By now you've heard the talk about the Internet -- the on-line system Lotus Development Corp. founder Mitch Kapor called "one of the world's largest functioning anarchies." With an estimated 30,000 networks and 15 million users in 200 countries, the "Net" is the fastest-growing telecommunications network in the world today, according to the Internet Society. Less well known is that after two decades of catering primarily to academic researchers and the military, the Internet is now being explored by opportunity-hungry entrepreneurs. "Nobody understands what's going on out there. It's a huge, complicated ecology that's spreading like wildfire," notes Garrett Gruener of the venture-capital firm Burr, Egan, Deleage & Co., which recently backed an Internet start-up. (See below.) Today it's estimated that nearly 60% of Internet traffic is commercial. But Internet pioneer Peter Deutsch hastens to give a caveat: "Remember, the Internet culture still has to be taught how to do business."

Some start-ups attempting to do just that:

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Softlock Services
Malvern, Pa.

"Moving documents around on the Internet is not a problem," says Jonathan Schull. "Figuring out how to make it a business is." Schull, a former biological-psychology professor at Haverford College, decided the best way to do that is to make sure documents can be copied readily -- for a fee. His company, SoftLock Services, launched in 1992 with about $200,000 in private funds, has a patent pending on its technology, which relies on computer-generated passwords to control access to proprietary documents and programs. A "SoftLocked" document can be unlocked by dialing 800-SOFTLOCK and then paying to SoftLock Services $1.50 plus 20% of the document's retail cost. Within 90 seconds, says Schull, the caller will be issued a unique and unpredictable password that will unlock the document for that user alone. Schull, who already has an interactive-game client, is now talking to software purveyors and electronic publishers.

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Aldea Communications
Carlsbad, Calif.

Susan Estrada founded Aldea Communications for the express purpose of "designing and marketing products that make it easier to advertise, find, and purchase goods using the network." No stranger to the Net (in 1988 she founded CERFnet, a California Internet service provider), Estrada launched Aldea with $50,000 worth of private funding and is seeking $1.5 million in venture capital. Her first products are published books available electronically through a retrieval system called the Online Bookstore. She's already at work on her second product: NetPages, an Internet E-mail address directory.

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Worldview Imaging
Livermore, Calif.

You own some corn futures and want to know how the fields in Iowa look. Or maybe you'd like to find out easily what kinds of trucks are making deliveries to your trans-Atlantic competitor's plant. A start-up backed by two Silicon Valley venture-capital firms (Technology Venture Investors and Burr, Egan) is betting that within two years, you'll be able to call up images on your PC, through the Internet, that will give you that information. Walter Scott, a computer scientist, formed WorldView Imaging in 1992 as a commercial spin-off of his work on the Star Wars program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Company president Douglas Gerull says that by 1996 WorldView will have two satellites in orbit that will deliver pictures of objects smaller than three meters for several hundred dollars an image. Potential buyers? Mapping, environmental-protection, and national defense agencies, and natural-resource companies.

-- Alessandra Bianchi