Sure, getting there takes up gobs of memory, a special kind of Internet connection and a modem that's probably twice as fast as the one you bought just last year.
But once you've made your way onto the World Wide Web, getting around is getting easier all the time _ thanks to a new class of Web "browser" software programs.
Unless you've been oblivious to current affairs _ including the cyber ruminations of Newt Gingrich _ you doubtless know by now that the Internet's World Wide Web is an electronic amalgam of the public library, the suburban shopping mall and the Congressional Record.
And you already know that the World Wide Web refers to a system of viewing information, much of it containing graphics and video, stored on the tens of thousands of network servers connected to the Internet.
At the Web's core is a system known as hypertext linking, which makes it easy for people to move from one related document to another without having to know or care where in the world the information is stored.
"The Web has made the Internet usable to a general audience, rather than the technical users who had been the only ones using it for years and years," said Stephen Franco, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a market research and consulting company in Boston.
Evidence that the World Wide Web has indeed become mainstream came earlier this month, when the Prodigy Service became the first of the major online services to offer Web access to its subscribers. America Online says it will follow suit by the end of March, Compuserve by this summer.
Making all this possible is Web browser software. The Web browser market is effectively divided into two camps. In one camp are programs based on NCSA Mosaic, the original graphical Web browser, developed at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and released in 1993 for use by the public at no charge. In the other camp are browser programs not based on Mosaic.
Which one you choose is a matter of taste, and of what kind of Internet connection you have. Some providers of Internet network access services determine for you which Web browser you will use.
For example, Netcom Online Communications Services Inc. of San Jose, Calif., uses only its own proprietary browser. But most other Internet access providers, including Performance Systems Inc. of Herndon, Va., leave the choice of a browser up to you. (Either way, you'll also need a very fast modem _ a minimum speed of 14,400 bits per second is recommended _ or an even faster connection through a type of digital circuit from the phone company known as an ISDN line.)
Most Web browsers today run under Microsoft's Windows operating system, though there are several notable browsers for the Apple Macintosh. IBM, meanwhile, is including a Mosaic-based Web browser with every copy of the new IBM OS/2 Warp operating system. And other new browsers are reaching the market all the time.
"Each month, it seems, a new browser comes out with some gee whiz new features and leapfrogs the others," Franco said.
Last year, the University of Illinois appointed Spyglass Inc., a small software company in Naperville, Ill., as the licensing agent for Mosaic. Since then, more than a dozen software companies have licensed the program, added enhancements and have released or plan to release commercial versions backed by customer-service support.
The university also continues to make the program available free on the Internet, but going this route entails a risk: When things go awry, you're on your own.
Yet while Mosaic originally unlocked the Web's riches, it's not the only key to the kingdom.
The leading alternative is Netscape Navigator, from Netscape Communications Inc. Netscape Navigator, which was developed by several members of the team that created the original Mosaic, is currently the best-selling commercial Web browser. …