be the same one that afflicts all on-line shopping, even the services provided by companies like CompuServe: you can't ask questions.

Web shopping pages can only provide a fixed set of information about a product, generally a grainy low-res photo (a curse of low-bandwidth communications) and a text blurb. If what you need to know isn't on the page, you're out of luck. The best you can hope for is a "mail to" link that you can use to send questions by e-mail; there's no real-time interaction.

Web shopping is only useful if you know exactly what you want and don't need to ask questions like, "is the item in stock?" Compared to the tremendous convenience of 800-number-and-glossy-catalog shopping, the Web has an awfully long way to go. How often have you bought something without asking a single question? Web shopping also gives you no impression of the people you're dealing with; they could be lunatics or thieves. If you buy from an 800 number, you at least know the vendor answers his phone.

For better or worse, one of the more interesting on-line shopping setups is Sparco at "www.sparco.com". Sparco is a computer vendor that has no printed catalog. Everything they sell is listed on the Web. You can search the catalog for items and see matching listings from every supplier that Sparco carries. Some of the listings include vendor-supplied product literature, but most are bare-bones text database entries.

Each entry includes an "add to shopping list" button. After you have completed selecting all of your items, you can generate an order and forward it to Sparco. Shopping this way is both liberating and intensely frustrating. Most computer catalogs, like PC Connection's, list only the most popular items; several items are omitted for every one found in the catalog. Since Sparco's entire catalog is on-line, you can hunt for obscure items. In most cases, though, when you're looking for an obscure item, you want to know more about it, and that means asking questions.

Another problem with most on-line shopping sites is the tendency of vendors to get their Web pages working, then never update them. It's not uncommon to see a shopping page advertising Christmas '94 specials in August '95. Prices are rarely up-to-date; my instinct is always to call the vendor and check stock and current pricing before placing an order. This defeats the purpose of shopping on-line.

Some of these problems may be solved as sophisticated merchants tie their Web pages into their on-line order-entry and inventory systems. Given the Internet's poor security, though, they may choose not to expose their vital line-of-business systems to ill-disposed surfers.

There are also potential solutions to the lack of interactivity, such as Internet Phone, which could connect you to a live person when you click a button on the Web page. Even better, you could choose the relevant person without stepping through dozens of voice-mail menus.

Microsoft has an intriguing partial solution to the interactivity problem: the OCX Chat control. Microsoft's Web browser has one killer feature that distinguishes it from all other browsers: the ability to use OLE controls in Web documents. If you click on a link to a document that Netscape, for example, doesn't directly understand, it must open a "helper" application to display the item.

Not so with Microsoft's browser. Blackbird, Microsoft's extended Web language, allows the browser to effectively extend itself with new and undreamt-of capabilities without an update. The browser automatically downloads the executable code for new features when the relevant item or link is clicked. One of the embeddable controls that Microsoft has developed is a Chat object, which allows you to hold a live keyboard conversation with another person on the Net. This might solve the single largest problem with Web shopping: just click the Chat control, type your question, and get an answer in real time.

For now, the Web is a great place to search catalogs and look for product information, but I have yet to be convinced that it is suitable for actual shopping. Table 3 lists some shopping sites anyway.

If you are interested in finding more shopping sites, try Yahoo, which has several Web commerce rubrics.

Internet Shopping Links
www.sparco.com/Sparco Communications
www-e1c.gnn.com/gnn/wic/The Whole Internet Catalog
www.isurf.com/iss/docs/The Internet Surf Shop
ep.com/EPages Internet Classifieds
www.newbury.com/Newbury Comics
www.halcyon.com:80/mcphee/welcome.htmlArchie McPhee
software.netsoftware dot net

Speak for Yourself

By the time you read this, most of these links should be directly clickable from a Web page on TIAC, "www.miken.com/". Eventually the Web Wandering article will be located somewhere else, but I am using the latter site to provide various PC Report-related information for the time being.

Please let me know if you find this article interesting or if you are sick to death of Web links. If there's a particular Internet or Web-related topic you'd like to see addressed, or if you find some interesting links, please e-mail to "pcreport@miken.com".

Happy surfing!

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