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SEVERAL FIRMS NOW OFFER DIRECT ACCESS TO INTERNET

We've talked about taking the bold jump to the online world with commercial online services such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe.

Today, we pursue the Holy Grail of the online world: a direct connection to the Internet.The big commercial services all provide some access to the worldwide network. They're good for sampling it and getting to know what it's like.

But if the bug bites you and exploring the Internet becomes an insatiable urge, you'll be satisfied by nothing short of the performance and heavy-usage price advantage of a direct connection.

Until just three or four months ago, a straight shot to the Internet was technically complex and even emotionally trying.

But that's all changed. Now, numerous companies have sprung up to provide you with instant-click access to the Internet. If you sign up for about $20 a month, they send you software that automatically configures itself to work from your computer.

New operating systems - such as OS/2 Warp and Windows '95 - even incorporate Net connections automatically. You just click on an icon, listen to the phone dial and - voila! - you're on the Internet.

Internet access providers have computers hooked directly and permanently to the Internet. They let you connect to them with a local phone call, providing your access to the Net.

You don't need to know or understand anything else to get a direct connection to the Internet. But since you're being brave and trying something new, we're going to take the bold step of explaining how this stuff works.

Traditional online connections worked by giving you one screen of information at a time. That's how most computer bulletin boards work. It's also how Internet "shell accounts" work. Those connections are good for e-mail and handling file transfers over the network.

Then came the Internet's World Wide Web, with pictures and "hypertext" links - which have instant connections to let you jump around the Internet. The Web works with a GUI - graphical user interface - that's controlled by moving a mouse and clicking on what you want.

Because of those features, Web pages include programming. Your computer can't use that programming by just getting a screenful of information at a time. It needs to get the whole package - text, pictures, linking information - into your computer. That's why you need a much faster modem for using the Web than for other connections.

Once it's in your computer, the files are assembled into an interactive page by software called a Web browser.

To make all this happen, you need a new kind of connection to the Internet - a direct connection. The connections are called SLIP, for serial line (that's telephone line) internet protocol, and PPP, for point-to-point protocol.

When you've got that kind of connection, you are officially just another computer on the giant worldwide network called the Internet!