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The State of the Net: An Interim Report about the Future of the Internet
Who are the participants who constitute the Internet?
Users – connected to the net and interacting with it
The communications lines and the communications equipment
The intermediaries (e.g. the suppliers of on-line information or access providers).
Software authors and manufacturers (browsers, site development tools, specific applications, smart agents, search engines and others).
The “Hitchhikers” (search engines, smart agents, Artificial Intelligence – AI – tools and more)
Content producers and providers
Suppliers of financial wherewithal (currently – corporate and institutional cash to be replaced, in the future, by advertising money)
The fate of each of these components – separately and in solidarity – will determine the fate of the Internet.
The Internet has hitherto been considered the territory of computer wizards. Thus, any attempt at predicting its future applied the Olympic formula : “Faster, Higher, Stronger” to its hardware and software determinants.
Media experts, sociologists, psychologists, advertising and marketing executives were left out of the collective effort to determine the future face of the Internet.
The Internet cannot be currently defined as a medium. It does not function as one – rather it is a very disordered library, mostly incorporating the writings of non-distinguished megalomaniacs. It is the ultimate Narcissistic experience.
Yet, ever since the invention of television there hasn’t been anything as begging to become a medium as the Internet is.
Three analogies spring to mind when contemplating the Internet in its current state:
A chaotic library
A neural network or the equivalent of a telephony network in the making
A new continent
These metaphors prove to be very useful (even business-wise). They permit us to define the commercial opportunities embedded in the Internet.
Yet, they fail to assist us in predicting its future which lies in its transformation into a medium.
How does an invention become a medium? What happens to it when it does become one? What is the thin line separating the basic function of the invention from its flowering in the form of a new medium? In other words: when can we tell that some technological advance gave birth to a new medium?
This work also deals with the image of the Internet once transformed into a medium.
The Internet has the most unusual attributes in the history of the media.
It has no central structure or organization. It is hardware and software independent. It (almost) cannot be subjected to legislation or to regulation. Take on example: downloading music from the internet – is it an act of recording music? This has been the crux of the legal battle between Diamond Multimedia (the manufacturers of the Rio MP3 device) and the recording industry in America.
Its data transfer channels are not linear – they are random. Most of its “broadcast” cannot be “received” at all. It allows for the narrowest of narrowcasting through the use of e-mail mailing lists, discussion groups, message boards and chats. And this is but a small portion of an impressive list of oddities. This idiosyncrasy will shape the nature of the Internet as a medium. Growing out of bizarre roots – it is bound to yield strange fruit as a medium.
So what are the business opportunities out there?
I believe that they are to be found in two broad categories :
The shaping of the Internet as a medium, using the right software and hardware
The shaping of the Internet as a medium through contents
The Map of Terra Internetica
How many users are there ? How many of them have access to the Web (World Wide Web – WWW) and use it ? There are no unequivocal statistics. Those who presume to give the answers (including the ISOC – the Internet SOCiety) – rely on very partial and biased resources. Others just bluff for very unscientific reasons.
Yet, all agree that there are, at least, 70 million active participants in North America (the Nielsen and Commerce-Net reports).
The future is, inevitably, even more vague than the present. Authoritative consultancy firms predict 66 million active users in 10 years time. IBM envisages 700 million users. MCI is more modest with 300 million. At the end of 1999 there were 130 million users.
This is not serious futurology. It is better to ignore these predictions and to face facts.
The Internet – an Elitist and Chauvinistic Medium
The average user of the Internet is young (30), with academic background and high income. The percentage of the educated and the well-to-do among the users of the Web is three times as high as their proportion in the population. This is fast changing only because their children are joining them (6 million already had access to the Internet at the end of 1996 – to be joined by another 24 million by the end of the decade). This may change only due to presidential initiatives (from Al Gore in the USA to Mahatir Mohammed in Malaysia), corporate largesse (Microsoft, for one) and institutional involvement (Open Society in Eastern Europe). These efforts will spread the benefits of this all-powerful tool among the less privileged. A bit more than 50% of all users are men and they are responsible for 60% of the activity in the net (as measured by data volume).
Women seem to limit themselves to electronic mail (e-mail) and to electronic shopping of goods and services. Men prefer information because knowledge is power.
Most of the users are of the “experiencer” variety. They are leaders of social change and innovative. This breed populates universities, fashionable neighbourhoods and trendy vocations. This is why many wonder if the Internet is not just another such fad, albeit an incredibly resilient one.
Though most users have home access to the Internet – they still prefer to access it from work, at the employer’s expense, though this preference is slight and being eroded. Most users are, therefore, exploitative in nature. Still, we must not forget that there are 37 million households of self employed and this possibly distorts the statistical picture somewhat.
The Internet – a North American Phenomenon
Not European, not African, not Asian (with the exception of Israel and Japan), not Russian , nor a Third World phenomenon. It belongs squarely to the wealthy, sated world. It is the indulgence of those who have all else and their biggest worry is their choice of entertainment for the night. Between 60-70% of all Internet users live in the USA, 5% in Canada. They are rare in Europe (except in Germany and in Scandinavia). The Internet lost to the French Minitel because the latter provides more locally relevant content.
Most computer owners possess a 28,800 bps modem. This is much like driving a bicycle in a German Autobahn. The 56,600 bps is gradually replacing its slower predecessor (28% of computers with modem) – but even it is hardly sufficient. To begin to enjoy video and audio (especially the former) – data transfer rates need to be 50 times larger.
Half the households in the USA have at least 2 telephones and one of them is usually dedicated to data processing (faxes or fax-modems).
The ISDN could constitute the mid-term solution. This data transfer network is fairly speedy and covers 70% of the territory of the USA. It is growing by 100% annually and its sales topped 10 billion USD in 1995/6.
Unfortunately, it is quite clear that ISDN is not THE answer. It is too slow, to user-unfriendly, has a bad interface with other network types. There is no point in investing in temporary solutions when the right solution is staring the Internet in the face, though it is not implemented due to political circumstances.
