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Business battles to haul you aboard

Roger Frost looks at the big network firms to find out what's on offer

There are now about 100 firms bidding to connect you to the Internet. Some serve small geographic areas, while others specialise in markets, of which education is one. Some give you a phone number and let you find what you want, while others hold your hand and show you the way.

AOL, a new Internet service in Britain, says it is like choosing your holiday: you can take an organised tour and see the sitessights or you can go it alone back-packing. Companies have different angles on this guided tour idea. Some are big and influential - AOL and CompuServe share about 10 million subscribers. The Microsoft Network has fewer, but is growing fast.

AOL may be new in this country, but with 10 years' experience in the United States, it makes things pretty painless for beginners who will not need a manual to use AOL for surfing and electronic mail (e-mail). There is a big consumer offering including ClubCall for football fans, Time Out for what's on and the Independent and Daily Mirror newspapers.

The education section is run by Anglia Multimedia, part of Anglia TV. They plan a homework helper, encyclopaedia and curriculum materials. There will be a staffroom and a playground where teachers and pupils can chat. There are desktop safaris where you can explore a wildlife database from the Survival TV series.

Earlier this year AOL made UK secondary schools the tempting offer of a free subscription and is thought to have had about 1,000 applications. Primary schools could get theirs in September. Microsoft UK followed suit with an offer of free connection to its Microsoft Network along with a significant shelf of free software for World Wide Web activities, including its latest operating system for PCs, Windows 95.

CompuServe Information Service (CIS), is another major operator with pedigree. Its world membership of four million includes an impressive 250,000 in the UK. In addition to its Internet service, CIS has its own information service. News, weather and travel, are included as, apparently, is everyone else doing on-line business. If you want to consume, you can book planes and hotels, and buy wine, flowers, and washing machines: round-the-clock retail therapy. And for computer support, advice and software, CIS is one of the best.

For years, CIS has had hundreds of Forums, special areas where you can post messages and chat. Today there are cutting-edge projects using tricks which are not really in the Internet proper.

It is worth thinking about the education potential of an on-line place where you can adopt an identity, walk into a scene and converse with other characters using speech bubbles. Or an international chat room where your messages are translated by software into French, German or Spanish.

Or even the worldwide interview with Mick Jagger, where your computer was fed with sound clips, stills and graphics as it ran. You could even join in and fire questions - or wish it was Chris Woodhead on the spot.

CIS constantly innovates and late this year something radical is expected. The service will increasingly become more Internet-ish, like the World Wide Web. But rather than leave you lost in cyberspace, CIS will provide an easy way to get to the spots you want.

Alongside these two, the Microsoft Network's (MSN) one million membership seems tiny, but achieving that in six months is impressive. After a million grumbles of "it's slow" and "there's not much here", MSN had a serious re-launch a couple of months ago.

MSN will not be a closed information area like other networks are, and later this year it will be based on the World Wide Web so you will be able to access MSN using other services. There will be incentives to get plumbed-in properly. You will receive discounted services or exclusive ones such as Car Source, where you can pick up a car, though still only Chevies and Pontiacs, or a teachers' section where you can pick up, say, a word-processor tool to help lesson plans.

Microsoft is also aiming to make MSN the best way of using the Internet. At present you need an array of programs to send mail or read news and Internet pages. A single way to the Internet may be about to be delivered. So there will soon be an Internet add-on to Windows 95 which will extend the Explorer, a program for seeing what is on your hard disc, into an Internet Explorer.

There will be little difference between exploring the Internet and exploring your hard disc - the look will be similar. That look is a split screen with MSN on one side and Internet pages on the other. If you connect for a guided tour round a museum, you get the guide on one side and museum Internet pages on the other. You can ask the guide questions or chat with others on the trip. And there is a facility to create private groups - walled areas, if you like, where a group of children can work without intruders.

Over the next few months, there will be a wave of new products, including some for the Macintosh. Almost every MS product - Word, Excel, Powerpoint - will get the Internet treatment. They will be enhanced so that anything you create can be shared across computer networks and the Internet. There will be tools to help non-techies create smart Internet pages, so if you can word-process today you can Internet publish tomorrow.

Schools wanting to create a resources area on their network or the Internet will be able to using a product called Front Page. This is an important move and whether or not MSN succeeds, Microsoft will certainly shift a lot more software. With 10 million copies of Windows 95 already sold, each with an MSN sign-up button, it has done that bit correctly already.

Even though the benefits for education still need thinking through, we do know your phone bill will be bigger for the Internet is going to connect every computer in the world. You'll hear the dialling tone everywhere. Daily the phone will ring, and you'll hear the fax-like screeching noise and say to the computer, "It's for you. It's that Internet lot again."

* America On-Line (AOL) Tel: 0800 2791234 or

* CompuServe (CIS) Tel: 0800 289378 or http:www.compuserve.comn

* Microsoft Network (MSN).Tel: 0800 750800 or

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