MORE and more people want to ``surf'' the Internet, the global computer network that now boasts 20 million users. One Seattle company has set out to make it easier for them.
The rapid growth of the Internet in the last few years suggests that it may be the revolution in the 1990s comparable to the personal computer in the '80s. As the PC democratized access to computing power, the Internet is democratizing the ability to communicate and share information. The network is like a library, shopping mall, and hobby club rolled into one.
If that sounds like an Acropolis-style cultural oasis, subtract some of the euphoria. The Internet can also mean sitting in front of a computer screen as minutes tick into hours, typing arcane commands and waiting for access to computers that hold needed information. Like real-life surfing, there are wipeouts and lots of tedious paddling.
Enter Spry Inc. of Seattle. The company, which chose its name for the connotation of agility, aims to make it truly simple for people to ride their circuit boards over the network. Spry's Internet-in-a-Box product, introduced this fall, has been selling briskly at computer stores such as Egghead Software and through telephone orders.
While there are other products with the same goal, Spry's package of software has the most features to date. Among the steps it helps with:
* Registering as an Internet user.
* Sending electronic mail messages.
* Receiving and storing e-mail.
* Posting information on the network.
* Searching for information and loading it into the user's computer.
* Creating a ``hotlist'' of items on the Internet that an individual wants to use frequently (such a forum discussing hockey or a list of government documents).
Internet-in-a-Box allows users to move through the Internet using not just text commands but also the graphical icons and mouse-click controls common in other computer programs. The $99 package is designed for computers running Microsoft Windows software. There is no version for Apple's Macintosh.
``It's going to be the product that blows open that market [for Internet access], but other products are going to be hot on its heels,'' predicts Robbin Young, managing editor of Windows Watcher, a newsletter that follows products designed for Windows.
One reason competition will grow: The software that underlies Internet-in-a-Box is readily available to others. (Individual users can even pick it up on the Internet for free, but this takes much time and effort.) For example, Spry's product is the first to incorporate Mosaic, a program that makes it easy to navigate a part of the network called the World Wide Web. Other companies are sure to license Mosaic and come out with their own products.
Moreover, as the Internet gains popularity, software designed especially for it may increasingly become a standard feature on computers. IBM Corporation's OS/2 software platform now includes Internet access, albeit with fewer features than Spry's package. Microsoft is preparing to follow suit with its ``Windows 95'' release next year.
Even with the right software, computer users still need a way to get onto the Internet. Spry helps make that easier by including a list of companies that provide Internet connections. The package also includes ``The Whole Internet User's Guide,'' a popular guidebook in an edition modified to relate to Spry's software.
Michael Tardiff of Northwest Nexus Inc., a company that provides Internet connections, says Spry's product can indeed make the Internet easier. But he warns users not to expect too much. For one thing, the first version of any software product tends to have bugs. He says Internet-in-a-Box is proving to be no exception.
The bigger problem, however, may be not with the software but with the Internet itself. The network's open structure is a key reason for its success; but it is also frustrating to users. One effort can turn up a gold mine of information, but another leads to a dead end, and both take too long. ``While this [software] does make it far simpler, I think people are going to get out there and get lost,'' Ms. Young says.
As if to confirm the point, one early user of the product successfully posted a message, but it was one of frustration: ``Is there any meaning to be connected to the Internet thing?''