Internet investor: Web can put the City at your fingertips

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The Independent Online
An awful lot of rubbish has been written about the World Wide Web - and an awful lot more rubbish has been written on it. For most of the last few years the Internet has been hyped out of all proportion to its actual capabilities. After all, you still need a fairly complex computer set-up to be able to access the Internet and the number of homes with such computers remains in a minority.

The Internet is not the all-powerful super-computer of science fiction, but a linked network or networks of computers around the world, dating back in its earliest form to the Sixties.

The World Wide Web, which allows us to look at pages and interact with them on the Internet, is a child of the Nineties - created at the Cern physics laboratory in Switzerland in 1991. By July 1993 there were 50 Web servers (service providers to individual customers) around the world. Now the Web is doubling in size every few months.

Most of us have been unnecessarily blinded by all the science. Who, apart from computer enthusiasts, gets worked up about RAM, ROM, baud, bytes, hard drives and floppies? So this is not a column about hardware, nor, except where absolutely necessary, will I dwell on technicalities.

I am not quite addressing those of you who have a sneaking suspicion that a gigabyte is a hamburger on special offer - but how many of us drive cars, use TV remote controls and programme VCRs without knowing, and without needing to know, how cars, TV sets and VCRs really work?

OK, maybe programming the VCR is beyond many of us, but accessing the Web and making intelligent use of the resources on it shouldn't be.

Right now, you still need the computer and attendant gadgetry to hook up to a phone line to surf the Net. But that will change - is changing with the coming of digital TV. Within the next couple of years, the digital set-top box will allow you to surf the Net from your armchair as easily as you change channels now with a TV remote control.

This week Microsoft unveiled its box, developed by the company's WebTV subsidiary in time for the US Christmas season. Information is downloaded via an ordinary television aerial but to send electronic mail or order services one would still need to hook up to the Internet with a modem and phone line. It is not quite as simple as it needs to be yet but the mass-market Internet is not far off now.

Which is all very well, but what is it for? Apart, that is, from inordinate quantities of tacky pornography aimed squarely at adolescent America.

The answer to "Why bother?" for most of us is because what the Web does offer is information, masses and masses of information. Providing you know where to look and what to look for, you can out-trade the city institutions with better information at your fingertips for a fraction of what they spend on research and analysis.

You can see at a glance just which are the best performing investment funds, making your choice of the 1,600 or so funds available rather easier. You can avoid being bamboozled by shady customers trying to sell you dud investments and, from your PC and soon from your armchair, you can shop.

For example, Barclaysquare is Barclays Bank's Internet "shopping mall". It was launched two years ago. You can browse, that is electronically "visit" a number of leading stores including Argos, Victoria Wine and Toys R Us, making purchases with a credit card.

Now, in response to customer demand for the ability to make small purchases, Barclays has launched its own electronic money, or e-cash, called BarclayCoin.

The system allows users to transfer money from their Barclaycard account to an "electronic wallet" for online use. You simply choose your purchase and pay for it through the retailer's BarclayCoin "cash register".

But just how secure are Internet transactions, and how do you spot the rogues? Most importantly, what Web sites are worth visiting and which are the duds? What special deals - whether mortgages, investments or insurance - are available exclusively to Internet users? These are some of the issues we will return to in the next few weeks.

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