The last piece of the Getting Online puzzle is the software. But here's the good news: Your computer probably has the essentials already installed: an email program, Web browser, and text-chat program, for example. And once you have those, getting anything else you need is a snap.
If you have a PC, check your Start menu for Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, the free email and Web programs Microsoft has included with every copy of Windows it's made in the past 10 years. If you're a Macintosh sort of person, open Mac OS X's Applications folder to see your free Apple Mail and Safari browser programs there waiting for you.
The rest of this book covers each software type in detail. But for your appetite-whetting pleasure, here's a summary of the key, free Internet software pieces and what kinds of happiness they'll bring you.
A Web browser program is your window to the World Wide Web: the Inter-net's vast collection of documents, pictures, videos, games, music, and other elements of the human experience. A browser lets you do just what it says: browse from page to page by pointing and clicking with your mouse.
As mentioned in the previous section, your computer has a Web browser already installed on it. Chapter 2 explains the alternatives, and it also explains how to use this browser thing to get around the Web.
An email program is like a cross between a word processor and an electronic postal worker. It lets you exchange typed messages with people around the world.
It also lets you store, sort, and save all the messages other people have sent to you. This means you can keep track of ongoing correspondences, file away electronic receipts of items you've purchased online, or collect all of the annoying junk mail that finds its way to your digital mailbox—and it will—and erase it all at once.
As you now know, your computer has a basic email program on it already. Chapter 14 describes how to use it—and why you might want to consider alternative programs, including Web-based mail programs that let you check your messages from any computer in the world.
Humorist Dave Barry once described the Internet as "CB radio, but with more typing"—and using an instant messaging program certainly makes you feel that way. Instead of sending off an email message and waiting for your pal to reply, an instant messaging (IM) program, also called a chat program, lets you conduct real-time, typed conversations with the person on the other end. You get instant feedback ("Where should we go to dinner tonight?"), and you save money on long-distance phone calls.
Many instant messaging programs also let you transfer files directly to the other person, make free audio and video calls, and chat with several people at once (helpful for party planning or remote family meetings).
You may already have an IM program on your computer, too. Windows XP comes with Windows Messenger, and Mac OS X comes with iChat. Chapter 15 has details on how to use them.
You've probably heard the stories in the paper about people getting ripped off on the Internet, getting infected by viruses, or having their computers taken over by evildoers. This sort of thing can happen. But you can take precautions so that the bad side of the Internet doesn't infringe upon all the good you can do with it.
Another piece of software you may want to consider—alas, one that probably did not come free on your computer—is an Internet security suite that protects you and your computer from Internet evils like viruses, worms, hackers, crackers, phishers, pharmers, and identity thieves. (For more, see Chapter 21.)
Viruses and spyware are generally Windows-only treats. Some of the online scams, though, are equally dangerous to Mac fans. Chapter 21 explains what all of these sinister-sounding creatures are, and how to keep yourself safe with software.