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An Introduction to the Internet for Beginners

What's it all about?

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What is the Internet?

The Internet is a large global network of hundreds of thousands of private and government computers permanently connected to each other. The Internet is neither owned nor controlled by any government or body. By 'logging on' to the Internet, you temporarily connect your PC to this network and are then able to send or receive information either to the computers on it or to other people like yourself who are temporarily connected to it. When you 'log off', your computer is disconnected from the Internet which carries on without you. The Internet enables you to move information around the planet at great speed and minimal cost. The Internet will change your life because now, from the comfort of your home or office, you can research and download educational, entertainment or commercial information on a scale never before known to mankind. The Internet has revolutionised business because it can do far more than a fax machine, at ten times the speed, in full colour, at a fraction of the cost!

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What is an ISP?

An Internet Service Provider like AstraWeb provides the physical means for connecting your PC to the Internet in order that you can send and receive E-mail, browse the Web, download files and chat on IRC. We also provide the technical background for solving your problems.

What does it cost?

You will need a PC and a modem and if you buy both new you should not need to spend more than about R2500.00. The monthly subscription to AstraWeb is R90 and your only further cost is your telephone bill, which is charged at local call rates (if dialling a server in your area) and reduced rates after hours and on weekends. This means that if you download one of the free Internet phone applications you can 'phone' your relatives in Sydney, Australia for as little as R4,00 an hour!


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How many people are on the Internet?

The Internet is growing at an enormous rate. As at February 1999, there were estimated to be 120 million active users from 260 territories, including 1,5 million South Africans.

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What is E-mail?

'Electronic'-mail is rapidly replacing 'snail'-mail as a means of communication. You type out a mail message 'off-line' to someone who has an E-mail address and then you log on to the Internet and send the mail. One A4 page can be sent within seconds to anywhere in the World. You then download your incoming E-mails that are waiting on the server for you and log off. This whole process takes a few seconds and costs as much as phoning your neighbours to invite them over for coffee. You are now free to read your mail and draft replies at your leisure. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of E-mail is that you can attach complete files to your mail and send them to any other user as if you were sending a disk. You can therefore send someone document, spreadsheet and graphic files (pictures) that are identical to your originals. AstraWeb will assign you an E-mail address or 'alias' which looks like yourname@astraweb.co.za and this enables incoming mail to find you. Most browsers have E-mail capabilities built into them, but there are excellent and very powerful, dedicated E-mail readers like Eudora and Pegasus which can be downloaded free.

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What is FTP?

File Transfer Protocol is the facility which allows you to use the Internet to download files from, and upload files to another computer. Typically, you will access computers storing large numbers of 'free' software programmes,  and download these straight onto your hard drive. Provided you stick to well-known commercial sites, you should have no virus problems, but as always you should run a virus check on any new software you load onto your PC. There are many sites which offer a huge range of software for free download. One of the best is Download.Com.


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What is Telnet?

Telnet allows you to log on to a computer remotely (via the Internet) and transform your PC into a terminal of that remote computer. This, for instance, allows people to work from home without travelling to the office, or allows a corporate branch to access head office data from another continent. You will obviously require the necessary software and security clearance to be able to do this.


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What is a Search Engine?

Go to a search engine like www.yahoo.com and in the box provided, enter a keyword or phrase that describes what you are searching for. The search engine has a database of millions of words through which it searches and it then returns to your screen a list of web sites which contain your word. By clicking on these items your browser takes you directly to a site containing the keyword. Don't forget to try the excellent www.ananzi.co.za and www.aardvark.co.za search engines which are devoted solely to South African web sites. Here are some other popular search engines to add to your list: www.google.com, www.lycos.com, www.webcrawler.com,  and The Open Directory Project.


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What are Usenet and Newsgroups?

The two terms are interchangeable and describe an electronic version of your local "community notice board". There are more than 20,000 topics, both serious and trivial, as varied as movie star fan clubs, aviation disasters or migraine help groups. You 'subscribe' for free to as many of the newsgroups as you have the time for, and read the messages posted there by other users. If you feel that you have something to contribute to the discussion, you may either reply to the newsgroup for everyone's benefit or send an E-mail to the person who posted the message. It's a very wise move to search the newsgroup for a message marked 'FAQ', meaning Frequently Asked Questions. This will explain the purpose of the specific newsgroup and what subject matter is regarded as topical and what isn't. Most browsers have Newsgroup capabilities built in, but there are excellent and very powerful, dedicated Newsgroup readers like Free Agent which can be downloaded free.


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What is the World Wide Web?

The WWW makes the most of the Internet by displaying screens or 'pages' in full colour, some with animation, sound and video, which convey information 'interactively'. What this means is that, unlike a page in a magazine which is 'dead', you can find highlighted links on WWW pages which enable you to navigate to other places on the same site, or to instantly jump to a related page somewhere on the other side of the World. The sites you visit can have been put there by schoolkids or multinational corporations. Sites are accessed by their addresses or URLs.


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What is a URL?

A Uniform Resource Locater is an address for a site on the World Wide Web. It enables your browser to know which of the millions of sites on the Internet you are requesting, and from which server to go and fetch it. URLs look like this: http://www.astraweb.co.za

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What is a Browser?

A browser is the software package which enables you to 'surf' the World Wide Web. The most popular browsers are Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Both are available as free downloads


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What is a Domain Name?

In this URL: http://www.astraweb.co.za the domain name is astraweb. The country in which the server is located is .za (South Africa). If there is no country domain name given, then the server is probably located in the US. Therefore, if you are looking for the website of a large US commercial company, you can normally assume that it will have an address like http://www.companyname.com A local company would most likely be registered as http://www.companyname.co.za


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How do I register a Domain Name?

If no-one else has already registered the name you want, you can apply to have your own domain name registered. This would take the form http://www.companyname.co.za. You can get more detail about this from the AstraWeb site under the section Domain Name Registration.


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What is IRC?

With Internet Relay Chat you are able to communicate with other users spread around the World in real time. You type out text messages on your screen and see answers and responses appear immediately. Some chat programmes also permit live audio or live video. IRC software is available for free. Some people find IRC to be very addictive - watch your 'phone bill!


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What is Internet Phone?

Internet Phone is similar to IRC in that you communicate in real time with other online users. The software is available for free, but you will require a sound card in your PC as well as speakers and a microphone. When you connect with another user, you will speak into your microphone and hear their response over your PC speakers. Because the Internet transmits data in packets rather than a continuous stream like telephones do, the incoming speech will arrive a few words at a time, preventing you from having a normal telephone conversation. However, it's still a lot of fun and a great way to communicate with family and friends overseas at the cost of a local phone call.


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Should I let my children onto the Internet?

The Internet is an open network, not controlled or censored by any government or body, where freedom of speech rules. As such, a portion of its content will inevitably be offensive or at least inappropriate, especially where children are concerned. However, you should not on this account prevent your children from experiencing the wonders of browsing art treasures from the Paris Louvre, or the excitement of watching real time video from NASA's site while a space shuttle is orbiting. The Internet provides a powerful educational tool for children doing research for projects, giving them access to more data than a hundred museums and libraries. No wonder then that the US government has embarked on a project to connect every single school in the US to the Internet. As you do in the real world, so you should guide your children on the Internet, filtering out the inappropriate and immoral, and in so doing helping to reinforce your standards of what is acceptable and what is not.

© AstraWeb, 1998.

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