Caught in the net

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Whenever anyone offers you a sincere smile, a firm handshake and the promise that their software is "plug in and go", you should resist the immediate temptation to punch them or burst into tears.

Almost everyone who has ever dabbled with computers will be aware of the gulf that exists between the cheerful theory of "user friendly" products and the cruel reality of trying to coax a simple task out of an unco-operative machine. There is nothing quite as irritating as thousands of pounds worth of computer, purchased to make life easier, stubbornly refusing to work.

Nowhere is this more true than with software for the Internet. You've probably seen the adverts promoting Internet connection packages, showing trimly manicured fingernails flying over a keyboard, calling up a series of dramatic images and charts on to a screen. What they don't show are the hours of infuriating attempts to get on-line, with your "plug in and go" starter kit proving about as user-friendly as an electric chair.

If computers were as easy to set up as the advertising claims, there wouldn't be thousands of people working in customer support services. And it is to these helpline heroes that you should turn when you're planning to connect a computer (or a school network) to the Internet. It's probably safe to assume that almost all computer manuals have been written by enemies of plain English, so at the earliest opportunity you should try to talk to a real live human being.

These helplines are operated by all the leading Internet providers, so once you've opened an account and you've received the starter-kit software, you should find out from them exactly how to load the information into your computer and what you should expect to see when the system is working. This connection process can take different forms - if your computer has a drive for compact discs, then some companies provide a disc from which you can automatically install all the software you need for access to the Internet. There are other Internet providers who will send the software on floppy discs, with instructions on how to copy the information on to your computer.

Fortunately for anyone trying to link up to the Internet now, the setting up is much more straightforward than a year ago, when many an unhappy hour was wasted by would-be Internet users, as they tried to configure intricate pieces of communications software. But even though the process is simpler than before, there are still bound to be problems, such as when the "straightforward" instructions fail to correspond in any way to what you see on your own computer. This is the time to ring the helpline and explain what equipment you're using and what is (or isn't) happening. If the helpline isn't very helpful, then you can always take your account elsewhere.

So if the connection software is installed and a modem is linking the computer to the phone line, what should happen next? In most systems there will be some kind of start-up icon for the Internet or on-line service, which* when clicked will open a "browser" on your screen - this is the frame in which the items you call up will appear. At the same time the modem will also be triggered into life, automatically dialling your Internet provider's number and then producing a high-pitched wail as it makes a connection. Then, barring hitches, a front page should take shape in the browser - the starting point for your exploration of the Internet.

Any suggestions or ideas to tesnet@tes1.demon.co.uku Useful numbers: AOL: 0800 279 1234; Research Machines: 01235 826868; CampusWorld: 0345 626253; Demon Internet: 0181 371 1234; CompuServe: 0800 289378.

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