Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Small Business and the Internet

March 1998

By Mike Gould

By now, small businesses are feeling the pressure to get their digital act together and take it on the road, that road being the Internet. A daily barrage of advertising urges us to dial up, email out, and cash in. The wailing of the un-wired is heard across the local landscape:

"How do I get started?"

"What can I do with it"?

"How much does it cost?"

"What are the consequences of ignoring it?"

"What’s that funny icon there on the desktop?"

This series of articles will address these and other questions.

My background:
I am a part-time computer consultant and web designer; I have been solving computer problems for 10 years, and designing web sites for 3 (which makes me an old hand indeed, as the Web is only about 4 years old). I have no affiliation with any computer store or Internet business, aside from the occasional hob-nobbery at Internet events. (Well, I do use a couple of local providers to host the sites I’ve developed - more on that later). My day job is supporting the computers of the U of M School of Education, so I spend a lot of time with a mouse in my hand, and my brain up to its lobes in ones and zeroes.

Some Assumptions
I’m going to assume that you have a computer and know how to use it. Maybe you aren’t using every single feature it has, and you’re not really sure what that one icon is there on the desktop, but you can cook up one heck of a spreadsheet or memo and get some business done. You may have a modem and are beginning to get out and explore a little (or your kid has one and you would like to make it a business deduction). But you’re not really sure what your next move is, web-wise.

Getting Started; choosing a service provider
To get into Internet behavior, you need: a computer, a modem, and an Internet Service Provider (ISP). We’ll save the discussion of hardware for another time, and talk about the ISP. An ISP is a business that connects people to the Internet. A typical ISP is centered on a room full of modems and computers; customers (subscribers) dial their modems into the ISP’s bank of modems and are then connected to the Internet. Picture a room with a lot of little pipes coming in (telephone wires connected to subscribers), and one big pipe going out (carrying the subscribers’ data to their destinations via the Internet).

Living in or around Washtenaw County, you’re in luck; our little area is awash in ISP’s, site designers, and other businesses devoted to the Internet. We even have an Internet Council; a monthly get-together of local webfolk.

A lot of people start out their Internet life at America On Line (AOL); this isn’t a bad way to go for someone wetting their toes in the data stream. The service provides a lot of additional features besides email and Internet access; they host chat rooms for on-line conversation, software download areas, and the like. The main problem with AOL is spam: you will be inundated with unwanted junk email. As America’s largest ISP, AOL is targeted by every cheesy electronic advertiser out there, which can make your daily download a pain.

AOL used to be the cheapest way to go, but they have lately raised their fees, and are currently on par with local providers’ rates. Besides, we’re all business folk here, more interested in email and business on the Web, right? And we might as well give the local ISP’s our business, since we are all part of the local business community, right? I thought so.

Next Month: What to expect from an ISP

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