Stephen Pritchard kicks off his special report on joining the Internet with a look at the attractions of surfing and a beginner's guide to the equipment you'll need to get started
More hyped than an It girl, attracting more column inches than the general election, the Internet is close to being too popular for its own good. This popularity is stranger still because the Internet is a computer network, and computer networks are really very dull indeed. Anyone whose conversation revolves around hubs, 10BaseT or bits per second is the sort of person who spends time at parties having a one-to-one with the peanut bowl.

The Internet is different, not because of what it is, but for what it does. The Net is not even that new: it has been around for years, first as a military, then as an academic network in the United States.

It spread outside academia and government, and also into Europe, as companies began to appreciate the value of electronic mail. E-mail is not new, either: most European telecoms operators had their own, proprietary system for electronic messages in the Eighties.

If exchanging text messages were all the Net could do, its phenomenal growth might never have happened. E-mail is still, by a long way, the most popular Internet function, and it quickly becomes indispensable. The World Wide Web, however, is what everyone is talking about.

The Web takes the foundations of the Internet - thousands of connected computers across the world - and gives it graphics, sound, and moving pictures.

To put the change into perspective, using the World Wide Web now is rather like using a Macintosh or Windows computer for the first time, after years struggling with DOS.

For some people, "surfing the Web" is a pastime that is taking over their lives. There are thousands of Web sites, from the commercial to the amateur, the official to the irreverent. Large concerns, from Sainsbury's to BMW, have sites that promote their products. More and more firms allow Web surfers to order goods and services online; most are selling computer equipment and hardware, but that is changing. Smaller companies can use the Internet's international reach to look almost as large as the multinational players.

And you or I, with a few hours of time and a modicum of graphic design sense, can have our own personal Web pages for a few pounds a month.

Diversity is at once the great strength and the major weakness of the Web. As our friend with the peanuts would say, the Internet as a whole has a poor signal-to-noise ratio. Web sceptics - yes, they do exist - say that the reason people spend so much time on the Internet is because it is hard to find anything useful. This is only partially true. Search engines such as Alta Vista or Yahoo! act as huge, online indexes for the Web. There are also plenty of sites of sites, and Web pages usually include their author's own recommended links.

The Web is also a bastion of unfettered free speech, although there are politicians, at home and abroad, who would change that. As it is so easy to publish a page on the Web, there is no guarantee that people publish information which is reasonable, decent, or even true.

Much has been made of pornography on the Net. It does exist, but it is easy enough to avoid with a little common sense. Most sites now carry warnings, and many charge for access. A $50 charge for a subscription to "Californian Hot Sex", billed to Dad's Visa card, should be enough to deter even the most curious teenager. Newsgroups - online forums where anyone can send or read messages - are more likely to catch out the unsuspecting. But plenty of people who use the Net each day have never been to a newsgroup.

The need for caution online should be balanced against the wealth of valuable information on the Internet. The Internet will increase your phone bills, but where else can you browse the German rail timetable at 3am, or find a list of every movie ever made by Michael J Fox?.