A cable modem is 80 times speedier than the ISDN and 700 times faster than a 14,400 bps modem. However, is does have problems in accommodating two-way data transfer. There is also need to connect the fibre optic infrastructure which typifies cables to the old copper coaxial infrastructure which characterizes telephony. Cable users engage specially customized LANs (Ethernet) and the hardware is expensive (though equipment prices are forecast to collapse as demand increases). Cable companies simply did not invest in developing the technology : the law (prior to the 1996 Communications Act) forbade them to do anything that was not one way transfer of video by cables. Now, with the more liberal regulative environment, it is a mere question of time until the technology is found.
Actually, most consumers single out bad customer relations as their biggest problem with the cable companies – rather than technology.
Experiments conducted with cable modems led to a doubling of usage time (from an average of 24 to 47 hours per month per user) which was wholly attributable to the increased speed. This comes close to a revolution in the culture and in the allocation of leisure time. Numerically speaking : 7 million households in the USA will be fitted with a two-way data transfer cable modem. This is a small number and it is anyone’s guess if it constitutes a critical mass. Sales of such modem amount to 1.3 billion USD annually.
50% of all cable subscribers also have a PC at home. To me it seems that the merging of the two technologies is inevitable.
Other technological solutions – such as the ADSL – are being developed and implemented.
Hardware and Software
Most of the Internet users (62%) work with a Windows operating system. About 21% own a Mackintosh (much stronger graphically and more user-friendly). Only 7% continue to work on UNIX based systems (which, historically, fathered the Internet) – and this number is fast declining. A strong entrant is the free source LINUX operating system.
Virtually all the users employ a browsing software : most of them (56%) use Netscape’s products (Navigator and Communicator) and the minority shares the antiquated Mosaic (the SPRY version, for instance) and Microsoft’s Explorer (close to 40% of the market). The sales of browsers are expected to hit 4 billion USD in the year 2000 (Hembrecht and Quist).
Browsers are in for a great transformation. Most of them will have 3-D, advanced audio, telephony / voice mail (v-mail), e-mail and conferencing capabilities integrated into the same session (and this includes video conferencing in the further future). They will become self-customizing, intelligent, Internet interfaces : they will memorize the history of usage and user preferences and adapt themselves accordingly. They will allow content-specificity : unidentifiable smart agents will scour the Internet, make recommendations, compare prices, order goods and services and customize contents in line with self-adjusting user profiles.
Two important technological developments must be considered:
Palmtops – the ultimate personal (and office) communicators, easy to carry and providing Internet access anywhere, independent of suppliers and providers and of physical infrastructure (in an aeroplane, in the field, in a cinema).
The second : wireless data transfer and wireless e-mail, whether through pagers, cellular phones, or through more sophisticated apparatus and ybrids such as smart phones. Geotechs products are an excellent example : e-mail, faxes, telephone calls and a connection to the Internet and to other, public and corporate, or proprietary, databases – all provided by the same gadget. This is the embodiment of the electronic, physically detached, office.
We have no way of gauging – or intelligently guessing – the part of the mobile Internet in the total future Internet market but it is likely to outweigh the “fixed” part. Wireless internet meshes well with the trend of pervasive computing and the intelligent household. Household gadgets such as microwave ovens, refrigerators and so on will connect to the internet via a wireless interface to cull data, download information, order goods and services and perform basic maintenance functions upon themselves.
Suppliers and Intermediaries
“Parasitic” intermediaries occupy each stage in the Internet chain of food.
Access to the Internet? Internet Service Providers (ISP)
Content? – content suppliers and so on.
Some of these intermediaries are doomed to gradually fade or to suffer a substantial diminishing of their share of the market. What justification was there for the existence of the likes of CompuServe and America On line (AOL) had they not matched up with portals and content providers?
Before the 1998/9 spat of mergers and acquisitions, in 1996 it was predicted that they will have only 16 million subscribers in the USA by 1997 – and this was before the technical and corporate upheavals in AOL.
By way of comparison, even today, ISPs have twice as many subscribers (worldwide). Admittedly, this adversely affects the quality of the service – the infrastructure maintained by the phone companies is slow and often succumbs to bottlenecks. The unequivocal intention of the telephony giants to become major players in the Internet market should also be taken into account. The phone companies will, thus, play a dual role : they will supply the infrastructure to their competitors (sometimes, within a real or actual monopoly) – and they will compete with their clients. The same can be said about the cable companies. Controlling the last mile to the user’s abode is the next big business of the internet. Companies such as AOL are disadvantaged by these trends. It is imperative for AOL to obtain equal access to the cable company’s backbone and infrastructure if it wants to survive.
No wonder that many of the ISPs judge this to be an unfair fight. On the other hand, it takes a minimal investment to become an ISP. 200 modems (which cost 200 USD each) are enough to satisfy the needs of 2000 average users who generate an income of 500,000 USD per annum to the ISP. Routers are equally as cheap nowadays. This is a nice return on the ISPs capital, undoubtedly.
The Web houses the equivalent of 10 million books. Search Engine applications are used to locate specific information in this impressive, constantly proliferating library. They will be replaced, in the near future, by “Knowledge Structures” – gigantic encyclopaedias, whose text will contain references (hyperlinks) to other, relevant, sites. The far future will witness the emergence of the “Intelligent Archives” and the “Personal Papers” (read further for detailed explanations). Some software applications will summarize content, others will index and automatically reference and hyperlink texts (virtual bibliographies). An average user will have on-going interest in 500 sites. Special software will be needed to manage address books (“bookmarks”, “favourites”) and contents (“Intelligent Addressbooks”). The phenomenon of search engines dedicated to search a number of search engines simultaneously will grow (“Hyper-engines”). Hyperengines will work in the background and download hyperlinks and advertising (the latter is essential to secure the financial interest of site developers and owners). Statistical software which tracks (“how long was what done”), monitors (“what did they do while in”) and counts (“how many”) visitors to sites exist. Some of these applications have back-office facilities (accounting, follow-up, collections, even tele-marketing). They all provide time trails and some allow for auditing.
This is but a small fragment of the rapidly developing net-scape : people and enterprises who make a living off the Internet craze rather than off the Internet itself. Everyone knows that there is more money in lecturing about how to make money in the Internet – than in the Internet itself. This maxim still holds true despite the 32 billion US dollars in E-commerce in 1998.
