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The Internet’s Past & Future


by Olen R. Pearson & Chris Coffin


"Where did the Internet come from?"
The Internet was conceived in the 1960’s at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an office of the U.S. Department of Defense. The idea was to ease the bottlenecks in computer communications. At that time, two computers could communicate only via a single line—and only one computer message could use the line at a time. If you cut the line, you cut the link—like a railroad—and lost the message.
     What ARPA did was to begin transmitting computer messages in small parts, called packets, so that each independently addressed packet could be transmitted to its destination in any order and by any available line. When all the packets of a given message had arrived at the destination, they were simply reassembled there into the original message.
     In this way, each line could carry many computer messages at once. Instead of message "trains" that stacked up waiting to use the "rail line," one at a time, they were now broken down into independent cars, all traveling a highway at once—to various destinations.
     Not only did this packeting protocol address the computer communications bottleneck problems, it also made transmissions much more reliable. Since the packets of any given message might travel along many different lines, a break in any one line would lose only a few packets from the message. The remainder would arrive safely (via other, unbroken lines) at the receiving computer, which could then detect the missing packets and signal the sending computer to re-send only those. Few messages were totally lost, and any partial losses were quickly corrected. Clearly this was advantageous militarily for computer links, which are vulnerable to the noise and interference of modern warfare. But contrary to common belief, the Internet was not designed specifically to "harden" computer communications against attack. Though developed by the Pentagon, the packeting system’s original purpose was simply to relieve computer traffic jams.
     Thus in 1969, a group of four computer systems (at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Univ. of Utah, and Stanford Research Inst.) began to communicate in packets and ARPANet was born. Its protocol proved very efficient. During the 1970’s, many more government, industry, research, and educational computer networks adopted it, and e-mail and news group address schemes were soon developed to reconstruct packets into messages of other useful types. Such inter-network ("Internet") communications became the standard.
     The current standard packeting scheme, called TCP/IP ("Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol"), was formally established in 1982. By then, the number of networks connected to the Internet had multiplied greatly, but its use was still generally limited to the transmission of technical text and data—by those who could operate the rather user-unfriendly computers of the day. Those computers used an operating system called UNIX, still used at many technical institutions. UNIX is very large and powerful but rather cryptic—lots of abbreviated commands to type (no point-and-click). In fact, the DOS operating system for PC’s is really just a smaller set of commands adapted from UNIX (which explains the move to the more user-friendly Windows operating system today). The Internet was still difficult and in-accessible for the general public.
     That all changed, however, beginning with the explosion of personal computing in the 1980’s. With so many more individuals using computers, demand soon grew for better, friendlier computer communication.
     Then in the early 1990’s, an additional Internet addressing scheme was added, to allow the information packets to represent a more complex type of message. No longer limited to text-only sorts of transmissions (e.g. e-mail or news groups), now you can send and receive entire pages of text, pictures, sound—almost any sort of information. That’s what the World Wide Web really is: It’s information stored on computers all of the world—viewable by anyone via the Internet and its data packeting scheme.


"What does the Internet look like?"
Well, what does the phone system look like? It’s a collection of wires and switches and cables that ties together all the various local phone companies and ex-changes. Each local company, in turn, has the hardware to connect all the phones in its local area.
     Similarly, as of 1997, the Internet has joined over 275,000 networks, some 25 million host computers, and hundreds of millions of users in 150 countries. The U.S. portion is supported by national ISPs, "backbones" spanning the nation with high-speed data lines. Each backbone connects to on-line services, smaller ISPs, and other networks operated by educational, government, business and other concerns. Those local networks, in turn, offer connection to their clients—employees, businesses, households, etc. Thus, each data packet has many possible routes.


