Whither the Web? 1996
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1996. First
published in Computer Player, March 1996
Even though it?s being hyped as the next big thing,
the Internet is
over twenty years old-- older, for example, than personal computers.
most of its life, however, it remained a well-kept secret... used by a
relative handful of academics and university students, who were
to put up with learning Unix in order to exchange text-based e-mail,
papers, and Usenet gossip.
The Web Changes Everything
A relative newcomer to the collection of Internet
protocols, the World
Wide Web also arose from the same international academic community--
in 1989, from the European CERN research physics center came the Web
with its hypertext links, and HTML page description language, making it
easy (at least relatively) to create Web pages. This wasn?t enough to
the explosion, however.
This basic Web was still a text-based, Unix
phenomenon... and can still
be accessed that way, using programs like WWW or Lynx with a text-only
shell account. But the big breakthrough happened after the addition of
Web browser software-- starting with the ground-breaking Mosaic,
for free for Unix, Windows, and Mac, by a software team led by Marc
from the University of Illinois? National Center for Supercomputing
Whatever platform it ran on, Mosaic made it possible
to easily navigate
the Web-- pointing and clicking on coloured hyperlinks, or by typing in
a standardized (if obscure-looking) HTTP address. By running on
computer screens, it allowed Web pages to resemble real publications--
if with a somewhat limited range of layout possibilities.
As well, it allowed Web pages to embed graphics, and
even other media
types such as sound or video. With this single program, the Internet,
particularly the Web became much easier to navigate, and at the same
became visually exciting.
Suddenly, the computer science and physics types on
the Web were joined
by the art students and then the alternate music scene-- in a rarely
alliance of left-brain and right-brain types. A little later,
started moving onto the Web-- spurred on by both the explosion of
(and hipness) of the Web, and because rules limiting commercial use of
the Net were abandoned, along with US government funding.
The result was the 1995-era Web-- rapidly growing
number of home-pages,
along with rapidly growing numbers of users. Massive media coverage.
market hysteria as Web browser maker Netscape (Marc Andreeson?s new
issued shares-- even though the company?s sales figures were virtually
non-existent. Businesses from large to small rushed to establish a
on the Net-- meaning on the Web, though often without a clear plan of
Or Does It?
Despite the hysteria, the 1995-era Web suffered from
As ?surfing the Web? became a cultural cliché,
real information was often hit or miss... and even if you found
you often had no way of telling if what you found was actually true.
In addition, despite claims of interactivity, the Web
was actually less
interactive than much of the older, text-based Internet activities.
Usenet groups, for example, thrived on the back and forth of (often
communication, all people got to do on the Web was read. Look at
Listen to music, maybe. But nothing that was essentially more active
channel surfing on TV.
And if you were, like most new users, accessing the
Web via a modem
connection, you might start to find all those media types more a source
of frustration than excitement. Graphically intensive pages become less
fun to look at it they take two minutes or more to appear on your
Were you willing to spend half an hour to download a 90 second video
And businesses, seeking new markets were stymied in
several ways-- first,
a series of widely publicized security breaches made Web-based commerce
seem unlikely. (Ignore that giving your credit card to a waiter or
attendant has a higher risk of abuse). And the magazines such as Time,
making content freely-available on the Web, were still waiting for a
to make some money... even a fraction of a cent per viewer.
Where From Here?
Despite everything, the Web is booming. Here are some
trends to keep
an eye on:
-- Higher speed access. Late in ?96 or early next
year, we?ll see a
big move by some big companies to provide higher speed access to the
Cable companies like Rogers are already test marketing using your
TV cable as a way to provide access speeds over 20 times what you can
with a traditional modem. Cable modems are actually a variation of
and will allow users the sorts of ongoing, high-speed access currently
limited to University and corporate network users. But first, the cable
companies need to make their currently send-only routers
The phone companies are planning their own moves-- but
since these require
replacing millions of kilometres of copper wire with fibre-optic cable,
these may take longer to come to fruition for most users.
Either way, however, expect a shakedown in the local
Provider industry. These small businesses can continue to survive by
services missed by the telecommunications giants-- such as helping set
up and maintain Web pages.
-- Fancier, more interactive Web pages. HTML, the
language in which
Web pages are written, is an evolving standard. New viewers, such as
version 2.0 or Microsoft?s Internet Explorer (also at version 2.0) are
pushing the limits, often in contradictory and non-standard directions.
Just at the point where ?official? HTML now includes fill-in-the blank
tables (and these are now supported by most Web browsers), Netscape
frames-- a scrollable page within a page. Only viewable with Netscape
Add-ons for the most popular browsers extent Web pages
in other directions.
Real Audio, for example, plugs into Netscape and Internet Explorer, and
allows real-time audio... with more or less the sound quality of AM
Now you can hear sounds without having to first download a large file.
