The World Wide Web (WWW) took another large step toward filling its name's shoes when CompuServe opened its connection to the fast-growing Web environment. With Prodigy the first out of the blocks and America OnLine determined to catch up by the end of next month, the Big Three commercial on-line services will soon have effectively dropped the barrier between the Internet and their millions of subscribers.

Suddenly the action is shifting to the battle for standards on the Web. Here are some developments from the major players:

Netscape (creator of the Navigator Web browser now in use on 75% of WWW machines) has been gathering private investment from companies including graphics software leader Adobe, newspaper giants Times Mirror, Knight-Ridder, and Hearst, and cable's Tele-Communications Inc.

Netscape, Prodigy (and its fifty-percent owner IBM), America OnLine, and CompuServe all agreed to support a standard that unites two competing secure transaction protocols, the key to unlocking the Web for credit-card billing for services.

A labor of love started by two Stanford students, the Yahoo Guide to the World Wide Web, is getting investment support from the Sequoia Capital venture capital fund. The Web site gets some 20,000 `hits` per day, and the cash infusion will go toward increasing the response time, graphics, and searching technology of the Guide.

If you zoom in and look at some of the players in this elaborate game of musical chairs, you'll begin to see the outline of the coming Golden Age of Internetworking. Netscape's investor Adobe will add its Acrobat Portable Document technology to the Navigator browser, ramping up the program's capabilities for richer text, audio, and even video display.

IBM's participation in the agreement on transaction security means the powerful OS/2 Warp Internet browser will be compatible with Netscape Navigator, leaving Microsoft to ponder joining the party with their Windows 95 Network and browser, which uses a different technology. If the Web community can avoid a debilitating VHS-Betamax standards fight, everyone will be better off.

The Sequoia investment in the Yahoo list may be the final step in the evolution of the Internet from an ad hoc mix of programmers, scientists, and students to the main artery of global telecommunications. Sequoia's careful nurturing of Apple Computer and multimedia startup Electronic Arts may well replay itself with the gradual introduction of advertising and promotional marketing into the Yahoo list's low-key, humorous map of the Web.

Once upon a time, you had to be a major corporation to have a presence on-line; now you need about $30 to $50 a month for a slice of hard drive space on your local Internet provider's server and some creative elbow grease to launch a Home Page. Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg: to succeed on the Web, you need to draw an audience and get a response.

In this revolutionary period, the rules change as often as the English weather. Expect ideas to bloom and wither virtually overnight, as providers experiment and tinker with the new canvas. Services such as Ziff-Davis that currently provide the same content to multiple networks will likely focus on a single Web page environment to broadcast across the Internet.

If all this sounds way too complicated, don't worry. When cable TV offered 8 billion channels, we still found a way to end up watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns most of the time anyway. For now, your friendly local Internet access provider provides the cheapest seat in the house. For virtual peanuts, you can stand side by side like David with the world's biggest media Goliaths.

(Steve Gillmor is a a Vice President of Barkley Communications Company and Director of Southern Digital, Inc., in Charleston, S.C.; he writes this weekly column for the Charleston Post and Courier. Send e-mail suggestions and comments via Mercury Center to SGillmor and via the Internet to sgillmor@aol.com.)

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