(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you haven't gone online yet, you might think that you are the very last person in the United States to find your way onto the Internet. Presidential candidate Bob Dole announced his World Wide Web site at the end of a 1996 presidential debate, and even race car drivers embroider their online addresses across the back of their jumpsuits; it's a wired, wired world.

Whether you're a novice or rely on the Net every day, the online world is changing so rapidly that it's difficult to keep up with new sites, new services, new equipment, and the latest buzzwords. Until recently, if you wanted to get on the Internet you had to run a gauntlet of challenges, from finding an Internet service provider (ISP) to mastering each of the kinds of software necessary to gain access to the various resources available on the Net. It wasn't for the faint of heart.

Just getting E-mail involved choosing a mail program, most of which were less than intuitive. Libraries of software and other services were available for free on the Net, but to get to them you had to plunge into the mysteries of a jargon-laden world. Those wanting to take part in online discussions had to master the rather arcane commands used in the Usenet, the collection of tens of thousands of online discussions on every imaginable topic.

None of this is all that difficult, but each raised the entry bar incrementally. Little wonder many people who wanted to go online outside the halls of academe--where the Internet served to link researchers across the country--chose the separate, more user-friendly world of commercial online services such as America Online (AOL), which greatly reduced the need to worry about the details of computer communications.

All of that changed a few years ago with the advent of the World Wide Web, which made it so easy to use the Internet that it suddenly became a global resource and communications network for millions of people. The runaway success of Netscape Communications' software for browsing the Web helped spark a transformation of the software business, creating a vast market for easy-to-use software and services that enable consumers to take advantage of the Net. Now the Net is beginning to have an impact on many segments of the economy from telecommunications to retailing, finance, news, and entertainment.

The travails the early adopters faced are over, too. These days, you have numerous choices if you want to get onto the Internet. If you buy a new computer, the software you'll need for getting on the Net will almost certainly be part of the free package bundled with the machine. Microsoft's powerful Internet Explorer 4.0 software is widely available that way. Gateway 2000, for example, ships an InfoHighway CD-ROM with its machines to get you online quickly and simply, and the software tools in Apple's Internet Connection Kit extend that brand's emphasis on ease-of-use of getting onto the Internet. Choose an Internet service provider, and the software will come to you as part of that package. Buy a shrink-wrapped browser in a store, and you'll find automated procedures written into the software to help you hook up with major ISPs.

As with almost everything else in the computer world, however, you'll want to make sure that your system is properly equipped, so that you can use the Net efficiently.


Here are the basics: You'll need a computer that runs an Intel 80486 microprocessor or better. If you use a Macintosh, it should have a 68030 microprocessor or faster. (You'll be much better off with Pentium or, in the Mac world, PowerPC-based computers.) You will also need plenty of internal memory to deal with the graphics-heavy demands of the World Wide Web; 16MB is okay, but building up to 32MB will ensure better performance.

As for modems, a little more expense makes a big difference. Modems running at speeds of 14.4Kbps are inexpensive but so slow that the wait for Web pages to load onto your computer can be agonizing. Go for the faster 28.8Kbps models or, better yet, 56Kbps models if your online provider supports them. Some run faster still, and whatever you spend will pay off in time gained.

If you become a heavy user of the Internet, you might consider having the local telephone company sign you up for a higher-speed connection known as ISDN, which can also be used to carry your telephone traffic. The installation is still a headache in many communities, and the cost can be high for heavy use, typically $50 or more a month. But the increase in speed is liberating.


To take full advantage of the Net, you need software programs, known as browsers, that enable you to view the riches of the Web. The two leading browsers are Netscape's Navigator, which was the phenomenal early success in the field, and rival Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Both provide access to the full panoply of information that can be found online, so consumers can't go wrong with either one.

Microsoft's latest version of its browser, Internet Explorer 4.0, is included in all new computers that come with Windows 95 operating system software; it is also included in the package of software that comes with many online service subscriptions, or it can be downloaded for free from the company's Website. Netscape charges $39 for its most recent version of Navigator, but older, still-useful versions can be downloaded for free from the company's Website and it, too, is packaged with many new computers and online service subscriptions. The difference comes down to personal preference; since versions of both programs can be acquired for free, it's worth getting both and taking each one for a test drive.


This is the one part of the online world that has gotten much more complicated over time. Everybody, it seems, now wants to connect you to the Internet--it makes choosing a telephone long-distance service look easy by comparison. In fact, telephone companies such as AT&T and Bell Atlantic offer Internet access. So do many companies devoted solely to Internet access, such as Earthlink and Netcom. The competition has gotten fierce, with providers striving to find new ways to draw in customers. MCI, a major provider, has even put its Internet start-up kits in Blockbuster video stores, with tie-in deals offering the usual $19.95 monthly fee plus free video rentals to new customers.