This is the underprivileged sector of the Internet. They all lose money (except sites offering basic, standardized goods – books, CDs – and sites connected to tourism). No one thanks them for content produced with the investment of a lot of effort and a lot of money. A really good, fully commerce enabled site costs up to 5,000,000 USD, excluding current updating – “site maintenance” – and customer and visitor services. They are constantly criticized for lack of creativity or for too much creativity. More and more is asked of them. They are exploited by intermediaries, hitchhikers and other parasites.
Most of them produce Web content. 32 million men and women constantly access the Web – but this number stands to grow (the median prediction: 120 million). Yet, while the Web is used by 35% of those with access to the Internet – e-mail is used by more than 50%. E-mail is by far the most common function and specialized applications (Eudora, Internet Mail, Microsoft Exchange) have upgraded it to a state of art.
Most of the users like to surf (browse, visit sites) the net without reason or goal in mind. This makes it difficult to use traditional marketing parlance:
what is the meaning of targeted audiences market shares in this context?
If a surfer visits sites dealing with aberrant sex and nuclear physics during the same session – what to make of it?
People like the very act of surfing, then they want to be entertained, then they use the Internet as a working tool, mostly in the service of their employer, who, usually foots the bill. Users love free downloads (mainly software).
“Free” is a key word in the Internet : it used to belong to the US Government and to a bunch of universities. Users like information, with emphasis on news and data about new products. But they do not like to shop on the net – yet. Only 38% of all surfers made a purchase during 1998.
67% of them adore virtual sex. 50% of the sites most often visited are porno sites (this is reminiscent of the early days of the Video Cassette Recorder – VCR). A- propos video : people dedicate the same amount of time to watching video cassettes as they do to surfing the net.
Sex is followed by music, sports, health, television, computers, cinema, politics, pets and cooking sites. People are drawn to interactive games. The Internet will shortly enable people to gamble, if not hampered by legislation. 10 billion USD in gambling money are predicted to pass through the net. This makes sense: nothing like a computer to provide immediate (monetary and psychological) rewards.
Commerce on the net is another favourite. The Internet is a perfect medium for the sale of software and other digital products (e-books). The problem of data security is on its way to being solved with the SET (or other) world standard.
The Internet has more than 100 virtual shopping malls and they were visited by 2.5 million shoppers in 1995 (probably by double this number in 1996).
The predictions for 1999 : between 1-5 billion USD of net shopping (plus 2 billion USD through on-line information providers, such as CompuServe and AOL) – proved woefully inaccurate. The actual number in 1998 was 7 times the prediction for 1999.
It is also widely believed that circa 20% of the family budget will pass through the Internet as e-money and this amounts to 150 billion USD.
The Internet will become a giant inter-bank clearing and varied banking and investment services will be provided through it. Basically, everything can be done through the Internet : looking for a job, for instance.
Some sites already sport classified ads. This is not a bad way to defray expenses, though most classified ads are free (it is the advertising they attract that matters).
Another developing trend is website-rating and critique. It will be treated the way todays printed editions are. It will have a limited influence on the consumption decisions of some of them. Browsers already display a button labelled “Whats New” and another one called “What’s Hot”. Most Search Engines recommend specific sites. Users are cautious. Studies discovered that no user, no matter how heavy, has visited more than 200 site, a minuscule number. Also, a random – at times, the wrong – selection for the user.
Web Critics, who work today mainly for the printed press, will publish their wares in the net and will attach themselves to intelligent software which will hyperlink, recommend and refer. Some web critics will be identified with specific applications – really, expert systems which will embody their knowledge and experience.
Where will the capital needed to finance all these developments come from?
Again, there are two schools :
One that says that sites will be financed through advertising – and so will search engines, applets and any other application accessed by users.
The second version is simpler and allows non-commercial content to exist :
It proposes to collect negligible sums (cents or fractions of cents) from every user for every visit. These accumulated cents will enable the owners of old sites to update and to maintain them and encourage entrepreneurs to develop new ones.
The adherents of the first school point at the 5 million USD invested in advertising during 1995 and to the 60 million or so invested during 1996.
Its opponents point exactly at the same numbers : ridiculously small when contrasted with more conventional advertising modes. The potential of advertising on the net is limited to 1.5 billion USD annually in 1998, thundered the pessimists (many think that even half of that would be very nice). The actual figure was double the prediction but still woefully small and inadequate to support the internet’s content development.
Compare these figures to the sale of Internet software (4 billion), Internet hardware (3 billion), Internet access provision (4.2 billion in 1995).
Hembrecht and Quist estimate that Internet related industries scoop up 23.2 billion USD annually (A report released in mid-1996).
And what will follow advertising?
The consumer will interact and the product will be posted to him. This is a much slower and more enervating epilogue to the exciting affair of ordering through the net at the speed of light. Too many consumers still complain that they did not receive what they ordered.
The solution may lie in the integration of advertising and content. Pointcast, for instance, integrated advertising into its news broadcasts, continuously streamed to the users screen, even when inactive (active screen saver and ticker). Downloading of digital music, video and text (e-books) will lead to immediate gratification of the consumer and will increase the efficacy of advertising.
Whatever the case may be, a uniform, agreed upon system of rating as a basis for charging advertisers, is highly needed. There is also the question of what does the advertiser pay for?
Many advertisers (Procter and Gamble, for instance) refuse to pay by the number of hits or impressions (=entries, visits to a site). They agree to pay only according to the number of the times that their advertisement was hit
This different basis for calculation will adversely influence all the above elaborated calculations.
All the sites of important, respectable newspapers are on a subscription basis. Dow Jones (Wall Street Journal) and The Economist, to mention but two.
Will this become the prevailing trend?
The Internet as a Metaphor
Three metaphors come to mind when looking at the Internet “philosophically”.
The Internet as a Chaotic Library
1. The Problem of Cataloguing
The Internet is an assortment of millions of pages containing information.
