Commercial Services


There are three easy ways to gain limited Internet access: through one of the numerous commercial services, through a local BBS with an Internet feed, or, if you're lucky, through a gateway maintained by your employer that connects to your network email system.

First, the commercial services. These companies, such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy, provide their own fee-based services such as email, computer and noncomputer-related discussions, file libraries, and databases of information. And, just to ward off this question right away, no, you cannot access files or databases on a commercial service via a normal Internet account. If you could, then the commercial service couldn't squeeze any nickels from you, and what fun would that be?

NOTE: You can access some of the commercial services over the Internet instead of over a modem, but this still requires you to have an account on that service.

Commercial services offer two main advantages over finding a real Internet site. First, because they have deals with international commercial network carriers such as SprintNet (previously known as Telenet, which is not to be confused with Telnet) and Tymnet, finding a local phone number is usually easier. But, you pay for that easier access, usually with the connect-time fee for the commercial service. Second, the commercial services find it easier to offer commercial-quality information, because they can charge users to access that information and then pay the information provider. Hence you find, for example, full-text databases of computer magazines on CompuServe, but you pay extra for any searches in those databases, with the revenue going to the magazine publishers. Remember, to paraphrase the Bard, "All the world's a marketing scheme."

In the last year or so, all the commercial services have added Internet email gateways, which means that you can use these services to send and receive Internet email. In the last few months, they've started to add extra Internet services as well. Some place restrictions on email, such as limiting the size of files you can receive, or charging extra for Internet email (as opposed to internal email on that service).

NOTE: Absolutely none of the commercial online services properly handle quoting for email. When offering quoting at all, they append the original letter to your reply, which makes it difficult to refer to different parts of the original in context.

In this chapter, I discuss each of the major commercial services. I mention the features and limitations of each, so that you can decide whether any satisfies your Internet needs. Keep in mind that rates change frequently on these services, to accommodate market pressures and the marketing whim of the day, so the rates mentioned throughout may not always be accurate.

Having an account on one of the commercial services can be a good way to ease into the Internet because you can send and receive email and use some of the basic Internet services. Being able to send and receive email enables you to request automated information from the major Internet providers, which makes finding a local connection much easier. In addition, many of the online services provide decent graphical interfaces that are easier to use than character-based interfaces.

Before I get into specifics, take a look at table 9.1, which summarizes the syntax for sending email between each service and the Internet.

Table 9.1: Commercial Online Service Addressing*

SERVICE         TO THE INTERNET              FROM THE INTERNET
-------         ---------------              -----------------

America Online  user@internet.com            user@aol.com
BIX             user@internet.com            user@bix.com
CompuServe      >INTERNET:user@internet.com  77777.777@compuserve.com
Delphi          user@internet.com            user@delphi.com
GEnie           user@internet.com@inet#      user@genie.geis.com
MCI Mail        user@internet.com            user@mcimail.com
Prodigy         user@internet.com            user@prodigy.com
*Note: none of these are real addresses -- substitute the username for "user" and the full domain name for "internet.com" as in ace@tidbits.com.


America Online


America Online (see figure 9.1), commonly known as AOL, has been around only since 1989 but has always boasted one of the best graphical interfaces for browsing files and sending email. The way its software handles discussions, however, leaves much to be desired.

Figure 9.1: America Online Welcome window.

In the spring of 1992, AOL opened an Internet gateway, and its popularity grew quickly. In early 1994, AOL added additional Internet services, including access to Usenet newsgroups and limited access to some Gopher and WAIS servers. In the spring of 1994, AOL started testing TCP/IP connections that enable you to connect to AOL over an Internet connection and run the America Online software at the same time as other WinSock-based programs (see figure 9.2). Connecting to AOL via the Internet requires version 2.0 or later of the America Online software -- Windows version. In the fall of 1994, AOL added support for FTP, and announced plans to support the World Wide Web in 1995 as well.

Figure 9.2: America Online Modem Selection and Customization.

NOTE: The term "America Online" refers both to the service and to the special software provided for accessing the service. Sorry if it's confusing.


Connections


As I said, you can now connect to America Online over the Internet if you have WinSock-based Internet access, either through a network or through SLIP or PPP. Of course, this does you no good if you don't already have an AOL account. You can sign up online if you download the AOL software (I'll tell you where to get it in a second).

Needless to say, you can't simply telnet into America Online. You need special software, and that software is currently available at:

ftp://ftp.aol.com/aol_win/aol20.exe

Download the file and open an MS-DOS shell -- believe me, it is easier this way. Type aol20 c:. This will create a directory \disk1 on the drive that you specify -- in this case, drive c:. If you don't specify a drive, it will expand into the current working drive.

Brace yourself, because over 200 files will be expanded into the \disk1 directory. You'll notice that there is now a setup.exe file that you can run from the Windows Program Manager. This is the same type of setup that you find with every Windows distribution diskette. Follow the instructions and you'll have AOL installed in minutes. By the way, don't forget to remove the \disk1 directory once AOL is installed. Otherwise, you'll just be wasting precious disk space.

NOTE: The self-extracting archive will expand into a directory called \disk1 of whichever drive you specify. This will cause you no end of grief if you already have a directory called \disk1, as it will mix in with files already there. It is best if you check ahead of time. This archive is identical to the diskettes that you find pasted into magazines, and you can create a backup yourself by specifying a floppy disk instead of a hard disk (e.g., aol20 a:).

Once you have everything configured correctly, make sure you're properly connected to the Internet (if you use SLIP or PPP), and then double-click on the new America Online Double-Click To Start icon. The login process proceeds normally, but since you've already made the connection to the Internet, it's quite a bit faster. After you're on, everything works pretty much as normal. I connect over a 14,400 bps PPP connection, so the speed was not significantly different from the 9,600 bps modem connection I normally used with AOL. Windows seemed to open a little faster, but uploads took a bit longer. Overall, I found reliability better with the Internet connection, but I've been having communications trouble with AOL lately, so I may not be a good judge.

I see several advantages to using the Internet access method over the normal modem connection. Many people may only have Internet access at work, so connecting from there is not only possible, but much faster if you have a fast Internet connection.

NOTE: Many people who work for large corporations and major Universities have T1 and sometimes greater speeds to the Internet. Since T1 is roughly 96 times faster than a 14.4K modem, we're talking fast. Keep that in mind in case you want to download that 2 MB patch. Of course, there are many other factors that would cause the 96-times figure to be degraded somewhat.

In other cases, Internet access may be cheaper if you must otherwise call AOL long distance (the actual cost of using AOL is the same no matter how you connect). Also, because of the standard way Windows Internet programs work, you can use any number of them simultaneously. This simply isn't possible if one application hogs the modem, as is normal with AOL. Finally, Internet access makes it far easier for non-U.S. users to connect.

Disadvantages to connecting to AOL over the Internet as opposed to a normal modem connection? There are a lot of access numbers for AOL around the U.S., certainly more than Internet access numbers. If that's true in your area, there may be no reason to bother with the Internet access. But enough about the connection. On to the Internet services that AOL provides.


Internet Services


In the past, AOL has been accused of having an overly Macintosh bent. This has changed drastically over the past three years. And although some of the forums are still organized towards the Macinotosh platform, Windows users will feel right at home. Besides, the many services that AOL has acquired make it platform nondenominational.

I may have quibbles with the way America Online implements things, or how long it takes to do so, but AOL deserves major points for providing as much access to the Internet as it does. AOL feels that its gateway to the Internet is so important to its users that the main menu has a button that will take you right to the Internet Connection (see figure 9.3).

Figure 9.3: America Online Internet Connection.

America Online has promised to support Telnet in the future, although it mentions no specific time frame. The problem with using this service for all of your Internet activities is that you're limited by what's available. For instance, until AOL adds support for a Web browser, you won't be able to access anything on the World Wide Web. And, even if AOL does eventually support everything you can do on the Internet, the best software for using the Internet will always appear first for WinSock-based connections.

NOTE: The feature that I most want from AOL, and which it has promised for some future date, is the capability to forward all of my email to my Internet address. If nothing else, it's a pain to log on to AOL to read the mail there when I already get so much email at my Internet account.