Brad Templeton Home
The Internet: What is it REALLY for?
Address to the Internet World Spring Conference
Suddenly the internet is everywhere and you can get an account on most of the major online services and tons of small startup "on-ramps," dial in with your modem and access some internet services. But the internet is not another online service or even an extension of one, so people aren't getting the full picture. How does the net go beyond being just a big online service?
Some people have suggested that the national debt could be paid off if they only put a tax on people who use the phrase information superhighway these days. Suddenly the much-hyped phenomenon of "media convergence" is itself converging with the network world's hype to produce a great deal of talk, and some very unusual plans.
A large audience has just noticed the internet and its surrounding communities, which comes as a surprise to those who've been doing it for a decade or so. The place we've been living is has suddenly been "discovered" by the real world -- with overtones on that word similar to those on Columbus' "discovery" of the new world.
There are many camps promoting many visions of an information superhighway, two of them quite large. In the first camp we have the cable companies. It amuses me to see people who can examine all this technology and think only that they could now provide 500 TV channels. From a business standpoint, it is understandable, since everybody knows that piping in movies and entertainment is a big business and a seemingly safe bet. But it's like horse-traders discovering the internal combustion engine and salivating over how quickly they'll be able to ship large numbers of horses to where they are needed.
The other large camp has noticed the internet and the rest of the online world, and dubbed it the information superhighway. I'll admit some guilt there -- I've used the term to tell people what the internet is because it's an easy phrase to use. The most public members of that camp are the online service providers -- big ones such as America Online and medium ones like Netcom.
The online service industry is also pretty old, and dates back to the first BBSs and online services in the late '70s. That world pretty much ignored the networking world of the ARPANET, USENET and the internet until 1992. It was academic and uncontrolled, it was competition and it was perceived as being free. It wasn't free, somebody else was paying for it, but it was actually remarkably cheap per user in terms of what it delivered. Particularly since those online services worked at 2400 bps or even less.
Now that these services are positioning themselves as access portals to the internet, they're making a mistake in long-term thinking. While the value of the bridge they are providing is undeniable, it is a short term value. The error is to think of the internet as a big online service, or as the extension of one.
The internet is of course very simple. All it really does is provide point to point communications for computers on top of a packet switched network. What people see, though, is the applications that people have put on top of this.
The thing that makes the internet different is that it provides permanent virtual connectivity. It gives you the illusion that something far away is on the computer that's on your desk. Because the connection is (when done properly) permanent the wall between "on your computer" and "on somebody else's computer" breaks down. In many cases the connectivity doesn't have to be fast, but for many of the exciting cases it is.
Indeed, permanent connectivity isn't everything. A lot of interesting things happen with plain old modems and BBSs and USENET. But the internet can do all those things as well or better, and it can do more.
Sun Microsystems has an off-and-on slogan that they use: "The network is the computer." I think it's an excellent slogan. People used to think of processors as computers. When micros came, we learned to think of the hard disk as the real identify of a computer -- if you moved a hard disk from one machine to another, the new machine became the old one.
Sun's slogan really refers to the local area network, and many people have already reached that state in their computer use. They feel that their computer, even if it has its own hard disk, seems crippled if it is ever taken off the LAN. Its identity comes from the LAN its on.
The internet goes one step further, and changes your sense of what your computer is to be "the worldwide network." Once your computer is on the internet -- really on it -- suddenly it feels crippled when it is disconnected. Soon people may feel disconnected computers are almost unusable, which is part of what drives the wireless networking explosion.
When the connection is permanent, things can happen without your intervention. On the online services, you use a computer like any other. You issue commands and things happen. You may interact with other users, which is a step up, but it's still a "session," with your active involvement.
But once you have a permanent hookup, things happen even when you aren't there. Information comes to you -- you don't have to go to it. And if you have a fast, permanent connection, the information doesn't even have to come to you, it merely needs to knock and say, "I'm out here, and you'll see me the moment you ask for me."
This means our computers can do more than just execute our commands when we sit in front of them. They can be out in the world as our agents and butlers.
It also means that we get to interact at an equal footing. To be on the internet is not just the ability to use it and browse it, but the ability to have information on your computer available to other people as though it is on their computer. And while you can do this by buying space on an online service, it's not the same -- not as dynamic -- as having the information on your own machine, one you can change instantly, as you desire.
People have already learned the immense difference from E-mail that's on the computer on your desk and E-mail on a dial-up online service. E-mail on your desk comes to you, it's like home delivery as opposed to a P.O. box. When you are working on the E-mail you have full access to everything you're used to on your own computer. If it's important it can beep at you in your home. People have conversations with live E-mail, and in fact some times it even goes too fast, because people come to expect a level of instant response that's too intrusive if you try to keep it up all the time.
A real internet connection ups the ante like this for all applications. Now let's look at what this means for a number of key areas and applications.
