Lost at sea on the internet highway: two books, one author

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, February 1995

The Internet Navigator, 2nd Edition
ISBN 0-471-05260-4
590 pages, $32.50

Finding It On the Internet
ISBN 0-471-03857-1
302 pages, $25.95
both published by John Wiley and Sons

It's been a busy year on the Internet... by most estimates,
the number of servers and the number of actual users has
doubled since this time last year. Estimates vary since there
is no Internet head-office to keep track of users-- but the
figure of 20 million plus gets batted around a lot.

And it's clearly set for continued growth. The on-line
services such as CompuServe are rushing to find a way to keep
their paying customers on-line, by offering as many Internet
services as possible. Already, the flood of America-On-Line
users asking presumably naive questions in UseNet groups has
lead to put downs and stereotyping by the Internet hard-core.

And with both OS/2 Warp and Windows 95 announcing built-in
TCP/IP for easier Internet access, there are bound to be even
more new users as these operating systems become widespread.

It's been a busy year for publishers of Internet
guidebooks... for book publishers, this would seem to be the
biggest unexplored frontier since Japan opened its doors to
the West in the 1850s.

And it's been a busy year for Internet author Paul Gilster as
well. 1994 has seen the publication of a new edition of his
classic, "The Internet Navigator", as well as a new volume, "
Finding it on the Internet".

Both books are aimed at new users, but both make certain
assumptions about their audience, that may or may not be

Gilster correctly notes that users can either connect to the
Internet through a dial-in-service (including the traditional
on-line services), or can get directly onto the Internet,
either through a network with Internet access, or through
a SLIP/PPP account with a service provider.

The later methods are preferable-- dial-in users have been
limited to text-only terminal emulation, and are unable to
make use of the newer, easier to use, and much slicker
software like Mosaic.

Gilster, however, assumes that as in the past, most new users
will be approaching the Internet as limited, dial-in users.
Both books make only token nods towards other users.

Because of this, these books are forced to give page upon page of
commands for getting the most out of character-based Unix
programs for mail, gopher, ftp and the rest. A knowledge of
this arcane jargon will let users make use of some very
powerful software-- but having interacted with the Internet
on a PPP account with a local service provider, I've been
able to use a collection of free or shareware Windows
software (similar programs exist for the Mac and other
platforms), and have never needed any of this!

The two books overlap somewhat-- the Navigator assumes that a
user is completely new, and explains what is the Internet,
devoting sections to e-mail, file transfers (ftp), UseNet
groups, and the like. "Finding It" was written a little
later, and seems like a follow-up volume. It tends to take
for granted that the user has already sent an e-mail message
and transferred a file; it addresses the central problem of
the Internet-- there's so much stuff out there, but how can
you expect to find what you're looking for.

"Finding It" introduces the reader to the series of tools
designed to help track down information-- Archie and
Veronica (yes, and even Jughead!), WAIS, and more. It even
shows how users limited to Internet e-mail can use that tool
to carry out searches for files, gopher menus, or to track
down at least some of the Internet's users.

A valuable volume, but again, it's got Gilster's assumption
that the reader is probably using a text-only screen, and
needing to know pages of switches to limit a search. At least
this volume recognizes that tools like Mosaic exist, and
reproduce an interesting comparison of the same World-Wide-
Web screen, first on a character-mode terminal, and then in
Mosaic's graphical glory.

I found it useful to read about ways in which one could focus
an Archie search, for example, but when I went to try it out,
I opened up the free WSARCHIE, a Windows program in which I
simple clicked on a few check boxes for the same results as
if I'd learned to type Gilster's character mode commands.

Both ways work, but I can't help but feel like both these
books, while valuable, are missing the point.

One of the reasons that the Internet IS growing is that it is
finally providing simpler to use tools. Other authors have
published guides for new users that focus on these tools (in
some cases, even including 'starter kit' software on disk
along with the books). Paul Gilster has lots of useful
experience to share, but I think he's presenting it in a way
which is not really in line with how more and more new users
are discovering the Internet, and which, by making it seem
archaic and impenetrable, may discourage some from even

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan