If just the thought of using the Internet sets your nerves on edge, a visit to the high-tech frenzy of Internet World--now in its last day at the Los Angeles Convention Center--will likely induce a coma.
This trade show is where the big boys and (increasingly) girls of the digital realm come to play; an annual rite of spring that brings together just about every major, and most minor, Internet-related companies to show off their cutting-edge stuff. Much of what is on display in the three convention halls needed to house the ever-growing show is beyond the grasp of us mere home computer mortals referred to in Netspeak as "end users."
But as always at the spring Internet World--being held for the first time in Los Angeles, having outgrown its usual digs in San Jose--there are products and services being shown that can make the home-based surfer's voyages onto the Net easier to navigate, as well as more enlightening and fun.
Among them were nifty hardware gadgets, new Internet services targeting specific communities and ways of taking more control of the information coming your way via the Net.
Let's start with an item for those who have a need for speed and don't care about the cost.
Satellite delivery: Mini-satellite dishes aren't just for cable TV anymore. Now you can use them to get Internet delivery at vastly more rapid speeds than is available over regular telephone lines. For example, a file or video clip that takes nine minutes to download via a 28.8 Kbps modem would get into your computer in only 40 seconds under optimum conditions via satellite.
The service is not new--home Internet delivery via mini-dish has been available for several months. But what makes it more attractive is a Convergence Antenna system being shown at Internet World by Hughes Network Systems. This oddly shaped dish receives both Internet signals and TV programming at the same time--one line from the dish goes to your PC and another to your television. It's convenient, fast and, at least at introduction this summer, expensive. Hughes spokesman Fritz Stolzenbach said the dish system will retail for about $1,000, including converter box. Then, satellite Internet service plans cost between $9.95 to $129.95 per month, plus extra charges at certain times of day.
That takes care of only the incoming signals. For outgoing, you need a regular telephone Internet hookup, which generally costs about $20 a month. Finally, to take full advantage of the "convergence," you need a satellite TV service, which costs about $30 a month.
Add it all up, and Internet-TV service via satellite will probably cost the active home user $100 a month or more, plus hardware.
Network Computers: The highly touted and long awaited NCs--small, lower cost computers that hook up directly to the Internet, skipping the need for often troublesome home-based software--seem finally ready to burst onto the retail market.
If these machines live up to their promise, they'll provide an alternative for people who just want to turn on their computers and be on the Internet, without worrying about home-based browsers, software updates and configurations.
There are limitations. NCs will have no storage capacity, meaning that if you want to save a file or document, you'll have to do it on space provided by your Internet access provider, and for that there could be a fee. Also, the NCs won't be able, at least at first, to run regular computer software or CD-ROMs, although programs such as word processing and some accounting applications will be available for use directly via the Internet.
Officials at Oracle, the company leading the way in developing NC technology, say the first of these computers will be out this summer or fall at a cost, including keyboard and monitor, of about $800.
At first glance, the NCs on view seemed to deliver on their promise of surfing simplicity--testers had no trouble using them to move around the Web. Other features, such as word processing and other tasks home users have come to expect from computers, were not ready to try.
Communities: The Internet has long been considered a place where groups of people with like interests could meet to exchange information and ideas.
An interesting new service on view at the show is American Visions Society, billed as an "African-American Virtual Community." The site is an expansion of a long-standing discussion group on the Compuserve online service.
American Visions is divided into several interest areas, including health, finance, the arts, education, science and religion. Each area has its own message and discussion groups, services (for example, in education there is a homework helper) and a library of downloadable materials.
What makes this service different from most Internet communities is that American Visions is fee based. After a 30 day free-trial period, it costs $55 a year, which includes six issues of American Visions magazine sent through regular mail. A vice president of the society, Mel Fallis, believes that in the future, sites targeting specific audiences will come to rely on subscriber support.
"What you are paying for," Fallis said, "is to be part of a community."
The community aspect of the Internet could also be seen in numerous new books displayed at the show. A division of Macmillan was promoting Internet guides specifically for seniors, women, and gay men and lesbians. But the problem with books is that sometimes the Net moves too fast for them.
The "Gay & Lesbian Guide to the Web," for example, was partly put together by the editors of Out magazine, who extol the features of that publication's own, advertiser-supported Web site. But a couple of weeks ago, the Out site was quietly discontinued.
Push: If there is a buzzword at this year's show, it's "push," an overall term used for the process of providing Internet users with ever-updated information in chosen areas of interest. The big push service, so far, has been PointCast, which provides users with free updates on news stories, sports, local weather and other chosen topics (The Times is a PointCast participant).
All the user has to do is click on a button and the updated information--usually adorned by colorful graphics--is "pushed" out to his or her screen.
Now, PointCast has competition. On view at the show is Backweb, a similar service that works in the background to continually update information whenever you're on the Net but not actively engaged in surfing or downloading. This makes updates, when the user requests one, come faster.
Also being shown is Marimba, a service by some of the same people who helped create the hugely influential Java software that greatly expanded the ways in which the Web could be used. Marimba not only pushes information but also whole programs. These applications can be used, for example, to calculate stock portfolio worth or play simple games.
In addition, all the push services provide the user with something he or she might not want: advertisements. That's why the push services are sometimes characterized as working off a "television model."