David Strom

Internet 101

By David Strom

Small businesses can travel knowledgeably on the information highway of the Internet,

but it isn't always easy or self-evident how to find the best on-ramp or choose the most

appropriate vehicle. Here's a guide for the perplexed.

Why bother? The Internet offers a vast treasure-trove of everything from feature-rich free

software to detailed archives of government and business. Want the latest Clinton health-care

policy paper? Trying to find whether DEC still sells a particular product? Or are you just in

the mood to exchange some tips with a fellow cat-lover? All this and more is on-line and

awaits you.

Add these lures with the fact that sending email via the Internet  connects the largest group of

businesses together, and you have a tool that makes it easier to communicate with your

suppliers, customers, and even competitors. "We've been using the Internet to communicate

with our customers, handling product inquiries, and providing product support," says Debby

Meredith, who is Vice President of Development for Collabra Software (Mountain View

Calif. 415 940 6400), a software statup company providing electronic discussion forums that

extend e-mail, who makes extensive use of Internet email connections.

Unlike commercial on-line providers such as Compuserve, once you pay for the connect time

to the Internet all else is pretty much free of charge -- there are no "premium" services that

tack on hefty fees, making monthly bills more predictable. Finally, many businesses have set

up their own on-line store-fronts to make it easier for customers to obtain accurate and

up-to-date information about their products and services, and some have begun to actually

conduct business over the Internet itself. 

Here are five steps you should take before you can become a smart driver on the Infobahn:

1. First off, match the type of access and services to your particular needs. There are two

basic forms of Internet access: terminal accounts and dial-up protocols. Using a terminal

account means you use relatively simple communications software, such as Digital

Communications Associates' (Alpharetta, Geo. 404 442 4000) Crosstalk or Datastorm

Technologies, Inc. (Colombia Mo.314 443 3282) ProComm and a modem to dial up a host

computer and connect to the Internet. However, you'll end up using lots of Unix commands to

navigate the highways and byways of the Internet, and most of our contacts recommended

against this method.

With dial-up protocols, called either Serial Line Internet Protocol (SLIP) or

Point-to-Point-Protocol (PPP), your computer becomes directly part of the Internet. Here the

communications software is more complex, but your tools are more powerful and the level of

Unix expertise required is less. "Terminal accounts are less expensive, but may be harder to

use. SLIP accounts may cost more and include less user support but can handle graphical

oriented applications," says Daniel Dern, an independent consultant and freelance writer

specializing in Internet topics and founding editor of Internet World magazine (Newton

Center, Mass. 617 969 7947).

"The problem is that the Unix tools are perceived as being too difficult for the average Joe to

master, and there is no one around to set up the easier Mac or Windows-based tools. SLIP is

still not for the technical faint of heart, unless a provider is willing to install the software for

the customer and then test it on site," says Gordon Jacobson, president of Portman

Communication Services, a  telecommunications consulting and marketing company for


sized businesses (Sparks NV 212 988 6288). Jacobson has used the Internet for several years.

"What should have been installed, configured, and running in an hour often took weeks to


There are alternatives to both terminal and direct protocol connections to the Internet, and that

involves running Unix or Unix-like operating system on a corporation's own computers. This

method is not currently very popular, for obvious reasons. "Even though we troubleshoot

Unix networks, our knowledge of Unix system administration was lacking. We choose a

product from Vortex Technology (Woodland Hills, Calif. 818 225 2800) called UULINK to

connect our DOS computers to the Internet," says Bill Alderson, managing engineer, Pine

Mountain Group, a network analysis and training consulting firm who has been using the

Internet for two years (Groveland, Calif. 209 962 6247). "However, it's usability is lacking,

since it is a DOS system trying emulate Unix commands and is very arcane." 

Once you have picked your access method, take a careful assessment of what services you'll

actually want to use. If your needs are very modest and your interest is in primarily

exchanging email and doing an occaisional electronic file transfer, you may be able to get by

with one of the gateways into the Internet that are offered by other on-line services such as

Delphi (800 695 4005) and America On-Line (Vienna, Va. 800 827 6364). These services

offer relatively low-cost access, but also relatively low functionality.

Email ranked highest on our contacts' lists of services, and there is a wide variety of tools

that will work on both Macintosh and Windows to make sending, organizing, and receiving

email easier. "Make sure your email software has the ability to log all incoming and outgoing

messages and also allows you to compose and read your messages without being connected,"

says Adrian King, president of Gravity Communications, a consultant and freelance writer

who has used the Internet for two years (Redmond, Wash. 206 836 0378).

Products like Qualcomm Inc.'s (San Diego, Cal. 619 587 1121) Eudora for the Macintosh and

Windows (which is also available in a less-featured version for free on-line) have these

features and save both time and money.

