Webhype offers hot links, advice and more

By Michael Eilers

Arizona Daily Wildcat

"Zir?" the man said with his heavy German accent, leaning over the counter. "Vhat iss dis Web doohikey?" he asked. The supposedly knowledgeable computer store clerk paled rapidly. His adam's apple bobbed convulsively and his jaw swung gently open like a rusty-hinged screen door.

I've witnessed this very scene, and feel great sympathy for that clerk. After all, "What is the Web?" is a tough question to answer indeed.

The origins of the World Wide Web are as shadowy as its purpose is vague. Yet the "Web" has rapidly become the focal point of all online activity in the past year or so, eclipsing the now-mundane fields of e-mail and file server access. From the most basic online newbie to the hardcore net-head, everyone wants to get on the Web. But what is it? And how do I get it?

In its most basic form, the Web is a communications platform based on a computer language called HyperText Markup Language, or HTML. This language allows the construction of "hypertext" documents, which use objects called "pointers" or "tags" to link themselves to other documents.

A hypertext document can be thought of as text with automated, electronic indexing and footnotes. Key words and citations are "marked up" by underlining or a color highlight, and selecting one of these words "jumps" to whatever the word was pointing at. So for example, if I was reading a HTML document about Quentin Tarantino and saw the highlighted word "Cameos," I could click on it and get a list of his five-minute roles. Still with me?

The Web was launched into the big time by a "browser" called Mosaic which first appeared on the Macintosh platform. It took the plain text HTML documents and turned them into "pages," interactive documents with color, pictures, and even animation. Web pages can be thought of as friendly front ends which make it easy to find information. You don't have to know how a car works to drive one; similarly, browsers such as Netscape or Mosaic handle all the dirty work of searching and indexing, while you just point and click.

A friend once asked me, "Where is the Web?" Anywhere a computer is hooked up to a network, HTML documents can be accessed. Each page has an electronic "address" known as an URL, which is often an ugly, long mixture of backslashes and gibberish such as "http://www.fox.network.com," the location of "The X-Files" television show homepage. Users type an address into the "Go" box on their browser software, wait a few seconds, and then pow! A full-color snapshot of FBI Agent Murphy flashes onto the screen. These pages exist everywhere and nowhere: they are seen on thousands of computers simultaneously, change daily, and create offspring like rabbits.

Who's on the web? Everyone and everything. Nearly every corporation, company, and organization with Internet access has a Web page, and the number of new pages is growing exponentially. Topics range from general interest, such as the Internet Movie Database (http://www.cm.cf.ac.uk/Movies/moviequery.html) to fan clubs (http://voyager.paramount.com/Voyagerintro.html) to online museums and galleries. There are also a huge number of personal web pages set up by net users with a little skill and lots of spare time. These pages often have dozens of links to other favorite or noteworthy pages.

So how do you browse the Web? There are dozens of options, each with its own advantages and costs. Bare-bones text-only Web access is available to every student with a UA GAS or CCIT account: just type "lynx" at the prompt after you log in, then type "g" and the URL of the page you want to access. All you get, however, is plain, ugly text. Marked words appear in bold type, and you navigate around with the arrow keys on your keyboard. You can transfer files, do searches (try http://yahoo.com for starters) and leave messages, but its not the real Web.

If you want the pretty pictures, it's going to cost you some dough. Minimum requirements are a reasonably fast computer (486 for PCs, Quadra or PowerMac for Mac users) and the fastest modem you can afford, 14.4 being the lowest practical speed.

Every online service provider (such as CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy) offers a Web browser with their online software. Anyone with the patience to read a manual or two can figure out how to get hooked up to one of these services. Of course, you should expect to pay pretty steep usage fees if you plan to spend more than an hour or two a month browsing the Web. Software to use these services is included with a subscription.

Hardcore Webheads with a need for speed go with SLIP and PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) accounts, which give the user much greater freedom to access online information. SLIP essentially ties your computer directly into the Internet, allowing very fast transfers of information and communication with mainframes and databases, along with the use of the famous Netscape and Mosaic Web browsers. Telcom companies such as Student Telcom Services (800/947-4787) set up accounts for reasonably cheap. SLIP is also available from the university, for an astronomically huge per-month charge.

Finally, there is Ethernet access: a direct connection to the Internet. Usually only available to businesses or libraries, this is as fast and flexible as it gets. The requirements are steep: you need a dedicated computer, Ethernet cables, an Ethernet card, and access to a file server, which can add up to many thousands of dollars of equipment. The results, however, are stunning. Web access is nearly instantaneous, file transfers are done in the blink of an eye, and you can set up your own full-color pages with ease. For a glimpse of what this connection is like, check out the euphemistically titled "imaging stations" on the first floor of the U of A Main Library, on the left wall of the Reference section.

What's so great about the Web? Well, it's the user-friendly front end to the Internet everyone has been clamoring for. I can look up Bill Gates' hat size (15) without knowing essentially how I did it: I just point and click. All the ugly stuff takes place behind the scenes. True Web devotees claim that the Web Page is going to become the interface for the next 30 years. Cable companies are already looking into providing Web access to their customers, a move that spells certain doom for so-called "interactive television" networks. Even the 500-channel future begins to seem rather pathetic when I have 100,000 Web pages to choose from!

So get out there and surf the Web: there is anything and everything you could want, with business and entertainment in equal measure. If it looks like a button, click it, and if it takes you to another page, chase it down. There is literally no limit to the things you can find.

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