Email is just a way of passing information from one computer to another. Those of us based in Universities will generally find that its Computer Unit has a high quality telephone link into the Joint Academic NETwork (JANET) which links academic institutions in this country. Some of us are also lucky enough (it cost me some money and hassling) to have a network connection direct from a PC on our desk to the Computer Unit and then into JANET. JANET is linked at a number of points to other national networks which collectively form the Internet. This Internet has been the topic of much journalism of late as its anarchic quality has attracted attention.
Basic Email enables people to exchange messages provided they know each other's addresses (mine is C.Evans@sghms.ac.uk). There are a number of catches. One is a consequence of the topsy turvy way the Internet has grown so that outside the U.K. my address is: C.Evans@sghms.ac.uk (JANET is the only network to parse addresses from country down to local domain in left to right). The next problem is also historical: the Internet evolved out of the various educational nets with some paradoxical support from the military, so availability to people outside these sectors, has come late and is still a bit of a mess. If you are in the academic world you can get onto the Internet through service providers. You connect to them using a MODEM (MODulator/DEModulator, piece of hardware which plugs between a 'phone socket and a computer) and terminal emulation program (TERMINAL is provided free within Windows). Suitable MODEMS start at about £150 now although there is a range from probably about £50 up to about £500 depending how much speed you want. The other thing you need is a 'phone number where you can have an account, an Internet address and a reliable way to put messages into and out of the Internet. The two main providers serving the U.K. are Compuserve (0800 289 458 for help) and CIX (01492 641 961). Both charge monthly fees as well as charges for all usage which will total around £8-20 per month depending how heavily you use Email and their other services. The U.S. based Compuserve is still the best source of computer support and information and its Email/Internet interface is a small and relatively recent priority in its services. The British CIX is more recent, has less extensive commercial computer support but is cheaper I think. Both will give you pretty reliable Email and both have friendly programs to handle the nitty gritty technological things and to hide you from raw terminal emulation which can be pretty crude. There are a number of other companies now joining this market but specialising purely in Internet interfacing and these may become a better bet than the old two. (I'm trying to persuade Rex Haigh to co-write a piece for Network about his experiences with Greenet but I think our failure to write it reflects the learning curve he experienced! More on this in the next issue? Or perhaps someone else who uses dial-up Email and Internet resources would like to submit something: you have my Email address!)
Basic Email messages only provide the "ASCII" character set which can be limiting if you are exchanging a lot of mail with people who need accented characters (my Austrian and German colleagues find this a pain and are increasingly accepting with very good grace the conventions of "Guenther" for "Günther" etc.). ASCII has no italic, no bold, no differnt fonts or font sizes and pretty unpredictable Email handling of word-wrapping etc. so those of us who have grown accustomed to the beauties of modern wordprocessing feel a bit limited. There is also no way to send binary data (e.g. program files) as Email without some coding and uncoding having to be done on them. (However, coding/decoding programs are in the public domain so this is a nuisance, not a complete handicap.)
So you can exchange mail quickly, often for free, and you can fairly easily transfer files of information or even programs by Email. Is there anything else? Well, there is: an Email equivalent of circular letters: LISTSERVers, programs set up by long suffering computer units which will automatically copy a letter sent to them to all the people who have registered on that list. There are lists devoted to psychotherapy and excellent lists dealing with statistics. These enable you to put a question to several hundred people. If you're lucky you hit someone who did their Ph.D. on just the problem that's crippling you and have a solution with references and wit within days of your asking. On stats lists I got that sort of response for about half my sensible questions. The hit rate on softer information areas seems to me to be much, much lower but the culture is probably still developing for those.
There are other advantages to the Internet. Particularly the developing repositories of information in "World Wide Web" (WWW) form. The article about the EPCA elsewhere in this edition is an example of this: I just captured most of the information in it from a personal construct related WWW resource. I will write more about this in the next edition, by which time I hope Network will be appearing in WWW as well as in paper form.
Chris Evans C.Evans@sghms.ac.uk