The Internet Curmudgeon: "The Best Internet Software ... for You"


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by Daniel P. Dern

Copyright (c) 1994, 1997 Daniel P. Dern

"COPYLEFT/COPY'MIDDLE'":

Permission is hereby granted to link to, repost or forward this piece of my copyrighted work to free-for-access Web sites, online discussion groups, Newsgroups, forums, etc., so long as a) My name, copyright information, and this permissions notice are included, and b) No modifications are made to the text without my approval. If possible, I would appreciate being told of any such re-uses in any case.

HOWEVER: If you want to make any use of this piece where you are earning revenue (e.g., on a Web page with banner ads, or a service or site that charges user fees) or where you should be paying me (e.g., in a magazine) or at least obtaining my permission, contact me at ddern@world.std.com.


A version of this article appeared in INTERNET WORLD magazine. This is what I wrote; what ran in Internet World had edits I neither saw nor agreed with. I've made a few very minor update changes. - DPD

One frequently-posed question by current and potential Internet users is "What's the best Internet front-end?" Variations on this include "the best program, software, e-mail or Usenet program, account provider, etc."

The short answer, as a rule, is that there is, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), no single absolute answer. The correct answer, as is the case with most Internet questions (indeed, with most questions in life), is to re-phrase the question, to "What's the most appropriate Internet software, provider, etc. -- for ME?"

Then the answer becomes, "The one that best fits your needs, which includes (not necessarily in this order):

  • What you plan to do Internet-wise? Mostly surf that Web? Read and send e-mail? Prowl and post to Usenet? Telnet? Access remote real-time services? File browsing and retrieval? Internet Relay Chatting or MUDding?...)
  • What aspect(s) of your life are you using the Internet for, (business, professional, social/hobby...) and how important is it?
  • How essential is "Internet dial tone" (getting access each time you dial up)?
  • How fast is the connection to YOUR computer (e.g., modem, cablemodem, leased line, LAN...)?
  • How dependable is your computer and the maintenance/backup of data on it?
  • Do you expect to always have access to this computer when you intend to access the Internet (even for just getting/checking e- mail!)?
  • Your level of experience with the Internet and with computer/network tools and services in general
  • Your "time-space distribution" -- will you mostly be in one location or travelling? Will you be able to stay on-line for long periods or only briefly?

And last, but far from least:

  • What's your budget for Internet service (including cost, if any, of telephone calls)?
Don't think of your use of the Internet solely in terms of the software or the account/connectivity. From where you sit, there's a strong inter-relationship.

"Internet applications," the Internet and You:

As an Internet user, you don't interact directly with "the Internet," any more than you interact directly with "the phone system."

In fact, you don't interact directly even with "Internet resources and services" such as WorldWideWeb, Gopher and anonymous-FTP sites, or with local manifestations of the Internet such as the Usenet and your e-mail.

Instead, you use programs, a.k.a. software, applications, what- have-you.

You may use a handful of individual programs, such as pine or Eudora or pine for your e-mail; Lynx, Opera, Chimera, Arachne, Netscape, or Microsoft Internet Explorer for web-browsing; TurboGopher or WinGopher for prowling [what remains of] Gopherspace [Note in 1997: Hey, I warned you some of these articles were written a "long time ago" by Internet standards -- DPD ] , NcFTP for file archive browsing, trn or Lotus Notes for reading and posting to Usenet Newsgroups.

Or you may use a combination package such as [Netscape, Internet Explorer, MINUET,] MOSAIC, CELLO or VIOLA -- one of those "universal stereo controller/multimedia boombox" programs that can act as your front end to multiple types of Internet information and services, notably WorldWebWeb and Gopher-based info, but also Usenet and FTP (although not necesarily things like telnet, TechInfo, MUDs and IRC...).

Few people will dispute that graphical user interface (GUI) programs like Netscape, MSIE, Mosaic, Cello, and Eudora, and MUI (Menu-based User Interface) programs (e.g., the pine and elm e-mail programs, the ASCII Gopher client, the Lynx ASCII WWW client, the trn and nn Newsreaders) and GUI (Graphical User Interfaces) programs (e.g., MOSAIC, Eudora, ZMail) are usually much easier to use than CLUIs (Command Line User Interfaces).

Let's face it, many of the CLUI programs feel like PHUIs (Propeller-Head User Interfaces), requiring you to learn and remember far more details, not to mention type very accurately.

(As you can see, we're rapidly accumulating Lots of User Interfaces and Levels of User Interfaces, referred to collectively as LUI-LUIs.)

A MUI typically presents command choices as a menu which you can select from by entering a line number, moving the curser with the arrow-keys, or entering a one or two keystroke abbreviation. (The last is really pseudo-menuing.)

Even a MUI takes a lot of the effort out of using Internet tools, by displaying the top-level commands with (usually) clear ways to get to other levels and groups of commands, or to help text. This reduces the amount of memorization (and of typing).

The pine e-mail program and the pico text editor are excellent examples of this. MUIs also tend to display choices by the screenful, and when you're looking at a document, give you single-keystroke ways to save, e-mail, or place-mark it.

In most cases, MUI-oriented programs are available to any Internet user, including those with dial-up terminal-style shell accounts. For example, again, pico for text editing, pine for e- mail, and lynx for WorldWideWeb browsing. The next step is to a GUI -- a Graphical User Interface. [Which is where most people are, in 1997 -- although a lot of us, including yours truly, still use CLUI/MUIs on shell accounts.]

Are GUIs Good?

"GUI" typically implies "point-and click" operation -- the ability to position the cursor, and possibly select screen portions, via a mouse-like pointing device. Choices may be presented as icons (tiny pictures, kind of like stickers or tattoos). GUIs tend to imply support from some level of "multi- media" such as fonted text, bitmapped graphics (photos, Dilbert cartoons, radar maps...) and possibly audio, even retrieved or real-time video.