Other services that are popular include browsers to the World-Wide Web, a vast knowledge

storehouse that is rapidly becoming one of the most popular offerings on the Internet. "Half

of our staff uses things other than email, such as file transfer, the Web, and reading news,"

says Catherine Kinman, First Virtual Holdings, Inc., a small startup computer company who

has been using the Internet for over three years (San Francisco, Calif. 415 395 9599). "We're

a distributed corporation -- no more than two employees in any area code, so everyone uses


The Web contains searchable archives of multimedia documents, and browsers such as

Mosaic (for Macintosh, Windows, and several Unix platforms, National Center for

Supercomputing Applications in Champaign, Il. 217 244 4130), MacWeb (from

Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Austin, TX 512 343 0978) and

others are available for free over the Internet itself. Many computer vendors have already

created their own Web servers, including Novell, DEC, and Hewlett Packard. And companies

such as Spry, Inc. (Seattle, Washington 206 447 0300) have products such as NetAccess that

are meta-directories to help users locate these corporate storehouses. 

Northeast Consulting Resources, Inc., a small communications consultancy with a rich

experience in using the Internet (Boston, Mass. 617 654 0621) will make use of both the

client and server sides of the Web, becoming both a user and a publisher. "People want

information delivered to their desktops when they need it in a relevant and usable form that is

best for them -- that is today's holy grail. We will put selected articles by our consultants and

information about our company on the Internet using a Web server," says Bob Weber, a

principal with the firm.

The Internet is the carrier for the Usenet, made up of thousands of what are called "news

groups."  These are discussions among collections of individuals focussed on a very targeted

topic, such as fans of David Letterman, the latest BASIC computer language enhancements,

and alternate lifestyles. Participants in a group send email messages to the entire group, and

this could easily become a sinkhole for the networking novice. "My best advice is stay away

from net news," says King. Counter to this advice, Dern says "Groups like comp.sys.novell

and others can be an incredible resource for technical computer support staffs."

2. Do you need to know Unix? Yes and no. "The Internet is no longer primarily a Unix

environment -- even IBM mainframes can get connected," says Weber. However, depending

on your access method and the kinds of services you use, you may need some familiarity with

a few Unix commands. "Some Unix expertise is needed to maintain our mailing lists on the

Internet," says Eric Weidl, an analyst with software developer Parallel Software, Inc.

(Naperville, IL 708 369 0100) who has been using the Internet for five years. Weidl admits

that this is a more advanced area that is far beyond what most beginners would require.

However, given the right choice of access provider and services, your corporation may be

able to get away without being Unix-literate.

"Our end-user software runs on personal computers (DOS, Macintosh, Windows) and no Unix

expertise is needed." says Andrew Cohill, director of Blacksburg Electronic Village. The BEV

is actually an Internet service provider with a focus on giving away easy-to-use software and

universal Internet access throughout this southwestern Virgina community (Blacksburg Va.

702 231  4786).

"We have three PhD's in our company, but no Unix expertise is needed to maintain our

Internet accounts. I use a Macintosh," says Kinman.

3. Pick your provider carefully. Once you understand what your needs are and the kinds of

services that you are interested in using, it is time to find that on-ramp to the Internet. The

vendors that supply this service are called Internet service providers, they sell you Internet

dial-tone and maintain banks of modems for you to dial into. Your goal is to find a provider

that is a local phone from your office and home location, to keep long distance costs to a


Finding these providers isn't very easy as more of them crop up on what seems like a daily

basis. While it is nice to have lots of choices -- just a year ago there were only a mere

handful of providers in the New York metro area, now there are over a dozen -- it  makes for

a more difficult time in selecting the right one. 

Many of them have multiple offices located in several major cities so you can use a single

provider to serve all of your branch offices as well. 

Some providers offer both terminal accounts and SLIP or PPP access, some only offer one

kind of service. Some offer faster and slower modems, some offer shared or dedicated modem

numbers, and some even offer modems with 800 toll-free numbers as an extra cost option.

Make sure you find out the details on these and other specifics up front. "You may end up

with more than one provider, based on geography or the desire to have multiple sources,"

says Dern.

How do you find these companies, given that this market is so volitile? Mainly by word of

mouth: "We talked with friends and got their referrals of other folks," said Meredith. "Mostly

I asked people I know in my local area who are already hooked up. I also looked in the local

computer user group magazine," said King. When you finally do track down the names of the

possible candidates, take some time to get the specifics on what they have to offer. "We spent

alot of time talking with the two or three companies that offered the most attractive services

at a price we could afford," says Weber.

