Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Internet Metamorphosis Right before Our Eyes

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Internet Metamorphosis Right before Our Eyes

Article excerpt

The Big-I Internet has been discussed in depth, in these pages and others, for several years now. The United States is approaching 50 percent of the population wired. Other industrialized nations are not far behind at all. Their rate of growth is higher, and before too many more months have passed, there will be no worthwhile difference at all, except that the world will march forward until a greater and greater percentage of people are online.

I suspect it will never reach 100 percent, but the speed at which it has become pervasive is staggering, much faster than television or radio did the same. The issue is not so much what the Internet provides, because that is always changing, but its pervasiveness and what that portends.

The First Couple of Phases

Originally the Internet was a few UNIX computers strung together, where every computer had the address of every other computer physically stored in a file. There were some very creepy programs to get information back and forth. I believe it's fair to say they weren't very user-friendly. This evolved to ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency), where the academics were gradually wired in. Let's just call this the "Esoteric Phase" of the Internet.

The Text Phase of the Internet was basically ARPANET Plus. Much to the chagrin of the academic and research community, normal citizens began to get access to the Internet. By this time the set of tools had evolved, but they were still largely text-based. PINE (Program for Internet News and E-mail), was developed by the University of Washington in Seattle and used to overlay the more cryptic "mail" with menus. The "gopher" developed in Minnesota was a way to get text files posted on the Net simply by putting them in an appropriate directory. FTP was used to transfer files around from one computer to another. Telnet was the easiest way to get to another computer.

All these tools were text-based--no pictures, just characters. And people got along just fine with these. It wasn't exactly pretty, but work was accomplished. No one could argue that simply placing a text document in a subdirectory and having it instantly appear on the Net wasn't productive.

Phase Three: Browsers

By 1993 or so HTML had been invented. Mosaic was an early browser, one of several at the time. Lynx was introduced as a text-based browser to accommodate the new format. Of course, as soon as pictures were available, the Web skyrocketed in importance. Netscape, AOL, and Microsoft Internet Explorer are now household words. New graphically based e-mail programs such as WebMail and Outlook were invented, and suddenly the Internet took on this completely new dimension.

In 1994 there were something like 800 Web sites worldwide. Now, a mere 6 years later, there are 800 million pages out there. Every company worth its salt has a Web site, e-commerce is hot, and "dot-com" millionaires are driving up housing prices. (I know you know this; it's just a little preamble.)

The question is, what's next? We've done some of these exercises in the past; I don't mean to repeat them. But I think we've stuck ourselves in a rut by assuming the Web is kind of a glitzy gopher that serves the same function. The basic idea is for people to go search for cool stuff on the Web and then, the companies hope, they'll buy it with a credit card.

Phase Four, then, would be more of the same: better, more precise browsers offering more and more online transactions with greater and cheaper bandwidth. I would like to suggest that Phase Four may very well include all that, but it will have some interesting components that go beyond the mail/ftp/gopher routine, which, whether or not it's dressed up in graphics, is our pervasive concept of the Internet.

The Network Is the Computer

This phrase, dreamed up by a marketing hack at Sun Microsystems, has been around for awhile. It's a pretty good metaphor for describing the difference between the old mainframe and dumb terminal phase of computing compared to the Ethernet way of doing things, but it's said by the wrong company. …

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