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. For most of its life, however, it remained a well-kept secret... used by a relative handful of academics and university students, who were prepared to put up with learning Unix in order to exchange text-based e-mail, scientific 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-- first, in 1989, from the European CERN research physics center came the Web itself-- with its hypertext links, and HTML page description language, making it easy (at least relatively) to create Web pages. This wasn?t enough to spark 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, distributed for free for Unix, Windows, and Mac, by a software team led by Marc Andreeson, from the University of Illinois? National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

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 graphical 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, and particularly the Web became much easier to navigate, and at the same time, 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 seen alliance of left-brain and right-brain types. A little later, businesses started moving onto the Web-- spurred on by both the explosion of interest (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. Stock market hysteria as Web browser maker Netscape (Marc Andreeson?s new company) issued shares-- even though the company?s sales figures were virtually non-existent. Businesses from large to small rushed to establish a presence on the Net-- meaning on the Web, though often without a clear plan of what that meant.

Or Does It?

Despite the hysteria, the 1995-era Web suffered from some limitations.

As ?surfing the Web? became a cultural cliché, actually finding real information was often hit or miss... and even if you found something, 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. While Usenet groups, for example, thrived on the back and forth of (often argumentative) communication, all people got to do on the Web was read. Look at graphics. Listen to music, maybe. But nothing that was essentially more active than 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 screen. Were you willing to spend half an hour to download a 90 second video clip?

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 gas-station 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 way 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 Web. Cable companies like Rogers are already test marketing using your already-installed TV cable as a way to provide access speeds over 20 times what you can get with a traditional modem. Cable modems are actually a variation of ethernet, 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 bi-directional.

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 Internet Service Provider industry. These small businesses can continue to survive by providing 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 Netscape 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 introduces frames-- a scrollable page within a page. Only viewable with Netscape 2.0.

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 radio. 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 museum will allow users to stroll down corridors, choosing where to explore.

More and more traditional software programs, such as word processors, are allowing users to output pages in Web-HTML. This is spreading to other software types-- Adobe PageMaker 6.0, for example, for desktop-published pages, while Software Publishing?s ASAP now allows you to output presentation slides to the Web. The layout limitations of HTML are being overcome as electronic publishing tools such as Adobe Acrobat merge with Web browsers.

-- Increased interactivity. Unix workstation manufacturer Sun has been promoting a C++-like language, Java, as perhaps the ultimate Web add-on. Java permits software developers to create Web-based applications... a user would download the application, to run on their own machine-- independent 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 matter. 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 Netscape replaces Microsoft as the dominant software company (a vision greeted with 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 returning to an updated version of the dumb-terminals of the ?70s. And until throughput increases dramatically, waiting to download a Java application is going to be sssslllooooowwww. And estimates of a sub-$500 Internet box have tended 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 pretty picture.

-- Better searches. Traditional (i.e. two years old) search engines 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 Canada?s Ojibwa Indians-- and she found lots... traditional stories, pictures of art and crafts from traditional and modern sources, and more. But she still had to weed this out from literally hundreds of so-called ?hits?... many about a herbal cancer treatment called Ojibwa tea, but too many others with no clear relation to her topic. Expect things to continue to improve.

-- Economic changes. Commercial content providers are waiting for micro-charges. Right now, no one is prepared for the bookkeeping involved in keeping track 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 more free reading of Time or PC Magazine... instead, expect a tiny charge against your credit card, every time you click on a commercial content provider?s page.

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 the availability of real information-- today?s content is still just a limited experiment.

The issue of credit-card security on the Web is overblown, but widely believed. Credit cards are not secure-- not when users quote numbers over phone lines to strangers, happily fill out blank credit-card forms to rent 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 perception that the Net is safe for commercial transactions. I?m not sure it will happen.

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 they established a presence on the Web without having a clear idea why, these sites will either be shut down or will simply be abandoned to stagnate. Other companies, with a more clear Internet business plan will, by contrast, flourish. Just like business in more traditional milieus, business on the Web will continue to require a lot of planning, an ongoing commitment to 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 material 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 easy 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 other fringe technologies have outgrown an early flirtation with pornography-- look at the evolution of home video rentals, for example.

This creates an opportunity for home-software based solutions, such as Vancouver?s NetNanny, which allows parents or teachers to set up a system 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?; at the current rate of change, a human year like 1996 should count for about 10 years in the life of the Web.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan