First published in the Solicitors Journal, October 1995.
What puts most people off information technology, or rather what holds them back from diving in enthusiastically, is the ‘technology’ bit. We are all interested in information in one form or another, but if it’s difficult to get at, it might as well not be there. This column is not about technology; it’s about communicating and accessing information … easily, and it’s for all-comers. This month, introductory stuff.
Why get wired?
The single reason why the internet has taken off in such a big way is the World Wide Web (hereafter simply ‘the Web’). Why? Because it’s useful, easy-to-use and, yes, it’s fun! For an increasing proportion of users, the Internet is the Web -a vast repositary of information residing on and served up by computers connected to the Internet, viewed using a friendly interface called a browser (of which Netscape and Mosaic are the names you will encounter). Sound a bit dull so far? Here’s the killer. Click on any reference or cross reference on the screen in front of you and you jump to the section referred to, simply clicking ‘back’ to return. And this works whether the destination is a section in the same document, another ocument in the same collection, or any document anywhere on the Web. So your quest for information transcends local boundaries: your PC, your office, your town, your country – giving you truly global access to information from your desk. This effortless browsing across a seamless web of information has proved so seductive that internet use continues to increase by about 10 per cent per month (that’s quadrupling annually).
The other key reason to use the internet is of course e-mail. Not as immediately seductive as the Web, e-mail can nevertheless transform the way you work in a very short period. Don’t look on it as a panacea, or an alternative, but for what it is, a desirable and increasingly necessary complement to your existing communications methods: as immediate as fax, as relaxed as a memo, and yet more responsive and economical than either. The paperless office may never arrive, but the paperless transaction completed in a matter of hours is today very much a reality.
The basic info you need to join the internet is given in the Getting wired section below. A few hints for the technically shy:
- Modems can be tricky beasts. Buy a well-established, well-supported brand leader. This will (a) ensure the best chance of being able to plug and play and (b) increase the likelihood that your service provider will be able to help if things don’t work.
- Choose a service provider who is reputed to provide good, easy to install access software and a good help desk.
- Let your motto be ‘try again’. There are many reasons why an internet connection may not work at a particular time. Don’t assume the worst: it will usually work the next time you try.
To make life easier for us all, it is confidently predicted by Andy Grove, chief executive of Intel, that the next generation of PCs will be the ‘internet PC, fully equipped and optimised for surfing the Net.
Being there, doing it
Once you’re on the Web, how quickly you make sense of the mass of information you come across will largely depend on how naturally inquisitive you are.
First, appreciate that you need to adapt to a different culture. There are no printed manuals; everything is on-line (finally saving trees). Most fellow travellers are friendly and helpful; many can use your help too. Most of the information is freely available (never forgetting copyright of course) and in addition there is much free and shareware software to download at the click of a mouse.
Start by investigating all the options and information services provided through your service provider’s Web pages and your Web browser. Learn to use bookmarks intelligently to mark and manage the sites most helpful to your research. Read the articles in the general and specialist press. Revisit this column
Getting wired – the basics
What is the Internet?
A worldwide network of computer networks. The Internet links together thousands of participating computer networks worldwide, so that anyone with access to one computer network has access to all networks.
What can I use it for?
- Email. You can exchange electronic mail with any one of over 30 million users.
- Usenet (newsgroups). You can read and contribute to public discussion areas on any topic of interest.
- The Worldwide Web (WWW or simply ‘the Web’). You can browse information published anywhere on the Internet, using hypertext links to follow your desired research path.
- Other utilities. These include utilities to search out information, to transfer files to or from other computers, and to give you access to another computer.
What does it cost?
Service charges are up to about £50 to join, plus around £10 to £15 per month.
Telephone charges are at standard rates for the time you are connected to your Internet connection point. Connecttime charges. There are usually no connecttime charges. But where access is provided as an adjunct to other online services (eg CompuServe), connecttime charges may be levied.
What do I need to Join?
A computer. Any modern computer will do, but a 486 PC or better running Windows is recommended as a minimum.
A modem. Any modern modem will do: we recommend the US Robotics Sportster modems from about £125, available from most suppliers.
A telephone line. A standard phone line with wallsocket; your modem and phone can share the same socket using a 2-way adaptor if necessary.
A Service Provider who will supply your connection point to the Internet, system software and an Internet address.
Access software. Your Service Provider should supply most of your needs; other software is available for download from sites on the Internet or may be purchased separately.
Following are the major Service Providers providing full Internet access. Be sure to check that the provider has an access point local to you, and what access software is included …