It displays no discernible order, classification, or categorization. As opposed to “classical” libraries, no one invented a cataloguing standard (remember Dewey ?). This is so needed that it is amazing that it has not been invented yet.
Had such a standard existed (an agreed upon numerical cataloguing method) – each site would have self-classified. Sites would have interest to do so to increase their penetration rates and their visibility. This, naturally, will eliminate the need for today’s clumsy and (highly) inefficient search engines.
A site whose number starts with 900 will be immediately identified as dealing with history and multiple classification will be encouraged to allow finer cross-sections to emerge.
Users will not be required to remember reams of numbers. Future browsers will be converted to catalogues, very much like the applications used in modern day libraries. Compare this utopia to the current dystopy : a user has to struggle through mountains of irrelevant material to finally reach a partial and disappointing destination. At the same time, there are bound to be sites which exactly match the poor user’s needs. Yet, what determines the chances of a happy encounter between user and content – are the whims of the specific search engine used and things like meta-tags, headlines and the right opening sentences.
2. Screen versus Page
This is an old one: The computer screen, because of physical limitations (size, the fact that it has to be scrolled) fails to effectively compete with the printed page. The latter is still the most ingenious medium yet invented for the storage and release of information. Granted : a computer screen is better at highlighting discrete units of information. So, this draws the lines: structures (printed pages) versus units (screen), the continuous and easily reversible versus the discrete.
The solution is an efficient way to translate computer screens to printed matter. It is hard to believe, but no such thing exists. Computer screens are still hostile to off-line printing. In other words : if a user copies information from the Internet to his Word Processor (or vice versa, for that matter) – he will end up with a fragmented, garbage-filled and non-aesthetic document.
Very few site developers try to do something about it – even fewer succeed.
3. The Internet and the CD-ROM
One of the biggest mistakes of content suppliers is that they do not allow to mix contents or to have a “static-dynamic interaction”.
The Internet can now easily interact with other media (especially with audio CDs and with CD-ROMs) – even as the user surfs.
A shopping catalogue can be distributed on a CD-ROM by mail. The Internet Site will allow the user to order a product that he previously selected from the catalogue, while off-line. The catalogue could also be updated through the site (as is done with CD-ROM reference books).
The advantages of the CD-ROM are clear: very fast access time (dozens of times faster than the access to a site using communication lines) and a data storage capacity tens of times bigger than the average website.
Another possibility : a CD-ROM can be distributed, containing hundreds of advertisements. The consumer will select the ad that he wants to see and will connect to the Internet to see it in video (admittedly, only in the near future).
He could then also have an interactive chat (or a conference) with a salesperson, receive information about the company, about the ad, about the advertising agency which created the ad – and so on.
CD-ROM based encyclopedias (such as the Britannica, Encarta, Grolier or Compton’s) already contain hyperlinks which carry the user to sites selected by an Editorial Board.
But CD-ROMs are probably a doomed medium. The leaders of their industry chose to emphasize the wrong things. Storage capacity increased exponentially and, within a year, desktops with 20 Gb hard disks will be common. Moreover, the Network Computer – the stripped down version of the personal computer – will put at the disposal of the average user terabytes in storage capacity and the processing power of a supercomputer. What separates computer users and this utopia is the communication bandwidth. With the introduction of radio broadband services, cable modems and compression methods – video (on demand), audio and data will be available speedily and plentifully. The CD-ROM, on the other hand, is not mobile. It requires installation and the utilization of sophisticated hardware and software. This is no user friendly push technology. It is geek-oriented. As a result, CD-ROMs are not an immediate medium. There is a long time lapse between the moment they are purchased and the moment the first data become accessible to the user. Compare this to a book or a magazine. Data in this oldest of media is instantly available to the user and allows for easy and accurate “back” and “forward” functions. Perhaps the biggest mistake of CD-ROM manufacturers has been their inability to offer an integrated hardware and software package. CD-ROMs are not compact. A Walkman is a compact hardware-cum-software package. It is easily transportable, it is thin, it contains numerous, user-friendly, sophisticated functions, it provides immediate access to data. So does the discman. This cannot be said of the CD-ROM. By tying its future to the obsolete concept of stand-alone, expensive, inefficient and technologically unreliable personal computers – CD-ROMs have sentenced themselves to oblivion.
4. On-line Reference Libraries
This already exists. A visit to the on-line Encyclopaedia Britannica exemplifies some of the tremendous, mind boggling possibilities:
Each entry is hyperlinked to sites on the Internet which deal with the same subject matter. The sites are carefully screened (though short descriptions of each site should be available – they could be prepared either by the staff of the encyclopaedia or by the site owner). Links are available to data in various forms, including audio and video. Everything can be copied to the hard disk or to CD-ROMs.
This is a new conception of a knowledge centre – not just an assortment of material. It is modular, can be added on and subtracted from. It can be linked to a voice Q&A centre. Queries by subscribers will be answered by e-mail by fax, posted on the site, hard copies will be sent by post. This “Trivial Pursuit” service could be very popular – there is considerable appetite for “Just in Time Information”.
5. The Feedback Option
Hard to believe, but very few sites encourage their guests to express an opinion about the site, its contents and its aesthetics. This indicates an ossified mode of thinking about the most dynamic mass medium ever created, the only interactive mass medium yet. Each site must absolutely contain feedback and rating questionnaires. It has the side benefit of creating a database of the visitors to the site.
Moreover, each site can easily become a “knowledge centre”.
Let us consider a site dedicated to advertising and marketing:
It will contain feedback questionnaires (what do you think about the site, suggestions for improvement, mailto and leave message facilities, etc.)
It will contain rating questionnaires (rate these ads, these TV or radio shows, these advertising campaigns).
It will allocate some space to clients to open their home pages in (these home pages could lead to their sites, to other sites, to other sections of the host site – and, in any case, will serve as a display of the creative talent of the site owners). This will give the site owners a picture of the distribution of the areas of interest of the visitors to the site.
The site will include statistical, tracking and counter software.
Such a site will refer to hundreds of useful shareware applications (which deal with different aspects of advertising and marketing, for instance). Developers of applications will be able to use the site to promote their products. Other practical applications could also be referred to from – or reside on – the site (browsers, games, search engines).
