If you’ve never used the Internet you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. So what is it, and what can it do for you? The first bit is easy; the Internet is a worldwide network of computers – millions of them, from small desktop machines to huge industrial mainframes  – all talking to one another using a common language and address system called TCP/IP. Yes, more technical mumbo-jumbo, fortunately you don’t have know what it means, but in case you’re wondering it stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol...

The second question is harder to answer. The Internet is as diverse as the millions of people around the world who use it. For example, train-spotters, stamp collectors or any special interest group for than matter, use it to share news and gossip, and keep in touch with other like-minded enthusiasts. For academics and researchers it is a way to access and disseminate information. It’s a fast, cheap and efficient means of sending and receiving text messages, otherwise know as electronic mail or Email. The point is, whatever your proclivities – however mundane, obscure or just plain weird  – you will find them catered for on the Internet.   

It began 30 years ago, as the Advanced Research Project Agency Network (ARPANET); a US Department of Defense funded program, providing a secure and survivable communications medium for organisations involved in the American defence industry. The Internet as we know it today was created in 1983, as a civilian spin-off from ARPANET, called NFSNET (Nation Science Foundation Network), used by commercial enterprises and educational establishments. However, it didn’t really take-off until the early 1990’s when home PCs became affordable, and following the development of the World Wide Web.

Essentially the Web is a set of software standards, used to create a simple graphical interface, similar in some respects to Windows. In other words it is highly visual in nature and you make things happen by moving a mouse pointer and clicking on icons, buttons, pictures or highlighted text, that appear on your computer screen. Because it so easy to use the World Wide Web has become the single most important component of the Internet, closely followed by Email. It’s also worth knowing that the Internet is widely used to move files from one computer to another, with a procedure called FTP (file transfer protocol), and to remotely access distant computers using a system known as Telnet.

Don’t worry about the jargon, all you need to join in the fun is a PC, a modem and an Internet account. Almost any type of PC will do, from a humble Sinclair Spectrum to a top-of-the line IBM PC compatible or Apple Macintosh, though up to date machines make it lot easier. More recently we’ve seen the arrival of set-top Net TV boxes, that hide all the computer gubbins in a black box, connected to an ordinary television receiver.

TCP/IP allows computers of all makes and types to communicate with each other. It operates invisibly, behind the scenes in a piece of software called a ‘browser’.  The browser’s job is to search out information and present it on your screen, in an easily digestible format. However, you can’t simply connect a PC to the Internet. Access to the net has to be via a company called an Internet Service Provider or ISP, who usually supply the browser software and act as the gateway, between your PC and the net.

ISPs operate and maintain large computers called servers. Your PC connects to the server by telephone, via a modem (see last week’s Boot Camp). The ISP’s server is linked to the rest of the Internet and other servers by a network of high-speed digital and fibre-optic cables, microwave links, satellites and undersea cables.  

The key point is that your ISP is normally only a local call away, so you only pay local telephone charges for the time your PC is connected to the Internet. That holds true even if you are accessing information from a computer on the other side of the world. Of course, you also have to pay your ISP for the privilege of using their server, usually by monthly subscription. The way ISP charges work varies, but normally the subscription buys a set number of hours access each month, after which you’re charged at an hourly rate. As a very rough guide a typical user – clocking up between 10 to 15 hours a month – will pay around £10 a month.

Most ISPs provide additional services, over and above Internet access. They will assign you a unique Email address and the use of an electronic mailbox on their server. This stores all of your incoming messages, until you next log on and download them onto your PC. Some ISPs give you, or rent space on their server, so you can create your own Web site. A lot of the larger ISPs maintain their own sites, providing on-line shopping opportunities, databases crammed full of information and hosting, forums, chat rooms and bulletin boards. They are Internet sites devoted to a single subject or area of interest. They often include libraries of text and computer files and areas where you can hold real-time conversations – by typing in messages – with other visitors to the site.

How on earth do you find what you are looking for? It’s easy. Web sites called Search Engines work like automated telephone directories, tracking down sources of information using simple key words. There are more than a score of search engines on the net – all free to use – that can trawl through tens of millions of sites, documents and pages, looking for what you want, in a matter of seconds. It’s important to choose your words carefully; a seemingly simple search can easily result in several thousand web-site references or ‘hits’, each with short summaries of what they contain. To access a chosen site all you have to do is click on the address or a line of highlighted text, and the browser automatically connects to the site.

It is impossible to say which is the best ISP, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses moreover you’ll have your own needs and preferences. Listen to what seasoned net users have to say and look out for surveys and reviews in computer magazines.

The Internet is an invaluable educational resource, increasingly used in schools and colleges, and by children at home. If you are a parent and concerned about the availability of pornography – and there’s plenty of it -- then it is possible to configure most browsers to restrict access to particular sites. Specialist software, that can recognise key words, and even images of bare flesh are also available. In addition all browsers keep detailed records of Internet sites visited. However, do not underestimate the ability of computer literate youngsters to defeat such measures. In the end the responsibility for what they’re getting up to whilst they’re on-line rests with you.

In less than a decade the Internet has become the world’s most powerful communication tool and source of information. What the future holds is anyone’s guess but you can be sure that it’s not some five-minute wonder, it’s not going to go away and one way or another it will affect your life. We have barely scratched the surface, there are countless other possibilities and issues to consider. You will find plenty of reading matter in your local library and computer store but the best way to understand what the Internet is all about it to try it for yourself! Go on, it doesn’t bite…


It doesn’t take long to build up a sizeable collection of floppy discs and CD-ROMs. Your PC probably came with half a dozen or more discs, which need to be kept safely, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of looking after discs from the beginning. The worst thing you can do is just leave them lying around, they will get lost or damaged.

It’s worth investing in some disc storage systems. There are a tremendous variety of racks and stacks designed for audio CDs and they are perfect for CD-ROMs. There’s less choice for 3.5-inch floppy disc boxes, but you won’t need to get to them so often, so they can be tucked away, out of sight. Don’t underestimate capacity, especially for CD ROM storage. It’s no good buying a rack for all the discs you have now; they breed like rabbits and you’ll quickly run out of space.

Broadly speaking CD ROMs and floppy discs survive longest in the kind of conditions we feel comfortable in. They do not fare well in extremes of heat, cold or humidity. CD ROMs must be kept out of direct sunlight – the plastic will warp and degrade – the same applies to floppy discs, and they must be stored away from sources of magnetism. That means keeping them well away from loudspeakers, the PC monitor or a TV, electric motors and appliances. Leaving floppy discs and CD-ROMs in their drives won’t hurt them, but they may attract dust, which could eventually affect the operation of the drive.

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