So, you're wired for sound and feel like Captain Kirk on the eve of his maiden voyage. Your dial-finger is itchy and you're rearing to go. First though, we need to consider who's actually out there and why we might wish to contact them.
On-line services can be broadly divided into three categories: bulletin-boards (BBSes), commercial service providers and dedicated Internet access providers.
BBSes are far and away the cheapest option - often absolutely gratis - and provide cheap and cheerful facilities, including the most immediately tangible and useful: e-mail. Because they are often run as a labour of love, the services they offer are limited. There may be only a couple of telephone lines, making access difficult in peak periods. You might find that your mail spends a long time in transit, the number of news-groups may be limited and there's a fair chance that there will be no CP/M software available to download. If all you want to do is send e-mail and read a few discussion forums, this is for you. If, on the other hand, you're seriously interested in that infowhatsit you've been hearing so much about, a BBS alone will prove rather an anti-climax.
The Internet is a massive, rapidly growing global network of computers. An Internet provider has a permanent connection to this web and, for a monthly fee (typically £10 per month), he'll hire you the use of his machine as a gateway to the Net. If you choose a provider within your local telephone district, you can then access any computer in the world connected to the Net for the price of a local call. This makes it possible to do things as diverse as play Dungeons and Dragons with folk down under, log into NASA to check on the contents of the next shuttle flight's payload and even read selected pages of PCW Plus. The fun doesn't stop there, though. You can also hold real-time textual conversations, search databases, order goods, download software, access thousands of discussion groups... The possibilities are virtually endless. The Internet's main (dis)advantage is that there is no central organisation coordinating its content. This means that it is anarchic and finding specific information can be tricky, although there are powerful search-engines to help you.
Lastly, commercial service providers are somewhere between BBSes and the Internet. Because they are privately owned, they are well organised and easy to navigate. Services like CompuServe and AOL were once isolated networks, but the onslaught of the Internet has them running scared, with prices being slashed and Internet access being gradually phased in. The main advantages of such services are their ease of use and the ability to call in locally from almost anywhere in the world via one of their many PoPs, but expect to pay through several orifices if you make a lot of use of the system. A specific disadvantage of CompuServe for PCW owners is that they expect you to use their own in-house software for Internet access, which won't run under CP/M. As Internet access is charged at a premium rate, you'd be better off going to a dedicated provider for this anyway.
If you think a BBS will satisfy your needs, give Spud's Xanadu a call on (01268) 515441. E-mail and news-group access is free of charge, although they understandably encourage donations. You'll have to look hard to beat Spuddy for value for money.
If you fancy a commercial service, Delphi and Cix are probably the best bet, as their textual interfaces lend themselves to PCW usage. You can reach Delphi on (0171) 2842424 and Cix on (01492) 64196.
Internet providers are a little more complicated, as most only offer types of access which the PCW can't utilise. You need what is known as shell access (a.k.a. terminal or Unix access), which basically gives you a textual interface to the Net instead of the graphical access favoured by users of more powerful computers. Two providers who offer shell access are The Direct Connection [(0181) 3172222 - log in as demo]) and Almac [(01324) 665371].
Assuming you've chosen a service and wish to register on-line, it's now time to dial out. Fire up your comms software and type ATDT followed by the telephone number of your chosen service. The modem will now dial the number and, if the lines aren't all busy, establish a connection. You should see the word CONNECT appear to confirm this.
It's now simply a matter of following the on-line instructions to register. You will be asked to choose a user-name, which you should take some time to think about, since this will form part of your e-mail address unless you're joining a non-Internet network. You will also be required to choose a password, which should be given equal consideration. Above all, don't forget it and don't tell it to anyone. If you're a cat lover, don't make your password the name of the family feline or anyone who knows you will be able to guess it without paws(!) for thought.
Depending on the service you've chosen, you may be able to use the system immediately or you may have to await written confirmation of your registration.
You should now attend to fine-tuning your system. For instance, you may wish to write a log-in script to automate calling your chosen service. How you do this depends on your software, but ideally requires some programming experience. PCW-PD can supply you with sample log-in scripts which should require very little customisation.
Next month, we'll take a detailed look at e-mail and discover that there's more to it than meets the eye.