Buying Online: Making the right connection

Buying goods and services over the Internet means getting online. Today that is still quite difficult, but a revolution is just around the corner.

The conventional arrangement consists of a PC (or Macintosh computer), a piece of software called a browser, a device called a modem, a telephone line and an Internet account with an Internet services provider (ISP) - the company that actually connects your PC into the network of computers worldwide that is the Internet.

For most types of electronic commerce, you don't need a powerful PC, but (and it is a big but), the power of the browsers and the advances in technology on the web mean that you might need at a fairly up-to-date machine to avoid being shut out of too many sites.

Browser are the software that allow you to look at any Website. It is the program which is a cross between a word-processor, a graphics package and a database. In addition, it can probably display moving images and relay sound.

There are really only two choices for browsers today - Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Netscape's Communicator/Navigator package. There really is not a lot to chose between them. The market is shifting toward Microsoft, but many regard Navigator as slightly easier to install and use.

The next thing you need is a modem. Many computers come with a modem built-in, but if you have to buy one go for one that operates at least 33.6K baud rate (just like miles per hour, but for modems). You can go for a 56K model, but although, theoretically, it should operate 40 per cent faster, this depends on the ISP and the quality of the phone line.

Having acquired all the hardware and software you need, the next step is the Internet connection. There are various types of ISP and many people nowadays get their online connection through companies like AOL and CompuServe, which have their own fairly extensive Web-based retail operations, as well as providing customers an outlet to the Internet itself. These companies provide a good, fast and reliable service.

There are also plenty of companies offering plain "old-fashioned" Internet access, such as Demon, Pipex and BT costing from around pounds 9-pounds 15 per month for unlimited time online.

One interesting option is Dixons' new service called Freeserve - a totally free ISP service. The only downside is that you pay pounds 1 per minute for calls to technical support. With the launch of Freeserve in the next week or two, there are almost bound to be problems. But you will have to have a lot of technical problems before you end up spending more on technical support than you will on a normal ISP bill.

A word of warning, however. Dixons, like nearly all the other ISPs, use local rate numbers to connect using your modem. Do remember that Internet calls can be very, very long. It is easy to stay online for 30 minutes, an hour or longer while you are searching the information superhighway. It is usually worth making your ISP access number one of your Friends and Family numbers, if your telephone company like BT allows you to. You will be surprised how much money you will spend on these calls. Some cable companies allow free local calls to ISPs at certain times of day.

Already there are changes taking place in the world of Internet connection. Digital TV could well be the way we do most of our online shopping. And faster connections into your home could mean whole new services.

Digital cable TV will eventually include an ultra high-speed two-way link - probably 500 times faster than today's modems within a couple of years. This sort of speed allows high quality video to pass in both directions.

For terrestrial and satellite homes, the way we connect out to the Internet will still be via the telephone line. Here faster technologies are coming in, but it is probably not a good idea to be first on the block to try out new things. BT has just started promoting something it is calling BT Highway. This is a repackaged version of a service called ISDN.

While fast, ISDN has a terrible reputation for connection problems and it is still very expensive. Like all new technologies it is probably better to let others suffer the pain to get things right first.

Steve Homer

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