The Internet is already legendary for its inscrutability. But software companies like Quarterdeck, Spry, Netscape Communications (formerly Mosaic Communications), and a host of others want to change all that. They're creating and marketing graphical user interfaces (GUIs), which are colorful screens with graphic images representing different Internet functions. With a mouse, users point and click on icons to send electronic mail, search for information, or download files on the Internet.

The industry is burgeoning -- many Internet-access providers already offer some sort of GUI free to their customers. But the latest contest is among companies selling interfaces to access providers and to software manufacturers. A third approach is direct sales to consumers. Three of the start-ups that have joined the competition are each taking a slightly different tack in the new market.

* * *

Cupertino, Calif.

"It drove me crazy that you had to be sophisticated to get the benefits of the Internet," says Zvi Alon. He and his two cofounders started NetManage specifically to write a GUI, he says. The company's first product was Chameleon TCP/IP software -- a tool that Internet programs use to talk to one another.

Until last year NetManage focused on selling its Chameleon packages directly to corporate users. But with its new Internet Chameleon, NetManage is pushing into the consumer market, bundling a free sampler disk with several new Internet books. National retailers will sell the interface, and several access providers are buying copies to resell to their customers.

"We believe the single most difficult problem for consumers is connecting to the Internet," says Peggy Liu, product manager. Consequently, the Internet Chameleon interface offers "instant" sign-ups with any of five Internet-access providers. The point-and-click GUI offers consumers more than a dozen applications, including a Mosaic-type information-search program. The suggested retail price for single copies is $199; corporate copies are priced by the number purchased.

* * *

Computer Witchcraft

Founder Michael Tague emerged in 1992 from two years of research and development on WinNet, a GUI designed to run with Microsoft Windows. As a worldwide Internet-access provider, Tague initially offered the software free as an incentive to sign up for his service.

In early 1994 he started offering a free shareware version that would work with any access provider if the user paid a $99 registration fee. Despite zero marketing effort on Tague's part, more than a hundred users registered, and more than 3,000 chose to sign up for Computer Witchcraft's own Internet service. This year Tague slashed the price to $39.99 and is distributing a commercial version in retail channels.

WinNet's best feature is that it allows users to read and compose mail off-line, and then log on quickly to send and retrieve more mail or data, thus saving money on connect time. Computer Witchcraft handles all of its own customer service, which trade publications have labeled among the best in the business. Tague hopes the new interface will win him 10 times his current subscriber base. He intends to funnel all initial sales dollars from the interface into his marketing budget.

* * *

Savoy, Ill.

Mosaic is fast on its way to becoming the standard graphical program for finding stored information on the Internet, and software companies and consumers across the country are clamoring for it.

Written by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Mosaic is available free as shareware to individual users, and millions have downloaded it. But any software company that wants to include Mosaic in its GUI has to license it commercially. Last August the university asked Spyglass to handle all commercial deals. Since then, it has licensed more than 20 million units.

"We're going for the large market share," says Tim Krauskopf, who started Spyglass with two cofounders in 1990 to market other NCSA software. "Our customers are in a make-versus-buy situation. They could create the software, but then they'd have to do all that coding. We set our prices to make buying more attractive," he says. Krauskopf markets the Mosaic program in blocks for 10,000 or more users.

Spyglass chose to focus on customers in the corporate market, says Krauskopf, because "they already have the machines and the infrastructure." But the company is edging into the consumer market as well, selling to more software companies that are creating consumer products. -- Phaedra Hise