6. Internet Derived CD-ROMS
The Internet is an enormous reservoir of freely available, unprotected, information.
With a minimal investment, this information can be gathered into coherent, theme oriented, cheap CD-ROMs. Each such CD-ROM will contain:
Addresses of sites specific to the subject matter
The first pages of each of these sites
Hyperlinks to each of the sites
Access to all the important search engines
Recommended search strings (it is extremely difficult to formulate a successful search in the Internet, it takes expertise. “Ready-made searches” will be a hit in the future, as the number of sites grows)
A dictionary of professional terms, a speller and a thesaurus
A list of general reference sites
Specific to the field
The Internet is the world’s largest publisher, by far. It publishes FAQs (Frequent Answers and Questions regarding almost every technical matter in the world), e-zines (electronic versions of magazines, not a very successful pursuit), the electronic versions of dailies (together with on-line news and information services), reference and other books, monographs, articles and minutes of discussions (“threads”).
Publishing an e-zine has a few advantages : it promotes the sales of the printed version, it helps to sign subscribers and, in the future, it will lead to the sale of advertising space. The electronic archive function (see next section) saves the need to file back issues, the space required to do so and the irritating search for data items.
The future trend is a combined subscription : electronic (mainly for the archival value and the ability to hyperlink to additional information) and printed (easier to browse).
The electronic daily presents other advantages:
It allows for immediate feedback and for flowing, almost real-time, communication between writers and readers. The electronic version, therefore, acquires a gyroscopic function : a navigation instrument, always indicating deviations from the “right” course. The content can be instantly updated and immediacy has its premium (remember the McVeigh affair).
Strangely, this (conventional) field was the first to develop a “virtual reality” facet. There are virtual “magazine stalls”. They look exactly like the real thing and the user can by a paper using his mouse.
Specialty hand held devices already allow for downloading and storage of vast quantities of data (upto 4000 print pages). The user gains access to libraries containing hundreds of texts, adapted to be downloaded, stored and read by the specific device. Again, a convergence of standards is to be expected in this field as well.
8. The Archive Function
The Internet is also the world’s biggest cemetery : tens of thousands of deadbeat sites, still accessible – the “Ghost Sites” of this electronic frontier.
This, in a way, is collective memory. One of the Internet’s main functions will be to preserve and transfer knowledge through time. It is called “Memory” in biology – and Archive in library science.
The Internet as a Collective Brain
Drawing a comparison from the development of a human baby – the human race has just commenced to develop its neural system.
The Internet fulfils all the function of the Nervous System in the body and is both functionally and structurally, pretty similar. It is decentralized, redundant (each part can serve as functional backup in case of malfunction). It hosts information which accessible in a few ways, it contains a memory function, it is multimodal (multimedia – textual, visual, audio and animation).
I believe that the comparison is not superficial and that if we study the functions of the brain (from infancy to adulthood) – we will end up perusing the future of the Net.
1. The Collective Computer
To carry the metaphor of “a collective brain” further, we would expect the processing of information to take place in the Internet, rather than inside the end-users hardware (the same way that information is processed by the brain, not by the eyes). Desktops will receive the results and communicate with the Net to receive additional clarifications and instructions and to convey information gathered from their environment (mostly, from the user).
This is precisely the philosophy behind the JAVA programming language.
It deals with applets – small bits of software – and links different computer platforms by means of software.
The future servers will contain not only information (as they do today) – but also software applications. The potential user of a Word Processing application will not be forced to buy it. He will not be driven into hardware-related expenditures to accommodate the ever growing volume of latter day applications. He will not find himself wasting his scarce memory and computing resources on passive storage. Instead, he will use a browser to call a central computer. This computer will contain the needed software, broken to its elements (=applets, small applications). Anytime the user wishes to use one of the functions of the application, he will siphon it off the central computer. When finished – he will “return” it. Processing speeds and response times will be such that the user will not feel at all that it is not with his own software that he is working (the question of ownership will be very blurred in such a world). This technology is available and it provoked a heated debated about the future shape of the computing industry as a whole (desktops – really power packs – or network computers, a little more than dumb terminals).
In the last few years, scientist put the combined power of the computers linked to the internet at any given moment to perform astounding feats of distributed parallel processing. Millions of PCs connected to the net co-processed signals from outer space, meteorological data and solved complex equations. This is a prime example of a collective brain in action.
2. The Intranet – a Logical Extension of the Collective Computer
LANs (Local Area Networks) are no longer a rarity in corporate offices. WANs (wide Area Networks) are used to connected geographically dispersed organs of the same legal entity (branches of a bank, daughter companies, a sales force). Many LANs are wireless.
The intranet will be the winner and will gradually eliminate both LANs and WANs. The Internet offers equal, platform-independent, location-independent and time of day – independent access to all the members of an organization.Sophisticated firewall security application protects the privacy and confidentiality of the intranet from all but the most determined and savvy hackers.
The Intranet is an inter-organizational communication network, constructed on the platform of the Internet and which enjoys all its advantages.
The company’s server can be accessed by anyone authorized, from anywhere, at any time (with the costs associated with local – rather than international – communication). The user can leave messages (internal e-mail or v-mail), to draw information – proprietary or public – from it and to participate in “virtual teamwork” (see next chapter).
By the year 2000, a standard intranet interface will emerge. This will be facilitated by the opening up of the TCP/IP communication architecture and its availability to PCs. A billion USD will go just to finance intranet servers – or, at least, this is the median forecast.
The development of measures to safeguard server routed inter-organizational communication (firewalls) is the solution to one of two obstacles to the institution of the Intranet. The second problem is the limited bandwidth which does not permit the efficient transfer of audio (not to mention video).
It is difficult to conduct video conferencing through the Internet. Even the voices of discussants who use internet phones come out distorted.
All this did not prevent 95% of the Fortune 1000 from installing intranet.
82% of all the rest intend to install one by the end of this year. Medium to big size American firms have 50-100 intranet terminals per every internet one.
At the end of 1997, there were 10 web servers per every other type of server in organizations. The sale of intranet related software was projected to multiply by 16 (to 8 billion USD) by the year 1999.