What criteria should you use in picking your provider? Mostly price and reliability of service,

according to our contacts. Look for those providers that offer unlimited connect time at a

fixed monthly fee, and then shop this price around and see what other services are available.

"Ideally, you want to find someone that doesn't have constant busy signals on their modem

lines or restrict overall throughput on their system," says Jacobson. Also helpful are those

providers that have 24-hour support hotlines and experienced staff. 

Seen from the other side, service is one of the main differentiating areas that providers are

beginning to market themselves:

"Service is a high priority with us, and we devote a high percentage of our staff time to

making sure people know what they are buying, that they have the right equipment, and that

we answer all their questions. Sometimes we spend 30 minutes with a customer while they

fill out our one-page application," says Cohill.

Two of the bigger suppliers are Netcom Online Communication Services (Calif. 408 554

8649) and Performance Systems Internation (Vienna, Va. 708 620 6651), but Jacobson

suggests avoiding them: "Their lines are always busy, and since they are adding users at an

enormous pace, their service is attrocious." Another long-time provider is the World, from

Boston-based Software Tool and Die. (617 739 0202) "Their service has been outstanding.

They add more lines whenever people report they are having trouble getting in and their

system administration is great too," says Dern, who is a user of their service for many years.

4. Which is better for Internet access, Windows, DOS, or Macintoshes? There is a wide range

of software available on all three platforms, although our contacts seemed to feel that the Mac

had the edge in terms of usability: "I configured both my own Mac and Windows machines.

The Windows PCs were extremely difficult and still don't work reliably. Each Mac required

approximately 30 minutes to configure, while the PCs took more than ten hours. Draw your

own conclusions," saysWeidl.

Once you are actually connected to the Internet, it is relatively easy to use the Internet itself

to find the best possible tools. (see box) "We use public domain software, but have expended

significant effort to simplify the installation and configuration process," says Cohill. A

number of service providers, such as the World, also maintain quite extensive in-house

libraries of various tools for transfering files and browsing the Web for various platforms,

including PCs and Macs. 

5. Still need more help?  Read the right books and get some outside training. Go into any

good computer book store these days and you'll find at least 30 books that have the word

"internet" in their title. Which ones are best? Kinman suggests Susan Estrada's book "Getting

Connected to the Internet" (O'Reilly & Assoc., 1993) which is good for details on choosing

the best service provider and includes an older copy of the Kaminski PDIAL list . Daniel

Dern's "The Internet Guide for New Users" (McGraw Hill, 1994) is a helpful one for

beginners and inexperienced users, although it does not have much information on Web

navigation tools. Adam Engst's Internet Starter Kits for Windows and Macintosh (two

separate books, Hayden, 1993) has lots of practical experience on using the basic software

tools for email, file transfer, and reading network newsgroups. "I highly recommend Engst's

book," says Weidl. "It even comes with the disks containing all the software you'll need to

get connected to an Internet provider." And Ed Krol's "The Whole Internet User's Guide and

Catalog (O"Relly & Assoc. 1994)

However, most books assume some sort of basic Internet experience. "I have yet to see a

book on the Internet that is accessible to naive new users. All of them are too long and too

comprehensive to be of interest to most of our users," says Cohill.

But books are not enough, and you might want to find or train a local in-house expert. "Get

some training and save some hair," says Alderson. "The most effective thing I have seen for

small and medium sized-businesses is to get one person intensively trained -- both in terms of

installing software and troubleshooting skills -- and then have this person work individually

with other users," says Cohill. "Our local library also offers a continuing series of classes,

which has been critical in helping our users get started."

"We have a lot of internal knowledge, since some of us have been using the Internet since the

early 1980's," says Weber. "However, our goal now is to diffuse our knowledge internally."

And happy driving on the Infobahn.

-end of main bar-

-box: Using the Internet to get better tools

It may be a catch-22, but sometimes the way to obtain the best information about various

tools and service providers is to use the Internet itself. 

If you have email access to the Internet, you can obtain a variety of listings that describing

service providers. The best is maintained by Peter Kaminski. To get a copy of this long list,

send email to the address info-deli-server@netcom.com with the subject Send PDIAL and no

other message contents. In less than a day you should get a fairly up-to-date listing of

providers that you can search by area code and location. 

There are other listings on the 'net as well, such as resource guides and lists of lists. One of

the best ones is accesible via the Web at 


The Guide to the Internet was written by Adam Gaffin and has all sorts of solid information,

including basic Unix commands, lists of providers, and introductory descriptions of various

Internet services. It is available from ftp.eff.org (Electronic Frontier Foundation,


If all this seems too difficult, "Find someone who knows enough about the Internet to find

this information for you, and buy them a pizza or two in return," quips Dern.

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407