Like any stereotype, these negative assessments contain some grain of truth, though they often are true of an Internet that existed several years ago. They are far less relevant applied to the net of today, and nearly all off-base with respect to what we're about to see. Such criticisms always raise one question in my mind: If the Internet is so off-putting to so many people, why is it growing faster than any other online communications channel?
Analysts who point to the supposed benefits of commercial online service alternatives need ask themselves only one additional question: What if users of America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and the rest could not intercommunicate? Once the Internet -- or something so like it as to defeat comparison -- is seen as the only medium capable of connecting users of these otherwise isolated online communities, its necessity can no longer be debated. While this hardly addresses the many legitimate concerns about the evolution of the Internet, it pretty quickly puts to rest any notion that it may be a passing phenomenon, or one that will be replaced by some proprietary solution that somehow "gets it right."
Assuming the Internet is here to stay, but needs to improve along a number of dimensions, let's take a quick survey of some of the ways the Internet is changing -- and changing us.
One reason the Internet seems slow to some users is that they suddenly have access to far more than 7-bit ASCII text. Especially in the context of the World Wide Web, full multimedia has already arrived. Web clients like Cello and Mosaic can access and display a wide range of typography, full-color graphics, sound files, animation and even video. Anyone who accuses the Internet of being old-fashioned clearly has never experienced such an interface.
But better connectivity is already appearing on the near horizon. Personal modems will soon be able to transmit data at 28,800 bps instead of the current 14,400 limit. ISDN is beginning to become available in many markets, and several test-beds are even running Internet via Cable at Ethernet speeds. Also, as with much else in the computing arena -- costs are falling as availability increases. As Mitch Kapor once said, don't worry about bandwidth; it'll be there.
A more immediate concern for many users is the notorious difficulty of configuring TCP/IP for desktop use. There is a growing genre of horror literature associated with setting up even SLIP connections. However, these tales of terminal frustration have also been a clear signal of fast-mounting demand to the software community. As a result, we are seeing promises from this quarter that things will get a lot easier Real Soon Now. The company that first delivers on that promise will likely win big in the marketplace.
We are also about to see a whole new wave of Internet applications software. The race is currently on to license and productize tools that have long existed in the public domain. While some purists may cry foul, it's clear that Fortune-class companies opting for enterprise-wide Internet connectivity are going to demand fully supported, commercial grade products. In fact, this trend should be seen as a win for the Internet community as a whole. Much of the great software development that has benefited everyone on the net will be encouraged -- not thwarted -- by the potential for turning freeware into commercially viable products. Contrary to popular belief, even hackers have families to support; quality tools can't keep coming on a strictly pro bono basis. (I guess it's necessary to explain that I'm using "hacker" here in its older, positive sense. The bad guys are "crackers.")
The generic name for software that helps people find the information they need is "resource discovery tools." Given the rising volume of raw data on the net, these tools need to deliver a lot more in terms of both power and usability. And they already are. WAIS -- Wide Area Information Server technology -- offers a powerful search engine and set of electronic publishing tools. I have seen what WAIS, Inc. is doing with its version of the WAIS toolset and the Encyclopedia Britannica. I can't wait to see this capability delivered to a wide audience. Commercial-grade tools like this are also achieving better integration with the hypermedia capabilities of the World Wide Web. This intersection is crucial to strike the necessary balance between automated indexing and the explicit relationships among information resources that only expert human practitioners can supply.
A final but critical point on the technical front is the development of robust encryption and authentication tools. Many companies, such as Quadralay in Texas and Enterprise Integration Technologies in California, are actively working on such capabilities. Perhaps most indicative of the demand in this arena is the rapt attention the financial services industry has paid to EIT's demonstrations of CommerceNet. Giants like Bank of America, Citicorp and Visa are already positioning themselves to leverage the ability to conduct banking, credit-card and corporate financial transactions via the Internet. Those abilities are just around the corner today.
Although these technical developments are important and necessary elements in the Internet's coming of age, they do not in themselves circumscribe the net's core value. As long as the Internet is viewed solely in terms of technology, it will appear divorced from the central concerns of both business and the society at large. Similarly, personal computers once seemed the exclusive province of hobbyists and hackers, but we have since understood -- at least most of us have -- that the ramifications are far broader in scope.
For business, the Internet is the primary harbinger of a truly global economy. Markets, suppliers and human resources need no longer be geographically co-located. The net enables a powerful new kind of collaboration and coordination among widely distributed R&D groups, sales and marketing forces, customer bases and even traditional competitors. (On the last point, expect to hear the term "coopetition" with increasing frequency.) Telecommuting, recombinant virtual "swat teams," and continual corporate reengineering are all being enabled and effected through the Internet and the radical organizational changes it has already begun to catalyze.
The search for "best practices" -- typical of many Total Quality and benchmarking efforts -- is already extending, not only beyond enterprise and industry boundaries, but even across national borders. The Internet is fast becoming the primary channel for knowledge exchange, and any company -- or country -- that remains beyond its reach is placing itself at severe risk as this knowledge almost literally explodes across the planet.
Without the ability and willingness to nurture and internalize this knowledge, our personal fortunes and corporate aspirations will remain mere fantasies. For companies and individuals alike, the net is quickly becoming the resource of first recourse in the pursuit of lifelong learning. And ultimately, it is the potential it offers for shared understanding -- not wizz-bang interfaces, killer apps or monster bandwidth -- that explains why people are turning to the net in such enormous numbers. Looked at from the human angle, the future of the Internet looks a lot like, well... the future.