The Transition

One thing I can tell you about browsing the Web on a computer for the first time, after having used WebTV for more than a year, is that you're probably going to hate it. Well, if my experience is any gauge, anyway. After a while, I began to get used to it, stopped instinctively reaching for the Back button on the keyboard, and grew to appreciate and even bask in the freedom afforded by this machine. A power WebTV user will mourn the loss of their WebTV-specific HTML tags and tricks, but will likely become enamored by DHTML, offering new levels of control and interactivity that WebTV may never be equipped to enjoy. A mouse click, or a keystroke can bring up the source of a page, images can be grabbed off the Web to your hard drive, text can be saved, and, in Internet Explorer and iCab, entire Websites can be saved, retaining all of their link relationships and images.

But a computer is so much more, giving you freedom and versatility you might not even imagine, using WebTV. You'll have a blast.

WebTV boasts clearer onscreen text than a computer. This is accomplished by something of a happenstance, as a standard television display is incapable of the screen sharpness of a quality computer monitor, the pixels comprising the fonts onscreen are blurred enough to appear smooth. Luckily, Apple's latest version of the Macintosh Operating System includes the option to anti-alias the text onscreen, which makes it appear smooth, much like on TV.

Unlike WebTV, where the enviroment you do everything in is the browser itself, a computer offers you the "Desktop," a cursor, as well as folders, windows, and various applications. Some applications behave in much the same way as the computer's operating system, and others behave in radically different ways. I won't go into this further, as it's not immediately relevant. In a typical scenario, one might launch their browser, which, if configured it to do so, can open a connection to the 'Net for you, otherwise, you can connect manually with a few clicks of the mouse. The browser itself (unless Netscape Communicator or AOL) can handle only certain protocols, such as http://, https://, and ftp:// to a certain extent, and certain file types, such as .html, .htm, .txt, .gif, .jpg, etc. (In case you were wondering, the protocol is the first part of a URL, and the file type is generally the last, like this There are little programs called Plugins that can add support for a file type that the browser alone couldn't handle. Often these allow you to view or otherwise experience this content right in the browser window, essentially extending the functionality of the browser itself. When you run into a type of file the browser can't use, it will often suggest the proper plugin to install.

When you click on a link using a protocol that the browser doesn't handle, such as news:, mailto:, etc., the job is relegated to a Helper Application which processes the information from the link. Depending upon the browser you're using, it won't necessarily be set up to handle mail, for instance, so clicking on would launch the Helper Application, which, in this case, would be an e-mail program (AKA "client"), with the address already written into the "To:" field. When using this system of seperate -- "standalone" -- applications, the main difference is that you can quit any of the running applications, such as your browser, e-mail program, or newsreader, without quitting the others, or switch between them very quickly. This doesn't apply to software suites, in which things are integrated, such as AOL or Netscape Communicator (not to be confused with Netscape Navigator, which is just a browser, not a suite).

Another notable difference is in the way you retrieve mail from your ISP, using a typical e-mail client. Unlike WebTV, which offers the convenience of an ever-present indicator light, affectionately known as "The Little Red Light," your first e-mail client experience will likely involve launching your e-mail client, giving it your ISP's provided mail configurations, and telling it to download the awaiting messages to your hard drive. This fundamental difference in operation lies in the fact that nearly everything WebTV uses is located on some remote server, and not in the terminal itself. It doesn't have the need, nor ability to download all of its mail at once, and instead, loads it as it's requested by the user, into its browser window -- much like a Web-based e-mail service. The same applies to newsgroups, and almost anything else. The advantage WebTV has is that it's more convenient, the advantage the computer offers is that the e-mail is there, on your hard drive, and if the ISP goes down, you don't have to go online to see and read what you've downloaded.

