By Scott Rosenberg
There are two ways you can get on-line, or so conventional wisdom has it: one for the computer whizzes, and the other for the rest of the world.
If words like "Unix" and "Winsock" and acronyms like PPP and FTP don't scare you, you can buy a flat-rate account with a small- or middle-sized company that will hook you up directly to the Internet without a lot of hand-holding.
But everyone else, most computer advice columns suggest, would do better to fork out their money to one of the "big three" online services: America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy (to be joined later this year by the Microsoft Network). They may cost a little more, but they make life easier -- and besides, only a big, well-funded company can provide a decent level of service and support, right?
Last week I decided that, in this as in so many other things, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
Here's how I spent last Friday morning: I'd heard about an article in Newsweek I wanted to read. I don't subscribe to that magazine, but I do subscribe to Prodigy, and Newsweek has recently launched a nicely designed, multimedia-enhanced version of itself there.
I fire up Prodigy. Unfortunately, I haven't used it in some time, and I soon discover I'll have to download the latest version of Prodigy's software before Newsweek can appear on my screen. A half-hour later -- after I obey a three-page set of instructions and do a needlessly complex little dance with temporary directories -- the new programs are safely on my hard drive. But when I launch them, the program stops dead in its tracks: It wants my password.
My password? I haven't thought about it since I entered it, a couple of years before, when I first joined Prodigy. Ever since, it has resided somewhere in the bowels of Prodigy's "automatic logon" program. Who knows what it is? I can't even remember if it's a word I'd chosen or one they'd assigned me. And I certainly never wrote it down anywhere; I have followed the experts' advice.
By now, it's been about an hour since I decided to look up the Newsweek article. In that time I could've bought the paper magazine at the corner store and read it cover to cover. Instead, I'm waiting for a human being to pick up the phone at Prodigy's headquarters in White Plains, N.Y.
White Plains says to call Prodigy's 800 number. Prodigy's 800 number turns out to be a voice-mail menu from hell. After wrestling with mind-numbing touch-tone options, I find the recording that promises to explain how to change your password and how to cancel your account. But all the instructions involve logging on to Prodigy -- which is precisely what I can't do at the moment.
I'm getting a little steamed, so I call back White Plains. It's pushing lunch time here on the west coast, which mean's it's 2 or 3 p.m. back at Prodigy HQ. I explain to the operator that I wish to change my password or, failing that, cancel my account.
"Wait a second," he says, putting me on hold. Finally, he returns: "We can't deal with that right now. Everyone's gone home early for the holiday weekend."
This is the best a national communications service can do? The truth is that I get far better service, and far more immediate response, from the tiny San Francisco company that hooks me up to the Internet for $15 a month -- almost exactly what Prodigy charges.
Sirius Connections isn't about to hit the Fortune 500. Barely a year old, it was founded by a quartet of technophiles who run their network from a bunch of Next computers in a South-of-Market office suite.
It's true that starting up with Sirius is a more complex process than popping a Prodigy disk into your computer, typing "install," and praying that it works right. And Sirius, like most Internet businesses, has had its growing pains -- down-time on its news server, struggles with Pacific Bell for more phone lines.
But there's no bureaucracy and, in my experience, far fewer hassles. Sirius provides good step-by-step connection advice, and if you augment their information with a free-software-enhanced book like Adam Engst's "Internet Starter Kit," you can't go too far wrong.
Prodigy -- like its AOL and Compuserve competition -- provides you with a closed system of proprietary software: You can't personalize the system, and if something goes wrong, the company has to bail you out -- you can't look under the hood yourself. Also, when something new comes along -- like the popular World Wide Web, which mushroomed into online prominence over the past year -- you have to wait for the company to catch up.
Sirius, like its many competitors in the direct-to-Internet business, gives you wide-open access to all of the tools -- usually free or "shareware" -- evolving and mutating among the Internet community. You're not stuck with the mail program some executive made a deal for years before; you pick your own. And when new technologies arrive -- like the new multimedia add-ons to Web browsers that are proliferating today -- you can use them immediately, instead of waiting a year for Prodigy or AOL to figure out how to add them.
As Sirius' Don Herter puts it, "It's like the difference between Safeway and your corner store." Make that a discount corner store.
As the online turf wars heat up this year, and you read stories about Microsoft Network doing battle with AOL, or Compuserve upgrading its Web access to keep pace with Prodigy, keep in mind that the big names aren't the only game in town. In cyberspace, sometimes bigger just means buggier.
Seeking a techno-savvy audience for a workshop presentation of a music-theater satire titled "The Bandwidth Addict," Coates took out cryptic ads in local newspapers last week -- just the picture of a face flanked by "FRI" and "SAT" and his company's Web address. Readers who knew enough to find their way to his Web site could reserve free tickets to the event directly from their computers.
The Coates site quickly started receiving about 7000 visits per day and gathered healthy audiences for the two shows. Workshops will continue this summer; details will be available on the Web.
Coates calls his web site a "home stage" rather than a "home page" because, he says, "We're trying to get away from the publishing metaphor." But metaphors are so rampant in cyberspace, he adds, that Web travelers sometimes don't realize that his theater is a real, physical place.
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