Getting Online Soon, having your computer linked to the whole world won't just be advisable, it will be essential. Still not wired? Cliff Joseph introduces a three-page special report on the joys of the Internet
It's hard to avoid hearing or reading about the Internet these days, yet relatively few people have a clear idea of what the Net actually is. Many newcomers are surprised to find that it is actually made up of different parts, or "services", each of which has its own special features.

Most people are familiar with electronic mail, because so many of us have it at work. E-mail lets you send messages to friends or colleagues all around the world faster and more cheaply than using the Post Office (and the Internet doesn't go on strike, either). Yet it is the very simplest of all the Internet's services, used mainly for sending private messages from one individual to another.

One of the Internet's great strengths is the way that it enables large groups of people to communicate with each other in real time. The newsgroup system allows you to join thousands of discussion groups covering just about every recreational, scientific, sexual, professional or political subject imaginable. For a slightly less formal exchange, you can enter a "chat room" - a channel where you may find yourself swapping notes on your favourite rock band, flirting with someone on another continent or getting updates from war zones that even Kate Adie hasn't been to.

Then, there's the World Wide Web: the burgeoning, most glamourous part of the Net. Diverse and ever-changing, the Web is basically the world's largest library, newspaper, shopping mall, noticeboard and photo album, all rolled into one.

If you're looking for a "serious" reason to justify getting connected to the Internet, you'll find that you can use the Web at work to keep up to date with developments in your field. At home, you can use it to give your children access to an entire planetful of information. As an educational resource, the Web does more to stimulate a child's imagination and curiosity than watching Neighbours ever did. But lots of people just use the Internet for fun - for talking about music or films, swapping recipes, downloading free computer games or even gossiping about Alexei Nemov (the Russian Olympic gymnast who has sparked off a spate of "sexy Alexei" sites on the Web.)

The great thing about the Internet is its sheer size and scope. It may once have been the domain of technoboffins and computer nerds, but, thanks mainly to the Web, the Internet is now as diverse as the millions of people who use it.

If you're still not convinced, you could take advantage of the free trial- period connections that many Internet Service Providers now offer. All you need is the use of a computer, some software and a phone. Be warned, though. The Net is addictive. Once you've tried it you may not want to give it up.