Publishing:Even with all the hype the revolution in publishing is going to surpass most people's expectations. Publishing today is actually a grossly inefficient industry, with most books overproduced and pulped, and forests denuded in the quest for paper. The economies of E-publishing are so strong that any love we have for the feel, smell and look of paper books will be eventually overwhelmed. It's the same for news, but on top of it all the computer beats paper for speed hands-down.
But people don't realize that with all the economies of scale gone from publishing, as well as the barriers to entry, a brave new world will emerge. While publishing is already an industry of publicity and editing, it will become exclusively that. Overnight fame will become commonplace, and people may have to push hard for 15 minutes of it. People won't read a lot more than they do today, but they'll read a lot of different material.
News:Journalists will still be important. As we've demonstrated at ClariNet, people will pay for quality in what they read on the net. But the control of information by the media will be gone. It will be too easy for small media, and even ordinary people, to push hidden stories out to the world. More to the point, people will expect their big media to give them hypertext pointers to the small media, so that when they want to see the other side of a story, or read other viewpoints, they can. If the big media won't give that to them, they'll subscribe to people who just make pointers to both the big and small media.
News is a great application for the internet today, but actually it's also well suited to broadcast. The result will actually be a hybrid, with popular material broadcast in digital form to be efficient, supplemented by pointers over the net to less popular material.
Advertising:The newspapers are afraid the Bells will crush them by taking away the lucrative classified advertising market. There's bad news for both of them. Classified advertising in the network world is trivial to do, and it costs almost nothing. In fact, you can do basic classified advertising on the net for free right now, and while it's not organized, the cost of organizing it is nothing if you work it out per reader. Sure, classifieds will be a big thing, but a tiny portion of the big money pie they are today. Nobody is going to "win" the classified market share battle. Classified ads will be something network providers throw in for free, to make their service more attractive.
Display advertising is another story. It's going to change a lot too, but most people don't realize how entrenched it is, how much we depend on it subsidizing our art, entertainment and information. There's a huge inertia to defeat there. I know, I run an advertising-free electronic newspaper.
Libraries:How can you have a free public electronic lending library down the electronic street from the electronic bookstore? You can't if they both want to carry the same books. Libraries will exist to hold the stuff that isn't in electronic form or doesn't readily map to it, but they make no sense for stuff that's out for sale on the net. There are answers, however, including flat rate access to information, with royalties divided up to authors according to popularity, and endowments to pay these fees for the poor.
The Web:Hypertext is finally coming to life, decades after Ted Nelson dreamed about it. Something like the Web is going to grow and flourish, but looking at the Internet as though it is the Web and Mosaic is wrong. The Web isn't really interactive. Most people don't contribute back to it, and there's no sense of community to it. If you don't look at netnews, mailing lists or even IRC, you're missing out on the community side of the internet, and that's the biggest part of it. The real purpose of computer networks, in the end, is for people to communicate with people.
Netnews:Amazingly, it still follows pretty much the patterns set for it in 1981, which is both a credit to the design, but one of the remarkably few failings of its anarchic structure. A decade is ancient. The network world changes more in a long lunch hour than many industries change in a century. The net needs a way to grow and change or even more people will get bored with it.
The little guy:The victor in all this. Particularly when it comes to marketing. Suddenly the tiny startup manufacturer can be on an even footing in reaching the customer when it comes to browsing on the net. Some areas will allow advertising, and some won't, but many people will deliberately browse the areas that don't, where IBM will be just another entry of the same size as Joe's Computers.
Paperwork:The paperless office never really worked because you couldn't send your non-paper out of your own computer. When your own computer is mapped onto the worldwide network, suddenly this becomes possible. In my own office I don't let my staff give me paper, but what comes in from outside is still enough to drown you. Finally we can get rid of that. Perhaps this is what the internet is truly for?
Politics:The first twinges of this haven't required the permanent connectivity of the net, but the community that's formed is a powerful one. Indeed, the government has yet to defeat it and put in a law that is widely disliked.
But the network world has the capacity to change the face of politics completely. While the poor majority will not be on the net for some time to come, soon the educated will all be on it all the time. Political secrets will become harder to hide, and political action easier to organize. E-mailing your opinion to your government will be so easy that politicians will eventually learn to discount it.
However, a far broader change is possible. As we start conducting all of our commerce over the net, we'll be able to control our commerce with software, and engage in political action with every commercial and even social transaction we make. This is beyond the scope of this discussion, but imagine for a moment that your computer might, before you make any purchase, query GreenPeace's server to check on the environmental rating of the company you're dealing with. What if you did that even before browsing the catalogs. Today boycotts are sometimes effective, but mostly not strong enough to affect large entities. The ability to have programs affect all your transactions allows them to be automatic, and will put vast power into the hands of those who are asked for political advice. The consequences could be staggering, both for good and for bad.
The truth is that we haven't yet seen what the net is really for. It's going
to change the world even more than the purveyors of net hype imagine. You
may mistake it for another online service today, but you won't for long.