When you've hit Milton Keynes, you've made it

The Internet is reaching the heart of Middle England, largely because of the Link, says Dorothy Walker
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Milton Keynes is at the heart of Middle England. When the Internet reaches Crown Walk in the sprawling new town, you can be sure it has arrived. And when it is being promoted in-store by Dixons, it has to be part of our pop culture.

So I wended my way through the roundabouts and dual carriageways to find out how Dixons' latest venture, the Link - "The communications store that speaks your language" - is grabbing a town that has just discovered the mobile phone.

Billy Harley, the store manager, and Ben Winter, the area manager, are there to meet me. "We're not very busy yet," says Billy. "Milton Keynes is an afternoon sort of place."

They brief me on the Link: "It's all about introducing new technology, explaining it simply and showing people what's in it for them." We move to the computers - labelled with L-plates ("Internet Learners Welcome"), where Billy shows me how to demonstrate the CompuServe service. We will be showing off both CompuServe's own online services and the full Internet - which can be entered via the same system. The essential drill: first establish how much customers know about the Internet, then find a hobby or subject that interests them, to hold their attention through the demonstration.

A leather-clad biker is eavesdropping. "Have you tried out the Internet yet?" I ask. "Don't worry, I'm commercial director of PC World, and I'm just spying," he says. "You learn never to make assumptions in this business," says Billy.

We return to the computer. What are the most common questions people ask? "Often they test you on the jargon," says Billy. "There are around 40 buzzwords they might have heard. If you can answer them, then you win their confidence. After that, they usually say: 'I've read about the Internet and seen it on TV - now can you just explain what it is?' "

Meanwhile, the shop has been filling up, or in retail-speak, getting a lot of "footfall". Most of the feet have fallen in the mobile phones section, where people are jostling to buy equipment and accessories I didn't know existed. But where are all the surfers? After I grow tired of guessing the weight of each phone and pointing out my birthplace on the Cellnet coverage map, I decide it's time to coax someone - anyone - into having a demonstration.

I stalk an unsuspecting teenager, who has arrived with his fiancee. "Would you like to see the Internet?" "Yes," he replies. "What is it?" Perfect.

He stands well back from the PC, and Billy asks what he is interested in. "Sport," is the answer. "Football?" suggests Billy? "Great!" With a click of the mouse, Billy selects a CompuServe list of football headlines. The Man Who Has Never Heard of the Internet kneels down in front of the screen: "Aston Villa Lose Sponsorship Deal - let's have that one." He reads that a corporate sponsor is to keep the pounds 1m destined for the club. "Will this thing get me into their bank account?" he asks, only half joking.

After a tour of the racing results and the British golf course directory, he is hooked: "That's really clever - what do I need to buy?" Billy tells him: "You need a modem and the software to get on to Compuserve - that comes to between pounds 100 and pounds 150. Plus a computer if you don't already have one." He doesn't, and his fiancee fiddles nervously with her engagement ring.

"Can I collect the phone I ordered last week?" he asks.

Remembering Billy's advice not to prejudge people, I strike up conversation with a young man in an anorak. He tells me that he works in computer systems. "Ah, so you're on the Internet," I say. "No," he says, "but I've seen it on TV." I steer him to the demonstration, and Ben comes to help. Interests? "Anything and everything," is the helpful reply. "But actually, I'm a keen plane spotter."

Unflinchingly, Ben leads him into the aviation forum, and we discover that plane spotting includes listening in to airborne conversations. This prompts Ben to go to CB Simulator, where like-minded CompuServe users can have CB radio-style conversations - often under the guise of nicknames. (Ben: "You can be who you like, and nobody knows who you are.") After a cruise through the many computer-related topics, learning to his astonishment that he can download heaps of software for his own PC, the youth says he will save up for a modem. "Oh, and I meant to ask," he says as a parting shot, "Have you any Saturday jobs going?"

Things are looking up: a man approaches and volunteers a question. He has a top-of-the-range PC, and wonders whether he should use the Internet to send electronic mail. What would the phone bill be like? I explain that you pay only for phoning your local telephone access number. "No," he interrupts, "I want to send messages to my brother in Singapore." When I tell him that it's still only a local call, he looks incredulous: "Really? But I'm paying pounds 1 a minute to phone him at the moment." After he has grasped that he can't use his fax machine to link his computer to the Net, he goes off to investigate modems.

Two teenage girls sit down at the computer. We establish that they have just finished their A-levels and their school is about to install an Internet connection. "Let's look at how to find information on any subject," says Billy. He brings up a screen called "Lycos search", which glibly informs us that it will rifle through the texts of 767,000 documents looking for any word you care to type in. "Tennis," agree the girls. "No problem," says Billy, "We've had everything from collecting garden worms to toe- wrestling in here." Thirty seconds later, the computer is delivering back the first batch of references to tennis. As I wonder how to explain that we have done the equivalent of visiting most of the world's reference libraries in that time, a third girl arrives. "I got my phone authorised," she says - and they depart.

Time for a coffee break. I ask Joanne, star of the mobile phones section, whether she has been on the Internet. She has, in a big way. Recently she took up juggling, and had some teething problems. Beginners are supposed to practise over a bed so that they don't strain their backs bending down to retrieve dropped balls. This didn't work for Joanne, who ventured on to the juggling conference to seek advice. She was deluged with replies. They were so hilarious that they made it into the alt.humor conference that reports the best of each month's Internet humour. But why the juggling in the first place? "We were advised to take it up on a management course," she says. "You have to juggle lots of things as a manager."

Back on the shop floor, a customer has arrived to see Billy. "I made it on line - did you get my e-mail?" he asks. "I did," says Billy. "How are you getting on?" The customer says he is doing research on companies, but that lots of the information seems to be American. "Ah, but there is also a British companies service - if you have a minute, I'll show you how to get to it now."

Billy keeps in touch with many of the customers he has helped, sending them tips and news. It's a refreshingly personal approach, and judging by my day at the Link, it is just what's needed. For a subject that has been so widely talked about, it is remarkable that so many people haven't grasped even the basic principles of the Internet.

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