The undeniable and contagious lure of WebTV would certainly relate to its usually instantaneous alerting of the user to new mail. While I know of no product which can duplicate this behavior, I know of one such product, MailWatcher, which allows you to display an unobtrusive floating window onscreen, and you can tell it to check for mail as often as every minute. When you receive mail, it makes a sound, and displays how many messages you have. Another, FastEmailCheck Pro, lets you check for mail as often as one minute intervals, display how many messages you have, and even preview them, their Website says -- I don't know, personally, because I was using an evaluation copy, which has such that feature disabled.

I just briefly checked out a $3 shareware app, POPThing, which checks for mail in as little as one minute intervals, and lets you preview a message's contents. It also has limited facilities to read and send e-mail.

I've found the perfect "little red light" replacement! It's called MailCall, is capable of checking mail at as little as one minute intervals, or—get this—continuously! It can alert you with one of several sounds, or any System 7 sound file you choose. Including those you can make with the SimpleSound application, installed with the Mac OS. MailCall is also available for Windows.

To actually read your mail, you'll need an e-mail client. Some applications of note include Claris E-Mailer, Eudora, Green, and, ugh, Outlook Express. Aside from security flaws, and virii, I've heard that Outlook Express is a useful and easy e-mail client, and that much of the development team used to work on Claris E-Mailer before Claris abandoned it. Further, it has HTML support, for those WebTV users whom love to torture those with 24kb connection speeds, and, as I recall, can also be used for newsgroups.

Say Goodbye to alt.discuss
As many WebTV users know, and still others are completely unaware, the alt.discuss directory of usenet is closed off to computer users. Aside from a few, random alt.discuss newsgroups that linger, inexplicably, on some ISP's news servers, you'll have to part with them.

Like WebTV's e-mail, its newsgroups are delivered through HTML. There are a couple of options for reading the news on a computer: online newsreading, and offline newsreading. Online newsreading is more like WebTV than offline, in that the posts are loaded, and appear onscreen as you request them. In offline, you download the posts from newsgroups you're interested in, then read them offline, going back online only to download more, or to send your own posts. Offline newsreading is preferred outside of North America, where people have to pay telephone fees in addition to their ISP charge. Additionally, posting binaries (such as images and sounds), or using HTML can lengthen the downloading time for offline newsreaders, so, be conscientious, and don't post binaries to newsgroups not intended for them. Some of the popular online newsreaders for Macintosh are the various incarnations of John Norstad's NewsWatcher, the newsreader included in Netscape Communicator, and Outlook Express. For offline newsreading, I've heard good things about MacSOUP and HogWasher. For those that enjoy browsing through binaries, the preceeding aren't well-suited replacements for WebTV, as they require you to download each item, and translate it with a seperate UUDecoder, such as UUundo or UUcd. However, a five dollar a month service and application called "Diiva" offers the ability to browse images and other files, rather than have to download and decode them. Alternatively, there are free Web-based services, such as Remarq which operate much the same as WebTV, being HTML-based, and all.

MT-NewsWatcher 3.0
It turns out the latest version of MT-NewsWatcher supports plugins, which enable you to view GIF, JPEG, BMP, and PCX files within the message's own window, much like on WebTV. Files not supported will be opened by their respective helper applications (MPEGs to be handled by the QuickTime Player, or whichever you choose, for instance).
Caveat Emptor
One of the factors you want to explore before signing a check to a new ISP is their newsgroup support. If you're previewing their service before you pay, make sure you go through your favorite newsgroups, and see how long it retains posts, as well as binaries. Further, you want to make sure it carries your favorite newsgroups at all. If the ISP is otherwise everything you're looking for in an ISP, you can always subscribe to a seperate news carrier, such as NewsGuy. One of the few advantages of AOL over other services is that they're notorious for holding posts in newsgroups for a very long time, and their newsreading experience is also, in my opinion, the most similar to WebTV's -- which is both a compliment and a warning. More ISP info than I could ever include on this page can be found at Dawn McGatney's page.

To learn about, and download the Internet-related applications for the Macintosh mentioned here, and many more, visit Mac Orchard.