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Setting up an outpost on the World Wide Web used to require more technical knowhow than most small companies could muster. But today a booming industry offers products and services that can make the leap into cyberspace all but foolproof. And it's not just some geek in a garage supplying the service: AT&T, MCI, and Lotus are offering some of the most sophisticated Web services around.

To get you started, there's a new breed of Web page authoring programs. It used to be that laying out a Web page meant hiring somebody who had mastered the intricacies of HTML (hypertext markup language), which controls each page's appearance. Now, there are programs that make Web authoring as easy as creating a newsletter or brochure with a desktop-publishing package. These include Fusion from NetObjects ($695), FutureTense's Texture ($495), and Microsoft's FrontPage ($149). Fusion offers dozens of preprogrammed graphic styles, complete with buttons, borders, type fonts, and other elements. Texture's specialty is tying Web pages to databases.

HEADACHE CURE. If rolling your own doesn't interest you, you may want to consider one of the Web's business and city directory services, such as BigBook Inc. and CitySearch, which put businesses online with preformatted Web pages. Their main advantage: loads of traffic.

To get a page with maximum allure--and avoid dealing with the technical end of things--you may want to hire a local Web development company. They're everywhere these days, and they typically charge about $50 per hour. Count on spending at least $1,000 for a basic custom-built site. If you want to add a product catalog, video clips, or Java programs that customers can download to their PCs, you can spend $5,000 or more, says Eric B. Wiener, president of Analytic Microsystems Inc., a Web developer in Hoboken, N.J.

Once your Web site is created, who's going to operate it? For most small businesses, running a Web server computer is much more trouble than it's worth. Between buying the right hardware and software, hiring staff, and paying for a fast Net connection, you're looking at spending around $75,000 up front. Says Wiener: ''Let somebody else have those headaches.''

Fortunately, there are lots of outfits that are eager to take on the job. Besides local, regional, and national Internet service providers (ISPs), there are now several companies that specialize in getting small businesses online. They offer a wide assortment of services and pricing plans. Web sites are fairly transportable, so don't worry about getting locked into a poor hosting service. But before you sign up, make sure you'll be free to update your Web pages as often as you like, directly from your own computer and at no charge.

AT YOUR SERVICE. Typical of the ISPs is Mindspring Enterprises Inc., an Atlanta-based national service. It's charging a onetime $175 setup fee--which covers registration of your own Internet domain name--and $50 a month to host 10 megabytes of Web material, or about 40 pages' worth. Software giant Computer Associates Inc. has just launched a division called NetHaven, which specializes in hosting small commercial Web sites. USWeb Corp. is aiming for medium-size companies and has created a network of 30 affiliated Web developers.

One of the more comprehensive Web hosting services is available from AT&T. The carrier's monthly fees start at $295 a month, which covers a registered vanity domain name, 100 megabytes of server storage, and up to 200 megabytes of data downloaded to visitors each month. For additional fees, AT&T will process credit-card transactions and even alert you to all those visiting your site as soon as they click on a designated button. Try that with your old paper catalog.

By John W. Verity in New York

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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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