One of the greatest advantages of the intranet is the ability to transfer documents between the various parts of an organization. Take Visa: it pushed 2 million documents per day internally in 1996.
An organization equipped with an intranet can (while protected by firewalls) give its clients access to non-classified correspondence. This notion has its own charm. Consider a newspaper : it can give access to all the materials which were discarded by the editors. Some news are fit to print – yet are discarded because of considerations of space. Still, someone is bound to be interested. It costs the newspaper close to nothing (the material is, normally, already computer-resident) – and it might even generate added circulation and income. It can be even conceived as an “underground, non-commercial, alternative” newspaper for a wholly different readership.
The above is but an example of the possible use of intranet to communicate with the organizations consumer base.
3. Mail and Chat
The internet (its e-mail possibilities) is eroding the traditional mail. The part of the post office in conveying messages by regular mail has dwindled from 77% to 62% (1995). E-mail has expanded to capture 36% (up from 19%).
90% of customers with on-line access use e-mail from time to time and 50% work it regularly. More than 1.5 billion messages traverse the internet daily.
E-mail is disseminated through freeware and is included in all the browsers. Thus, the internet has completely assimilated what used to be a separate service, to the extent that many people make the mistake of thinking that e-mail is a feature of the internet. Microsoft continues to incorporate previously independent applications in its browsers – a behaviour which led to the 1999 anti-trust lawsuit against it.
The internet will do to phone calls what it did to e-mail. Already there are applications (Intels, Vocaltecs InternetPhone) which enables the user to conduct a phone conversation through his computer. The voice quality is still unacceptable – but this is real speech. The discussants can cut into each others words, argue and listen to tonal nuances. Today, the parties (two or more) engaging in the conversation must possess the same software and the same (computer) hardware. In the very near future, computer-to-regular phone applications will eliminate this requirement. And, again simultaneous multi-modality : the user can talk over the phone, see his party, send e-mail and transfer documents – without obstructing the flow of the conversation.
The cost of transferring voice will become so negligible that free voice traffic is conceivable in 3-5 years. Data traffic will overtake voice traffic by a wide margin.
This beats regular phones.
The next phase will probably involve virtual reality. Each of the parties will be represented by an “icon”, a 3-D figurine generated by the application. These figurines will be multi-dimensional : they will possess their own personality, communication patterns, special habits, history, preferences.
Thus, they will be able to maintain an “identity” : consistent communication which they will develop over time.
Such a figure could host a site, accept, welcome and guide visitors, all the time bearing their preferences in its electronic “mind”. Visiting sites in the future is set to be a much more pleasant affair.
In 1996, the four undisputed giants (Visa, MasterCard, Netscape and Microsoft) agreed on a standard for effecting secure payments through the Internet : SET. Internet commerce is supposed to mushroom by a factor of 50 to 25 billion USD. Site owners will be able to collect rent from passing visitors – or fees for services provided within the site. “Serious”, intent, visitors will not be deterred by such trifles.
5. The Virtual Organization
The Internet allows simultaneous communication between an almost unlimited number of users. This will be followed by the efficient transfer of multimedia (video included) files.
This opens up a vista of mind boggling opportunities which are the real core of the Internet revolution : the virtual collaborative (“Follow the Sun”) modes.
A group of musicians will be able to simultaneously compose music or play it – while spatially and temporally separated;
Advertising agencies will be able to co-produce ad campaigns in a real time interactive mode;
Cinema and TV films will be produced from disparate geographical spots through the teamwork of people who will never meet, except through the net.
These examples illustrate the concept of the “virtual community”. Locations in space and time will no longer hinder a collaboration in a team : be it scientific, artistic, cultural, or for the provision of services (a virtual law firm or accounting office, a virtual consultancy network).
Two on going developments are the virtual mall and the virtual catalogue.
There are well over 300 active virtual malls in the Internet. They were frequented by 32.5 million shoppers, who shopped in them for goods and services in 1998. The intranet can also be thought of as a “virtual organization”, or a “virtual business”.
The virtual mall is a computer “space” (pages) in the internet, wherein “shops” are located. These shops offer their wares using visual, audio and textual means. The visitor passes a gate into the store and looks through its offering, until he reaches a buying decision. Then he engages in a feedback process : he pays (with a credit card), buys the product and waits for it to arrive by mail. The manufacturers of digital products (intellectual property such as e-books or software) have begun selling their merchandise on-line.
Yet, slow communications and limited bandwidth – constrain the growth potential of this mode of sale. Once solved – intellectual property will be sold directly from the net, on-line. Until such time, the intervention of the Post Office is still required. So, then virtual mall is nothing but a glorified computerized catalogue or Buying Channel, the only difference being the worldwide variety.
Websites which started as “specialty stores” are fast transforming themselves into multi-purpose virtual malls. Amazon.com, for instance, has bought into a virtual pharmacy and into other virtual businesses. It is now selling music, video, electronics and many other products. It started as a bookstore.
This contrasts with a much more creative idea : the virtual catalogue. It is a form of narrowcasting (as opposed to broadcasting) : a surgically accurate targeting of potential consumer audiences. Each group of consumers (no matter how small) is fitted with their own – digitally generated – catalogue. This is updated daily : the variety of wares on offer (adjusted to reflect inventory levels, consumer preferences and goods in transit) – and prices (sales, discounts, package deals) change in real time.
The user will enter the site and there delineate his consumption profile and his preferences. A special catalogue will be immediately customized for him.
From then on, the history of his purchases, preferences and responses to feedback questionnaires will be accumulated and added to a database.
Each catalogue generated for him will come replete with order forms. Once the user concluded his purchases, his profile will be updated.
There is no technological obstacles to implementing this vision today – only administrative ones. Big retail stores are not up to processing the flood of data expected to arrive. They also remain highly sceptical regarding the feasibility of the new medium.
The virtual catalogue is a private case of a new internet off-shoot : the “smart (shopping) agents”. These are AI applications with “long memories”.
They draw detailed profiles of consumers and users and then suggest purchases and refer to the appropriate sites, catalogues, or virtual malls.
