Paul Lavin looks a back
on a busy year



The second World Wide Web convention...

...was held in Chicago and capped a year of explosive growth of the Web.

Monthly growth rates of 20 to 30 percent are reported for Web server sites and business, educational institutions, governments and private individuals are publishing Web pages at an incalculable rate...

In 1994, the Internet and the Web took an important step from TSIWC* to TSIGGETU**, according to Paul Evans Peters, librarian, chairman of the Coalition for Networked Information and 2nd World Wide Web convention keynote speaker. However, based on the content of the seminar sessions at the Convention, the Web has quite a way to go before it gets to TSIBDETMM***, IMHO.

While sprinkling the over capacity audience with a highly humorous account of past and future Web happenings, Evans explained that the Web was moving beyond the phase of cheap stunts, brilliant hacks and the acts of ignorance and desperation that characterised the initial steps of the networked information age. He forecast that the value of Internet and the Web will increase as the number of users and their diversity increases. It is, he explained scatologically, almost good enough to use.

The forecast that Web traffic, worldwide, will exceed voice telephone traffic in the next two to three years held special fascination for Evans. He seemed to think that no further evidence was required that the Internet and the Web are set to produce striking technical and social changes over the next few years. Certainly, the Web is leaving its educational origins behind without yet ruffling many tenured feathers and its impact thus far on the commercial sphere has been minimal but oak trees come from somewhere, eh?

It does one a power of good to reflect just where the Web came from. It was originally a project at CERN (some nuke research joint in Geneva) that enabled scientists to share textual and graphical data with colleagues across the corridor or across the globe, using the Internet and a set of home-brew protocols. From those humble beginnings we now have a juggernaut that is setting in train its own standards organisations and preparing to wag the very dog that created it.

Tim Berners Lee, the man from CERN credited with the invention of the Web, also emphasised in his keynote address the need for concentrating on the social and ethical issues presented by the Web rather than the technical networking challenges. He provided a brief, but essential, outline on the mechanisms for promulgating changes in the Web: W3O -the World Wide Web Organisation.

Lee is moving from CERN to MIT in order to lead the formation of a consortium that will be open to all and cast in the role of a neutral convenor following the model of the X Consortium (that also arose from MIT). Rather than a technology provider, Lee sees W3O as an indirect supporter and educator about the Web.

Lee does not want competitive commercial action in the world of the Web but a saw a definite requirement for collaboration from all parties to move the Web forward along several dimensions. (Is this man in touch with the same reality as Bill Gates, Bob Frankenberg or William Gerstner?) Lee recognised the need for significant advances in automatability, extensibility, scalability, efficiency and robustness before the Web reaches its truly global spread. All this must be accomplished, he said, while providing for authentication, privacy and integrity of the networks involved.

In short, even its creator thinks that it is still too hard to use, very scary for commercial transactions and faced with architectural crunch. But as the only vendor-independent Internet multimedia ‘application’ around, it worth a good run.

GIVE US BANDWIDTH, O LORD

A subsidiary goal of W3O, according to Berners Lee, was to avoid the creation of ‘plug potatoes’ by making the Web more interactive, by bringing in quasi-real time and person-to-person capabilities. He raised the suggestion that the Web could at some future date become a video conferencing resource. He raised the spectre of usage based charging as a means of allocating Internet resources.

Judging from the ‘biz’ buzz at the Convention, real commercial exploitation of the Internet is just around the corner for 1995, unsettled issues notwithstanding. