Say you're at the corner of Ventura and Winnetka in Woodland Hills. How do you get to the Internet from here?
First off, the Internet is not a place. It's a thing--a worldwide network of more than 15,000 computer networks. It's also hot, hot, hot. Fifteen million people are already hooked up to the Internet, exchanging electronic mail (far superior to so-called "snail mail" if only because it's free), flirting, following the stock market, playing games, sharing their views electronically on everything from "Melrose Place" to bondage, doing research, telling the White House what they think and generally having a cyberhoot.
But how do you get there from here?
Basically, there are two ways. For years now, Internet access has been one of the standard perks of being affiliated with a college or university. Virtually all college students, faculty and staff have Internet access at no cost to them through their campus computer systems. That's true at Cal State Northridge, for instance.
For those without academic access, by far the cheapest way to get on the Internet from the Valley is to register with Los Angeles' first free public-access provider, or free-net. Offered through Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, the L.A. Free-Net provides full Internet access, including e-mail, for an annual donation of $10 (the donation will be waived for those who can't afford to pay). According to the nonprofit Hope Unit Foundation, which is the medical center's partner in the project, the donations will pay for additional phone lines as usage of the free-net grows. For more information, call the foundation at (818) 954-0080.
Beginning in October, free or low-cost public access to the Internet will also be provided through many local libraries, thanks to a grant from the California State Library. Valley libraries that are expected to have computers set up and ready for public use include the L.A. Public Library branches in Canoga Park, Chatsworth, Encino-Tarzana, Granada Hills, North Hollywood, Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Sun Valley, Sylmar, Van Nuys, the West Valley Regional and Woodland Hills. The Glendale Public Library and the Calabasas branch of the L.A. County Library have also signed up for the program. The branches will be able to give you more information in the fall.
More expensive, but easy to use are the major commercial on-line services such as Prodigy and Compuserve. The big problem here is that, for now, only DELPHI offers access to all the resources of the Internet (most offer little more than e-mail). The good news is that you can sign up for a five-hour free trial of DELPHI (800-695-4005), and its fees begin at a relatively low $10 a month (for the first four hours nights and weekends). The bad news is that DELPHI doesn't have a graphical interface for its Internet services.
Let me explain that in English. The big obstacle to carefree Internet surfing is a historical one. The Internet was created by relatively sophisticated computer users, in the U.S. Defense Department and elsewhere, whose computers ran on an operating system known as UNIX. When using this system, they typed various combinations of letters and symbols into their computers to get them to do what they wanted. That was long before the invention of what is fast becoming the standard way to tell your computer what to do--also known as the easy way: Take your mouse, point at an icon on the screen and click. You have to learn at least a few of the arcane UNIX commands to access the Internet the old-fashioned way. You will probably want to point and click your way around the Internet, for example, by using a software program called Mosaic.
Among the major commercial users, the one that is gearing up fastest to serve the computer challenged is America Online (800-827-6364). When you sign up, America Online sends you software that allows you to do most of your business by pointing and clicking. (The software is also packed in with the June issue of Scientific America and other magazines.) American Online costs $9.95 a month, for the first five hours. And it has an Internet Center that offers an electronic guide called "Zen and the Art of the Internet" and services from the Infobahn's favorite magazine, Wired. America Online recently increased its Internet offerings. Subscribers can now tap into Usenet newsgroups (get a grip on yourself, Chia pet fans) as well as a menu system called gopher and a search feature called WAIS.