They also come back with price comparisons and the new generation (NetBot) cannot be blocked or fooled by using differing product categories.
In the future, these agents will refer also to real life retail chains and issue a map of the branch or store closest to an address specified by the user (the default being his residence). This technology can be seen in action in a few music sites on the web.
6. Internet News
Internet news are advantaged : the frequency of the updates and the resulting immediacy and freshness, the unlimited access time (similar to printed news).
The future will witness a form of interactive news. A special “corner” in the site will be open to updates posted by the public (the equivalent of press releases). This will provide readers with a glimpse into the making of the news, the raw material news are made of. The same technology will be applied to interactive TVs. Content will be downloaded from the internet and be displayed as an overlay on the TV screen or in a square in a special location. The contents downloaded will be directly connected to the TV programming. Thus, the biography and track record of a football player will be displayed during a football match and the history of a country when it gets news coveage.
Terra Internetica – Internet, an Unknown Continent
This is an unconventional way to look at the Internet. Laymen and experts alike talk about “sites” and “advertising space”. Yet, the Internet was never compares to a new continent whose “soil resources” are infinite.
The Internet will have its own real estate developers and construction companies. The real life equivalents derive their profits from the scarcity of the resource that they exploit – the Internet counterparts will derive their profits from the tenants (the content).
A few companies bought “Internet Space” (pages, domain names, portals), developed it and make commercial use of it by:
renting it out
constructing infrastructure and selling it
providing an intelligent gateway, entry point to the rest of the internet
or selling advertising space which subsidizes the tenants (Geocities, Focus-Asia and others).
Internet Space can be easily purchased or created. The investment is low.
Then, infrastructure can be erected – for a shopping mall, for free home pages, for a portal, or for another purpose. It is precisely this infrastructure that the developer can later sell, lease, franchise, or rent out.
At the beginning, only members of the fringes and the avant-garde (inventors, risk assuming entrepreneurs, gamblers) invest in a new invention. The invention of a new communications technology is mostly accompanied by devastating silence.
No one knows to say what are the optimal uses of the invention (in other words, what is its future). Many – mostly members of the scientific and business elites – argue that there is no real need for the invention and that it substitutes a new and untried way for more veteran and safe modes of doing the same thing (by implication : so why assume the risk?)
These criticisms are founded:
To start with, there is, indeed, no need for the new medium. A new medium invents itself – and the need for it. It also generates its own market to satisfy this newly found need.
Two prime examples are: the personal computer and the compact disc.
When the PC was invented, its uses were completely unclear. Its performance was lacking, its abilities limited, it was horribly user unfriendly.
It suffered from faulty design, absent user comfort and ease of use and required considerable professional knowledge to operate. The worst part was that this knowledge was unique to the new invention (not portable).
It reduced labour mobility and limited their professional horizons. There were many gripes among those assigned to tame the new beast.
The PC was thought of, at the beginning, as a sophisticated gaming machine, an electronic baby-sitter. As the presence of a keyboard was detected and as the professional horizon cleared it was thought of in terms of a glorified typewriter or spreadsheet. It was used mainly as a word processor (and its existence justified solely on these grounds). The spreadsheet was the first real application and it demonstrated the advantages inherent to this new machine (mainly flexibility and speed). Still, it was more (speed) of the same. A quicker ruler or pen and paper. What was the difference between this and a hand held calculator (some of them already had computing, memory and programming features)?
The PC was recognized as a medium only 30 years after it was invented with the introduction of multimedia software. All this time, the computer continued to spin off markets and secondary markets, needs and professional specialities. The talk as always how to improve on existing markets and solutions.
The Internet is the computers first important breakthrough. Hitherto the computer was only quantitatively different – the multimedia and the Internet have made him qualitatively superior, actually, sui generis, unique.
This, precisely, is the ghost haunting the Internet:
It has been invented, is maintained and is operated by computer professionals. For decades these people have been conditioned to think in Olympic terms: more, stronger, higher. Not: new, unprecedented, non-existent. To improve – not to invent. They stumbled across the Internet – it invented itself despite its own creators.
Computer professionals (hardware and software experts alike) – are linear thinkers. The Internet is non linear and modular.
It is still the time of the computermen in the Internet. There is still a lot to be done in improving technological prowess and powers. But their control of the contents is waning and there they are being gradually replaced by communicators, creative people, advertising executives, psychologists and the totally unpredictable masses who flock to flaunt their home pages.
These all are attuned to the user, his mental needs and his information and entertainment preferences.
The compact disc is a different tale. It was intentionally invented to improve upon an existing technology (basically, Edisons Gramophone). Market-wise, this was a major gamble : the improvement was, at first, debatable (many said that the sound quality of the first generation of compact discs was inferior to that of its contemporary record players). Consumers had to be convinced to change both software and hardware and to dish out thousands of dollars just to listen to what the manufacturers claimed was better quality Bach. A better argument was the longer life of the software (though contrasted with the limited life expectancy of the consumer, some of the first sales pitches sounded absolutely morbid).
The computer suffered from unclear positioning. The compact disc was very clear as to its main functions – but had a rough time convincing the consumers.
Every medium is first controlled by the technical people. Gutenberg was a printer – not a publisher. Yet, he is the world’s most famous publisher. The technical cadre is joined by dubious or small-scale entrepreneurs and, together, they establish ventures with no clear vision, market-oriented thinking, or orderly plan of action. The legislator is also dumbfounded and does not grasp what is happening – thus, there is no legislation to regulate the use of the medium. Witness the initial confusion concerning copyrighted software and the copyrights of ROM embedded software. Abuse or under-utilization of resources ow. Recall the sale of radio frequencies to the first cellular phone operators in the West – a situation which repeats itself in Eastern and Central Europe nowadays.
But then more complex transactions – exactly as in real estate in “real life” – begin to make their appearance.
This distinction is important. While in real life it is possible to sell an undeveloped plot of land – no one will buy “pages”. The supply of these is unlimited – their scarcity (and, therefore, their virtual price) is zero.
The second example involves the utilization of a site – rather than its mere availability.
