IN 1995 there were maybe 10 million Internet users. Since then the numbers have grown, doubling each year to about 50 million today. If the Internet was a school with 500 pupils back then, today it would now have thousands. Even the most schoolphobic would be curious to see what it was all about.
Today's Internet came to be through an unusual decision. It was that all computers will use the same language to talk to each other. So while there might be all sorts of ways of connecting one computer to another - phone wires and network wires for example, this meant that any Mac, PC or Acorn could read the same document from a computer that might be miles away. When you know how hard it is to get a computer to talk to a printer a metre away, this is little short of phenomenal.
Getting on to the Internet is remarkably easy in retrospect. For much of the population, talk about the Net or visiting a www-dot-thing is an embarrassment. The pressure will increase with government plans, but there are ways of thwarting this. For example, if you are asked for your email address, give them one you've invented yourself. It's double-clever to use your school name as in email@example.com. Rather than call you back to say they can't type it, they'll probably mail the stuff.
Step one requires the skill to pick up the phone, not achieve much and put it down after an hour - WITHOUT thinking about what it cost. The solution is to use a line that someone else pays for. Step two needs the software that sets up your machine to connect. You get this from whoever you choose to provide your Internet service, or it may be already built into your computer. Your choice includes education specialists such as RM's Eduweb, BT's CampusWorld and a few others.
If you are keen to get connected and finding school protocol against you, opt, as most have, for a connection from home. Here your choice of suppliers is wider, though people report that AOL has the easiest software to start off with. The software installs very easily and sets things up well enough for a first browse of the Internet. Good software is the key to the value that makes smiling at your phone bill just about possible.
The first thing you see on AOL is a cheerful menu with labels like kids, learning, news, travel and post. From this you can explore UK information as well as send email. Here you can train yourself, and it isn't just for beginners, as the software for using the World Wide Web, making web pages and taking part in discussions, are ready to roll. This side of AOL is only for PC and Macs which is why Acorn users in particular will go for something more "standard Internet".
When people say Internet, they really mean the World Wide Web. The software you need is called a browser. The browser should let you examine almost any kind of computer file - if you're curious to test this, drop your word processor or picture files on to it and see if it displays them.
With luck you will use it and never hear mention of things like "FTP", "Telnet" and "Gopher" - some remnants of Internet history. What they do in the way of copying files and using the Net can be handled by most browser software without you ever noticing. In fact, if you ever meet these it's mostly because there's something arcane about their software and not your software.
Acorn computer users have the Voyager browser which comes with a smart education-oriented package from Argo Interactive. Others to look for are Fresco and Webster XL. Mac and PC users have Netscape's Communicator and Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer which are unusually rich in features and available from the Internet connection firms.
Using a browser can be as easy as just clicking on things to find the information that you need. Even so, its many features are worth learning to use. One is knowing how to mark any pages you like as a favourite place or bookmark.
Find out also how to mark the documents you create on your word processor so that later, when you've a spare minute, you can organise both your places and document files into topic folders. Another idea, called a "subscription" on the latest edition of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, will save you revisiting places to look for what's new.
When you mark somewhere as a favourite place, you can subscribe to it and the machine will check it periodically and drop you a line when new material is added. As a bonus, you can get it to stash what it finds on your hard disk to read when you're not running up a bill.
Then again, you could avoid it all and do some stalling. "That Internet stuff will never catch on."
Contacts Voyager browser and Internet connections for Acorn: Argo Interactive: 7 Duke's Court, Chichester, W Sussex PO19 2FX. Tel 01243 815815Web: www.argonet.co.ukEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org Fresco for Acorn: Ant Ltd, PO Box 300, Cambridge, CB1 2EGWeb: www.ant.co.uk Webster XL for Acorn: Rcomp,22 Robert Moffat, High Leigh, Knutsford, WA16 6PS Internet Explorer for MacPC: Microsoft Ltd.Web: www.microsoft.comukeducation. Netscape's Communicator and Navigator for MacPC from the Web: www.netscape.com. Opera for PC Web: opera.nta.no