Because so many organizations are linked, with more being added every day, connecting to the Internet is a very attractive alternative to building a private network. Many companies justify joining the Internet to be more accessible to customers, and to have the ability to consult with experts around the world. Just providing Internet connectivity services, consulting, and training is a big business. A growing number of Internet providers—large and small—are competing to connect businesses and schools to the Internet.
Just as there is a "Net Code of Conduct," there is also an accepted way of doing business over the Internet. The basic tenet of participation is "you should give as well as receive," but emailing direct-mail advertisements in hopes of receiving more sales is not considered "giving" by members of the Internet community. Businesses that do well provide information in a "passive" manner—that is, by making available an archive of their information and catalogs so people can search when they want to. People definitely don't appreciate being bombarded with glowing descriptions of products, but an outsider giving an objective review or recommendation is considered okay.
Demand for online interactive services is definitely heating up. The types of virtual corporations that are emerging include online bookstores that let you peruse or download online books or order a hardcopy book. There are similar services for record stores and online magazines. An online florist service lets customers first view an arrangement and then click a button to order. Other companies and individuals are selling jewelry, music, software, and support, and providing consulting and training, all online. Not only can you use the Internet to provide a service or distribute a product, but you can also use it to find out the latest business news. Stock reports, the NASDAQ Financial Executive Journal, and Commerce Business Daily are just some of the useful information resources available—for free—via the Internet.
Businesses should pay attention to the Internet because of the power the consumer now has to shape their products and services. A negative comment is not heard locally anymore—it's blasted around the world, announced on mailing lists, or forwarded via email. Some people are maintaining databases of reviews and complaints about products and services—accessible and searchable by anyone on the Internet. Consider this a true story: A man who was researching a real-estate investment called for comments via an Internet public interest group devoted to concerns and issues in Austin, Texas. Within days, many people had responded with recommendations and complaints about various agencies and real-estate professionals. The man compiled a report based on these comments and circulated it. The whole process took two weeks.
For many people, the Internet is an all-around good deal. People who have access to it through an organization, such as a university or a large company, don't have to worry about how much they use the Internet.
Their communications with people from all over the world and accesses to most information resources are not going to show up itemized on a long-distance bill, because the leased lines or network links are already paid for. (This is the way it was in the past, at least. One major Internet provider is starting to investigate "volume charging"—meaning it'll charge each user for the amount of information that's transferred.) For members of networks that don't charge by the packet (a packet is a unit of information), the Internet is like an "all-you-can-eat" buffet.
Even though you may not be charged a long-distance fee to reach a resource, the service on the other end may charge by the minute, by the hour, or by the job. Think of a highway with no tollbooths. You can drive all you want on the highway (the Internet), but you pay for most of the services and goods you stop for along the way. Right now, most of the rest stops on the Internet are free, but more and more "mom-and-pop" diners are springing up.
Individual users who don't have the benefit of organization apron-string links, in contrast, must get their access from commercial Internet providers, public-access Internet sites, or a digital-rich uncle who gives away access through public accounts. Access for those with a computer and a modem is usually through a local telephone call to a modem-pool/terminal server or to another computer. The costs can vary, but many commercial providers charge a flat-rate monthly fee that isn't bad considering the potential gain of instant worldwide communication. Some providers charge as little as $30 U.S. per month for unlimited electronic mail. But, just as the telephone system still doesn't quite reach everyone worldwide, Internet access is not always easily available or reasonable. Many people in remote areas or countries outside the United States must make expensive long-distance calls to send and receive electronic mail or to access resources. Often isolated, and desiring human contact and access to information, they find the extra cost worth it—if they can afford it.
Today communication and access to information are still the most popular applications, but the Internet is getting a face-lift. We are starting to see more user-friendly interfaces that make this worldwide web "transparent." That is to say, the network and computer are becoming integrated in the home and office, performing important, vital functions without making users aware of the nitty-gritty details.
One such interface is known as Mosaic, and it's been referred to as the new "killer application" of the Internet. Mosaic has worked wonders for the Internet's user-unfriendly reputation, but it is considered a wide load on the infobahn—meaning, it's hogging the road. It requires a lot of transfers of sometimes large amounts of data across the networks, and this can cause congestion, not unlike the traffic jams we experience on today's streets and highways.
Our experience with Mosaic is providing us with insight into the future. Tomorrow's applications will require faster networking technology, and network researchers are working on building higher-speed networks. High speed in the future will be gigabit-per-second speeds. For example, an entire encyclopedia could be transferred in a few seconds on a gigabit-per-second network.
The encyclopedia metric is often used to describe how fast the network will be, but it's important to realize that although some advanced applications, such as video conferencing, will require high speeds, this increased capacity will also be used to handle the growing number of people who will be using the network. You can compare this additional capacity to a ten-lane highway. The number of lanes does not enable you to drive ten times faster. It just allows more cars to travel at the same time.
We will need to widen the road, especially if the Internet continues to grow at its present rate (and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down). It's estimated that in a few short years, there will be 100 million people interconnected via the Internet.
Most likely, they will be communicating with one another by using interactive video and audio applications or email that incorporates multimedia; already there are such applications being used in schools, universities, research labs, and some businesses.
With that, you're probably revving your engines and ready to race toward your computer. However, before you start typing, there's some background material and a few fundamental concepts you have to learn before graduating from Junior Birdsman to Internet Top Gun. So on to Chapter 2, for the "lowdown" of the Internet.
Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.