GUI-oriented programs are running on YOUR computer. Ideally, they're using the "native" interface of your computer, e.g., the Mac TurboGopher client acts like a Mac program, a Windows- oriented e-mail client or version of MOSAIC makes use of standard Microsoft Windows features, etc.

[Nowadays, the shoe is almost on the other cyber-foot; OSs like Win95 and applications like MSWord are making more use of Web features like URLs and HTML.]

To use a GUI, either you have to either a) have downloaded data files (e-mail messages, Usenet postings, graphic images, Internet Talk Radio source files), or b) have a TCP/IP connection between your computer and the Internet -- i.e., be running a TCP/IP stack on your computer.

It will undoubtedly be easy to use the GUI-oriented program. But does that = "easier or better use of the Internet"? Wearing my Internet curmudgeon's hat, the answer is, of course: That depends.

A Jaguar on a Dirt Road Isn't Necessarily Better than A Pick-up Truck

Much of what it depends on is the speed and availability of the link from your computer to the Internet. If you're on a 9600 bps modem connection, MOSAIC in multi-media mode will be slow at best -- and you may spend more time trying to turn off even the icons than you save with that "friendlier" interface. [As non-text content gets bigger, the same holds true even though modems speeds have gone up to 28.8kbps, 33.6kbps and in some cases 53kbps.]

That's why things like Internet Talk Radio are meaningless to dial-up users; it takes hours to download a half-hour segment. As for all those online malls and videos, even worse. Call me when the basic rate ISDN (64kbps) or better to the home is a reality; until then, to paraphrase George Orwell, "Keep the ASCII bitstreams flying."

[1997: cablemodem Internet access in many towns does deal with this limit, and streaming audio like RealAudio has come 'close enough for folk music.']

In fact, downloading e-mail and Usenet messages for local "off- line" reading may not always be better. For example, if you've only got ten minutes to plough through 150 messages, and you know that a) many of these are horribly long and b) you don't need now, possibly not at all, then c) using your computer in terminal-emulation mode to a mail program through a shell account may be more effective. At 2400bps, it's no content; I can scan the headers and first screenful of messages faster than I could download unselectively.

If The Wizard is a Wizard Who Will Serve:

Back in June (of 1994) I was checking my e-mail while on the road. Hundreds of messages had piled up from the previous week on the road, still not munched through, it was close to midnight ... suddenly, there were about 300 fewer e-mail messages in the queue than there had been minutes before.

That's right, I'd deleted them, probably by typing "delete 31- 320" instead of "delete 310-320".

But I didn't worry -- too much -- because I knew that my Internet account provider (Software Tool & Die) does regular saves of the mail queue files, like every four hours. I sent off a message to the support address, and asked if they could restore a copy within the next day or so.

And indeed they could, and did.

I'd rather use the least "friendly" e-mail program and have this quality of service than the other way around.

Similarly, the "friendliest, easiest-to-use" Internet navigator won't help much if nothing's been set up well. If you can't find search tools like archie or VERONICA -- indeed, if you don't even know that they exist or their names, no front end will be much use. And if the VERONICA servers listed are never available, ditto. In my opinion, every account-selling site over, say, 1,000 accounts should be running VERONICA and equivalent servers FOR THEIR OWN USERS, just as they have their own Usenet feed and local copies of popular FTP archives.

My desktop machine for the past four years has been a 286-based DOS PC. I've got a 9600 bps modem and run telecom software that came bundled with another modem. [1997: I'm up to a Pentium and a 33.6 modem...but still have a DOS 386 sub-notebook I often use. ]

But The World, Software Tool and Die's Internet site, has been using a steadily-upgraded five-processor Solbourne and is now a Silicon Graphics Challenge XL (for Extra Large) multi-processor Unix system, with multiple T1 links to the Internet, like 35 gigabytes of locally archived files, etc.... and phone lines added whenever enough users report failing to get "dial tone" on the first try. And I can access my e-mail from any computer or terminal with telnet or telephone capability; I don't need to carry a particular computer or program around.

So: the "best"? It depends. An account on GEnie, where friendly sysops will fetch and virus scan files, and digest Newsgroups for you, may be best. Or MCI Mail. Or a UUCP account. For dial-up users, possibly the new version of DCA's CrossTalk for Windows 2.2 which includes a Window-button-driven command-line builder. [1997: I'm now also very fond of NetTerm, a shareware program, although I'm using it for Telnetting and haven't tried its dialer.]

You may prefer to find a provider that licenses and supports Pipeline. Or work within GNU Emacs even for mail and Usenet, or use bash or tcsh as your preferred Unix shell, and use Peter Scott's Hytelnet as your initial menu/launcher.

[1997: (Or the Unix shellscript I include as one of the appendices in my book The Internet Guide for New Users, and a longer version in the eventually-coming 2nd edition, a.k.a. Dern's Internet Guide for New Users.] And yes, I AM in the process of getting a 486 for my desktop and a SLIP/PPP account to play with InterApp and WinGopher and ZMail and all that other nifty neat-o Internet software out there, because I need to be more familiar with all this stuff. [ 1997: Did that and more, still haven't played with as much of the net.wares that I want to. ]

But again: The best Internet software -- for you -- is the one that meets your needs. Accept no substitutes; do not remove tag under penalty of law.

-- Daniel P. Dern

[ An Internet analyst based in Newton Centre, Mass., Daniel P. Dern < ddern@world.std.com> is author of THE INTERNET GUIDE FOR NEW USERS (McGraw-Hill, 1994).


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16-Oct-2001 11:08:15 EDT