VRML allows users to explore 3-D, virtual-reality
spaces. The WebLouvre
was a high-class Web site, circa 1994. The next generation Cyberspace
will allow users to stroll down corridors, choosing where to explore.
More and more traditional software programs, such as
are allowing users to output pages in Web-HTML. This is spreading to
software types-- Adobe PageMaker 6.0, for example, for
pages, while Software Publishing?s ASAP now allows you to output
slides to the Web. The layout limitations of HTML are being overcome as
electronic publishing tools such as Adobe Acrobat merge with Web
-- Increased interactivity. Unix workstation
manufacturer Sun has been
promoting a C++-like language, Java, as perhaps the ultimate Web
Java permits software developers to create Web-based applications... a
user would download the application, to run on their own machine--
of their own platform or operating system.
Some imagine that this could result in a dramatic
change in personal
computers as we know them. Windows, Mac, OS/2... none of this would
Hard drives? We don?t need no steenking hard drive. Suddenly, companies
as different as database-giant Oracle and IBM are seriously looking at
producing a low-cost Internet-connection machine-- perhaps with 4 megs
of ram and no hard drive, using a Java-aware Web browser in place of a
traditional PC-operating system. Some predict a future in which
replaces Microsoft as the dominant software company (a vision greeted
glee in some quarters).
Others suggest that this is over-optimistic. Relying
on Java means giving
up the independence of the personal computing revolution, and
to an updated version of the dumb-terminals of the ?70s. And until
increases dramatically, waiting to download a Java application is going
to be sssslllooooowwww. And estimates of a sub-$500 Internet box have
to leave out a monitor-- suggesting that users will be willing to hook
up their computers to their home TV set. Remember word processing on a
Commodore-64 or Apple II in 40-character per line mode on the TV? Not a
-- Better searches. Traditional (i.e. two years old)
like Yahoo and Lycos have been joined by others-- Alta Vista, Inktomi,
Web Crawler, and others. Software such as Quarterdeck?s WebCompass can
help users find what they want.
And it can work. My grade-9 daughter, Kate, has
started to rely on the
Web as a source of information for school projects. A few days ago, she
used several Web search engines to help her find information on
Ojibwa Indians-- and she found lots... traditional stories, pictures of
art and crafts from traditional and modern sources, and more. But she
had to weed this out from literally hundreds of so-called ?hits?...
about a herbal cancer treatment called Ojibwa tea, but too many others
with no clear relation to her topic. Expect things to continue to
-- Economic changes. Commercial content providers are
waiting for micro-charges.
Right now, no one is prepared for the bookkeeping involved in keeping
of billing millions of users flitting from Web page to Web page. Expect
that to change this year. And that means the end of the free ride. No
free reading of Time or PC Magazine... instead, expect a tiny charge
your credit card, every time you click on a commercial content
In reality, this may be a positive change. When
companies can actually
make money from the Web, users will be able to expect an explosion in
availability of real information-- today?s content is still just a
The issue of credit-card security on the Web is
overblown, but widely
believed. Credit cards are not secure-- not when users quote numbers
phone lines to strangers, happily fill out blank credit-card forms to
a Nintendo system, or let anyone take their card out of their sight to
run off the form... but businesses on the Net are needing to provide a
higher standard of trust. We?ll see if 1996 will result in a public
that the Net is safe for commercial transactions. I?m not sure it will
As a result, some suspect that by late 1996 or early
1997, many businesses
that have rushed onto the Net will pull back-- having discovered that
established a presence on the Web without having a clear idea why,
sites will either be shut down or will simply be abandoned to stagnate.
Other companies, with a more clear Internet business plan will, by
flourish. Just like business in more traditional milieus, business on
Web will continue to require a lot of planning, an ongoing commitment
work, and more than a little luck.
-- Sex and hate will continue to be big. No doubt
about it, users will
continue to find sexually explicit, racist, and other antisocial
on the World Wide Web. And the anarchy/freedom of the Web will make it
impossible to control by national lawmakers... remember, it?s just as
to access a Web site half-way across the world.
At the same time, while these pages get a lot of
publicity, they do
represent a tiny fraction of what?s available on the Web (but a popular
fraction-- try connecting to Playboy?s Web site, for example). And
fringe technologies have outgrown an early flirtation with
look at the evolution of home video rentals, for example.
This creates an opportunity for home-software based
as Vancouver?s NetNanny, which allows parents or teachers to set up a
that limits access to approved Web sites.
One thing?s for sure-- the Web is constantly evolving.
If each ?human
year? equals seven years in a dog?s life, we may imagine ?Web-years?;
the current rate of change, a human year like 1996 should count for
10 years in the life of the Web.