Will the Internet become the information superhighway? Or will it be an umbrella over a commercial superhighway? Or will it be something totally separate? What has to happen to make the Internet commercially viable?
According to a panel of industry executives and observers at SCO Forum94, held in Santa Cruz, CA, last month, no one has definitive answers to those questions yet. But opinions abound.
The panel agreed that commercial interests will find a networking infrastructure to meet their needs. But the Internet will have to change to accommodate large-scale commercial activity-and it may not want to change.
"There will be an information superhighway," said George Favaloro, director of technical planning for Compaq Computer. "There are a lot of interests that line up and make it very important for the country to have an infrastructure like that." It's not clear what the Internet's role will be, he said.
The Internet has both strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths can be exploited, said John Paul, senior vice president of products at Banyan Systems. "We need to use the hype surrounding the information superhighway to get new users exploring the Internet," Paul said. "When they get their new PC and take it home, after a day or two they say 'Is this it?' Get those people on the Internet and communicating with us. I think you will find ways to sell them things."
Selling things is based on the value of the application or the tool, said Kc Branscomb, senior vice president of corporate development at Lotus. Therefore-for software developers, at least-it's not so important what the infrastructure turns out to be as whether their application meets the customer's needs. "The medium isn't the message," Branscomb said. "The message is what's important. Try to build an application that is specific and unique to the information-gathering needs of the customers. There will be multiple backbones. The key is to get the application right."
Branscomb called "this superhighway thing" a misnomer. "The whole evolution to a large-scale, extended enterprise or public network is an organic process," she said. "It's much more like the food industry or even entertainment than like transportation. By focusing on an information highway, we have somehow gotten off track and lost where we should be investing."
Favaloro declared that for the Internet to become a commercial backbone, it may have to evolve into something different from what it is now. "What the Internet is might not be at all what the information superhighway is. The Internet right now is a great big information repository and question-answering service," he said. That's an important service but there's a lot of economic and political power behind the creation of a more robust information infrastructure. "It may be that the Internet evolves into something that can accommodate the commercial interests," he said. "It might also mean that they diverge. It's too early to be able to address that question." Now, the Internet is simply a forerunner, he said.
What factors keep the Internet from being commercially useful?
While reliability of services and naming are issues to be resolved, changing the Internet has to be done carefully. "We have to remember that the strength of the Internet is its organic nature and its community of effort," Paul said. "So I don't think we want one big body that's going to somehow manage the growth of the Internet. At the same time, just realize that that causes a problem with the reliability of services. But let's not turn the Internet into something that it isn't."
The Internet's biggest strengths, Paul said, are its ability to connect people personally through e-mail, boosted by the recent surge in people naming their Internet addresses, as well as the availability of newsgroups. "The number one attribute is connectivity," he said. "You need to have people that you can be connected to. The Internet is the most widespread network in the world, and mail is the number one application." For newsgroups to work, "You need a large population to contribute. You can have some pretty obscure little newsgroups on the Internet, but because there are so many people attached, you can actually find that the 20 people in the world who are interested in that subject have a way to talk to each other. I think that's a great strength of the Internet."
In addition, "There is just a lot of information out there lying around wanting to be read but no one can find it. Mosaic is the killer application for finding that information."