"Where is the Internet going?"
First of all, there’s the technology question, which is fascinating. In a nutshell: information devices will continue to get faster, smarter, and more mobile.
     Faster This doesn’t mean you will have to go any faster. It means you won’t have to wait so much for the Internet to keep up with you (i.e. no more jokes about the "World Wide Wait"). Advances in modems, wire-less transmitters, and optical cabling will soon allow this. Eventually, just as your cable TV receives signals that are fast enough now for live video, so a cabled or wireless or accelerated Internet will be able to receive and send live-action video. Voilá—true videophones: you’ll be able to talk and wave to Grandma!
     Smarter You will be talking not only with other people, but with your computer, too. Voice recognition and audio output (via headphones and microphones) may be as standard as keyboard and mouse. Coming soon, also, are large, flat video screens that you’ll be able to hang on a wall like picture frames.
     More mobile Imagine an all-purpose personal in-formation appliance, a small battery-operated device, the size of a cellular phone, that sends and receives wireless signals via the Internet. In addition to doing e-mail and the Web, it will be your videophone, pager and answering machine. It will have a small built-in screen or a headset-and-eyeglasses option.
     To learn more about these trends, watch for news articles or debates on these issues and technologies:

Standardization of software. Every brand of computer must communicate seamlessly with every other.

HDTV (High-Definition TV). Up to now, the technical specs for TV’s and computer screens were different, but as the line between the Internet and TV blurs, manufacturers are debating a new standard video format: smoother, sharper, wider—like a movie screen.

Flat-screen display technology. No more heavy, hot picture tubes. Instead, flat screens will use millions of tiny crystals—like a digital watch.

Display and processor speeds. Faster screens and computers are more comfortable to use. There is less flicker on the screen and less waiting for the computer.

Batteries and power usage. The more juice you can put into a smaller, lighter (rechargeable) battery, the more independent you are with your portable devices.

"Pipeline" capacity. The old phone lines that carry Internet data (quite slowly) to your computer weren’t designed for it, of course. But soon, data delivery speeds will rise, as modems and compression schemes improve, or as cable or satellite systems come on-line.

"Pipeline" regulation. Like a power company, whoever owns the Internet cable to your house has a monopoly that will need regulation to keep rates reasonable.
     Now, how will all this coming Internet technology affect your life? One word: Individuality.

     Organizations, businesses and government will cater more toward you as an individual: With easier, more flexible communication between top and bottom, you’ll see "flatter," more democratic structures—fewer levels of authority. Now you can communicate instantly (and cheaply) with anyone in the world, via voice or e-mail. And coming soon: two-way video.
     With the Web ever more informative and interactive, you’ll be more self-reliant in your consumer life, too. You’ll use fewer salespersons, brokers and other "middlemen," but more media and consumer reporting. So we may see more "overnight sensations" in the marketplace and higher volatility in financial markets.
     With a whole world to shop in, you’ll no longer accept cookie-cutter production and mass-marketing of generic products. If a vendor doesn’t offer more or less exactly what you want, you’ll just go elsewhere. This will put more emphasis on custom-built or build-on-demand products, with more competitive pricing.
     Smarter search engines and Web sites will help you find and order any product or service on the planet; in-store shopping may therefore decline. Information products will actually be "shipped" over the Internet, too: books, films, music, news, performances, live events, banking, education, consulting, and other professional services. Thus we may see more disputes over privacy, intellectual property, international commerce/tariffs, censorship and national security.
     To pay for your purchases, you will be able to use your current charge cards—via high-security data encryption. Or, you may be able to use "metered" accounts (similar to your electric bill) set up and administered by your ISP or bank.
     With the information glut ever growing, you’ll demand better and more specialized media to help you filter and organize it all: more news and editorial sources, more screening, security and privacy tools.

Got a product or service to peddle? You’ll be able to publicize it much more easily, via the Web. But with everyone else doing the same thing, actual selling will be as hard as ever. Your ads will need to be smarter and more content-rich. You will need fewer true salespersons, but more who are highly skilled in creative multi-media, graphics and written communication.
     If this all sounds too fast-paced and jam-packed, keep in mind that you’ll have more flexibility in your job, too—hours, benefits, job descriptions—with more home-based work and less business travel. Likewise, your schooling will be more flexible (but more continuous), needing fewer traditional physical campuses but more for multimedia curricula. You’ll customize everywhere, thereby making the Internet right for you.


From The Family Internet Pocket Guide, by Olen R. Pearson & Chris Coffin. Copyright © 1998 by Olen R. Pearson & Grapevine Publications, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with & Grapevine Publications, Inc. $3.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-338-4331, or click here.