A developer could open a site wherein first time authors will be able to publish their first manuscript – for a fee. Evidently, such a fee will be a fraction of what it would take to publish a “real life” book. The author could collect money for any downloading of his book – and split it with the site developer. The potential buyers will be provided with access to the contents and to a chapter of the books. This is currently being done by a few fledgling firms but a full scale publishing industry has not yet developed.
The Life of a Medium
The internet is simply the latest in a series of networks which revolutionized our lives. A century before the internet, the telegraph and the telephone have been similarly heralded as “global” and transforming.
Every medium of communications goes through the same evolutionary cycle:
The Public Phase
At this stage, the medium and the resources attached to it are very cheap, accessible, under no regulatory constraints. The public sector steps in : higher education institutions, religious institutions, government, not for profit organizations, non governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, etc. Bedevilled by limited financial resources, they regard the new medium as a cost effective way of disseminating their messages.
The Internet was not exempt from this phase which ended only a few months ago. It started with a complete computer anarchy manifested in ad hoc networks, local networks, networks of organizations (mainly universities and organs of the government such as DARPA, a part of the defence establishment, in the USA). Non commercial entities jumped on the bandwagon and started sewing these networks together (an activity fully subsidized by government funds). The result was a globe encompassing network of academic institutions. The American Pentagon established the network of all networks, the ARPANET. Other government departments joined the fray, headed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) which withdrew only lately from the Internet.
The Internet (with a different name) became public property – with access granted to the chosen few.
Radio took precisely this course. Radio transmissions started in the USA in 1920. Those were anarchic broadcasts with no discernible regularity. Non commercial organizations and not for profit organizations began their own broadcasts and even created radio broadcasting infrastructure (albeit of the cheap and local kind) dedicated to their audiences. Trade unions, certain educational institutions and religious groups commenced “public radio” broadcasts.
The Commercial Phase
When the users (e.g., listeners in the case of the radio, or owners of PCs and modems in the example of the Internet) reach a critical mass – the business sector is alerted. In the name of capitalist ideology (another religion, really) it demands “privatization” of the medium. This harps on very sensitive strings in every Western soul : the efficient allocation of resources which is the result of competition, corruption and inefficiency naturally associated with the public sector (“Other Peoples Money” – OPM), the ulterior motives of members of the ruling political echelons (the infamous American Paranoia), a lack of variety and of catering to the tastes and interests of certain audiences, the equation private enterprise = democracy and more.
The end result is the same : the private sector takes over the medium from “below” (makes offers to the owners or operators of the medium – that they cannot possibly refuse) – or from “above” (successful lobbying in the corridors of power leads to the appropriate legislation and the medium is “privatized”).
Every privatization – especially that of a medium – provokes public opposition. There are (usually founded) suspicions that the interests of the public were compromised and sacrificed on the altar of commercialization and rating. Fears of monopolization and cartelization of the medium are evoked – and justified, in due time. Otherwise, there is fear of the concentration of control of the medium in a few hands. All these things do happen – but the pace is so slow that the initial fears are forgotten and public attention reverts to fresher issues.
A new Communications Act was legislated in the USA in 1934. It was meant to transform radio frequencies into a national resource to be sold to the private sector which will use it to transmit radio signals to receivers. In other words : the radio was passed on to private and commercial hands. Public radio was doomed to be marginalized.
The American administration withdrew from its last major involvement in the Internet in April 1995, when the NSF ceased to finance some of the networks and, thus, privatized its hitherto heavy involvement in the net.
A new Communications Act was legislated in 1996. It permitted “organized anarchy”. It allowed media operators to invade each others territories.
Phone companies will be allowed to transmit video and cable companies will be allowed to transmit telephony, for instance. This is all phased over a long period of time – still, it is a revolution whose magnitude is difficult to gauge and whose consequences defy imagination. It carries an equally momentous price tag – official censorship. “Voluntary censorship”, to be sure, somewhat toothless standardization and enforcement authorities, to be sure – still, a censorship with its own institutions to boot. The private sector reacted by threatening litigation – but, beneath the surface it is caving in to pressure and temptation, constructing its own censorship codes both in the cable and in the internet media.
This phase is the next in the Internet’s history, though, it seems, unbeknownst to it.
It is characterized by enhanced activities of legislation. Legislators, on all levels, discover the medium and lurch at it passionately. Resources which were considered “free”, suddenly are transformed to “national treasures not to be dispensed with cheaply, casually and with frivolity”.
It is conceivable that certain parts of the Internet will be “nationalized” (for instance, in the form of a licensing requirement) and tendered to the private sector. Legislation will be enacted which will deal with permitted and disallowed content (obscenity ? incitement ? racial or gender bias ?)
No medium in the USA (not to mention the wide world) has eschewed such legislation. There are sure to be demands to allocate time (or space, or software, or content, or hardware) to “minorities”, to “public affairs”, to “community business”. This is a tax that the business sector will have to pay to fend off the eager legislator and his nuisance value.
All this is bound to lead to a monopolization of hosts and servers. The important broadcast channels will diminish in number and be subjected to severe content restrictions. Sites which will not succumb to these requirements – will be deleted or neutralized. Content guidelines (euphemism for censorship) exist, even as we write, in all major content providers (CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy).
This is the phase of consolidation. The number of players is severely reduced. The number of browser types will be limited to 2-3 (Netscape, Microsoft and which else ?). Networks will merge to form privately owned mega-networks. Servers will merge to form hyper-servers run on supercomputers. The number of ISPs will be considerably down.
50 companies ruled the greater part of the media markets in the USA in 1983. The number in 1995 was 18. At the end of the century they will number 6.
This is the stage when companies – fighting for financial survival – strive to acquire as many users/listeners/viewers as possible. The programming is shallowed to the lowest (and widest) common denominator. Shallow programming dominates as long as the bloodbath proceeds.
From Rags to Riches
Tough competition produces four processes:
1. A Major Drop in Hardware Prices
This happens in every medium but it doubly applies to a computer-dependent medium, such as the Internet.
Computer technology seems to abide by “Moors Law” which says that the number of transistors which can be put on a chip doubles itself every 18 months. As a r