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By Jim Gerland and Mark Winer

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Holidays with the Family
December 7, 1996

holly

This Christmas my sister and her husband bought their first Personal Computer. It's one of those nice, new models that come with all the bells and whistles. You know, the ones that will do everything from running my niece's new Barbie (www.barbie.com) CD-ROM to turning on the house lights before they get home from work.

Inevitably, after setting up this staple of modern living on the necessary new furniture and plugging it into the handy dandy surge protector power strip, their interest turned to getting "connected" to the Internet. According to the propaganda that came with their new appliance 'merging onto the information superhighway' was a simple as connecting your phone to the back of the computer. Needless to say, after a few hours and calls to an ever so friendly support person (me) they were on-line.

The first question asked was "why is installing this software so difficult?" Making software installation painless is the goal of every software developer (or at least it SHOULD be). In truth, installing software has improved dramatically in a short period of time. Most PC users should be able to figure out how to install new applications. New users who are unfamiliar with installing software, like my sister, should ask for help; if necessary, bribe your brother with food.

Depending on which Internet Service Provider (ISP) you choose, software installation may be difficult or as easy as clicking your mouse on an installation program. Which led to an obvious question…"Aren't all providers the same?" I gave the most ambiguous answer I could get away with: as with any service industry there are pro's and con's to different businesses. There are many choices in the local market - including many national access providers. Factors you will want to consider are reliability, support, and, of course, price. Don't hesitate to try out a service and switch if you aren't completely satisfied. That includes getting too many busy signals trying to connect as well as poor customer support. Something my sister experienced firsthand when trying to setup her account with a provider.

For a listing of local providers check The LIST (thelist.iworld.com) for information listed by geographic area or area code. Click on the map for information about access providers in the 716 Area Code. For another listing of local access providers check Yahoo's index of regional providers (www.yahoo.com/Regional/U_S_States/New_York/ Cities/Buffalo/Internet_Services/). You may prefer to go with a national provider. Check out Online Connection (www.accessone.com/~shwaap/onlinec) which is a site dedicated to comparing the major commercial online services.

Now that our connection had been made and our account set up we were on-line. The first site my brother-in-law wanted to see was ESPNet Sportszone (espnet.sportszone.com). We waited and then waited a little longer before the site appeared on our display leading to the inevitable question: "How come this is so slow?" This is a complaint that everyone using a modem to connect to the Internet has. Ordinary phone lines can make for long download times - even with a 28.8 KBPS modem. This is a fact of cyberspace life for now unless you are willing to pay for a faster phone line known as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). Unfortunately, it isn't available everywhere and can be expensive to install ($100-300) and has high accompanying monthly service charges. If you're interested, check with your local phone company for more information.

In the future, we can look forward to cable modems - yes, the same people that run cable to your television. Unfortunately most of the existing cable lines will have to be upgraded to handle two-way communication. Locally Adelphia is already testing this service in parts of Amherst. TCI has no plans for the WNY area yet.

Another stumbling block we ran into was getting to the sites we wanted to see. My eight-year old niece was frustrated by having to type in such a long string of characters. If, like her, you forget one slash or period or type in a wrong character you get an annoying error message from your PC or get sent to a site you had no intention of visiting.

At least that's a problem that can be fixed. How about trying to find something on the 'net. I showed them search engines and explained that they were created to organize this 'web' of information. Unfortunately, navigating a search engine can seem as complicated as taking apart a car engine if you don't know what you're doing. Searches often return thousands of responses to a request - most with little in relation to what you are looking for. For example, my brother-in-law searched Alta Vista (www.altavista.com) for "Buffalo Bills" and it returned about 30,000 entries.

And of course there is the latest and greatest site that his friend saw - but doesn't remember the address of - which isn't in the search engine databases. Because of the thousands of new web pages are being created each day the search databases can't keep up. It's also disheartening to note that search engines don't search the entire World Wide Web; many specialized sites such as on-line newspapers (i.e. The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com)) or scientific journals require passwords to gain access and aren't searched.

So all in all, was family's first on-line experience a successful one. As my sister said, "this is really cool but it's not as easy to get started as everyone says". And I would agree. However, even though they encountered some of the problems with using the Internet, they were also able to scratch the surface of the vast resources of information that exist on the net.

Remember, we want to continue to help you utilize the Internet in your life. Let us know what you're interested in and we'll check it out. You can email us, edge@edgeglobal.com , or fax us, (716) 853-1350 and let us know what's happening on the Internet in WNY or any computing related activities you're involved with.