The market is full of providers--large cities sport hundreds, ranging from the national companies to small mom-and-pop operations. (A national list can be found at Which to choose? The majority of Internet service providers have settled on a monthly price of about $20 for unlimited Internet access. Some of those companies also offer space on their computers for users to maintain Websites of their own for free, and some offer hourly rates for people who don't expect to burn up the telephone wires.

People who travel a great deal for business often go with the largest nationwide providers, who are always only a toll-free phone call away. If your computing is going to be largely local, however, you might also consider working with a local company. It's worth asking any prospective ISP, especially the local ones, about the ratio of telephone lines to subscribers--a fair indication of how many of your calls will end in the frustration of a busy signal. If the service offers a ratio worse than 1:13, you might want to look elsewhere.

And if you're just starting out, don't neglect to consider the commercial online services, such as America Online. They have developed an uncool reputation among denizens of the Internet, but each commercial service has invested millions of dollars into making its services easy to use--from set-up to technical support after the fact. And each has had years to build up proprietary libraries of software and communities of users that add value to the online experience. The medical discussion groups available on America Online, for example, are invaluable sources of expertise and support. AOL also makes E-mail wonderfully intuitive--especially the traditionally tricky notion of sending and receiving digitized photographs.

For beginners and those who don't want to own a full-fledged computer, there are some new options available. A service called WebTV (from Microsoft) hooks up directly to your television, using a set-top box similar to cable TV boxes. The service provides access to the Internet at acceptable transfer speeds and displays Web pages on your TV set. Sony, Philips, and other consumer electronics companies are selling the equipment you'll need to tune in WebTV (See Home Theater).

Once online, most Internet users rely on a few services to help them navigate through cyberspace. A burgeoning class of "search engines" and other guides to the Internet vastly simplify the task. Each has its own features, and it's worth checking a few to figure out which you like.

Yahoo is perhaps the best known of the general service and search sites. Built like a gigantic outline that categorizes the Internet by subject, the Yahoo site also includes up-to-the-minute news feeds, financial information, and local information for a number of cities. In effect, Yahoo is building a diverse media company based on the Web.

If you are interested in following stocks for example, you can check Yahoo for the latest quotes (with the standard 15-20 minute delay). It also categorizes and displays hundreds of news items from sources such as Reuters. So you can easily check for the latest business news at the same time you are following the market. Yahoo organizes the news into finely-honed groupings. If you want news about biotech, the most recent stories will be available in one place. It's as convenient as having a wire service on your desktop, and much better organized.

As a search service, Yahoo is at its best when you want information on a class of sites. Say you're planning a vacation and want to find out about companies that provide cruises. One way to do that is to "drill down" through Yahoo's outline, selecting increasingly narrower subject categories. For this search you could start with the "Business and Economy" sector, select the sub-category of "Companies," then choose "Travel," and finally "Cruises." Websites for more than 30 cruise lines appear, some offering specials.

You can also find specific information by using keyword searches at Yahoo and many other sites. For example, if you're looking for information about the children's author Daniel Pinkwater, go to search sites like AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, or HotBot. With a distinctive name like Pinkwater, you'll hit pay dirt--a list of sites mentioning him--almost immediately by typing in the desired word.


Most searches, however, are much more difficult. Good luck if you want to find information on "computers" or "John Smith." The biggest failing is that the search engines pull up too much information--too many "hits" that don't contain information you want. They are also exceedingly literal. If you will be doing searches often (as opposed to visiting common sites like most of the time) it'll be worth learning to fine-tune your searches. Looking for information on fancy eyewear? Ask for pages about "glasses" but exclude the word "wine" from your search so that you don't have to wade through pages and pages of information on fancy table settings.

Most of the time, however, you'll probably be revisiting familiar sites rather than searching for new ones. Sites for news, financial information, entertainment--everyone quickly builds a long list of such resources.

At this point, the Web is much more than a global storehouse of information, however. The Net is brimming with cheap or free software, for example, and it also provides a welter of commercial ventures and other services. Among the software vendors, Microsoft and Netscape give away some versions of their browser software. But they're only the best-known. CNET, a site for tech enthusiasts, has a software library that offers thousands of programs for everything from word processing and financial planning to anti-virus software and tools for developing programs of your own. For example, you can sample one of the hottest new applications for Net surfers: Internet telephony, software that enables you to use your computer as a telephone (See Conversation Piece).

Some of the software offerings available over the Net are demonstration versions that work only for a limited time; others are slimmed-down versions of programs that the vendors hope you'll replace by purchasing the full program. Still others are either so-called shareware, software that costs nothing to download but comes with heartfelt hope that the user will someday send a check to the developers, or freeware--absolutely gratis.

The range--from solidly commercial ventures to freeware, a legacy of the Net's non-commercial beginnings--typifies what's happening on the Internet these days. As you'll see in the other stories in this section, there's a startling panorama of resources, services, and commercial products available now. Everything from sports information and gardening sites to investment advice and online trading. Once you get started, there's no turning back.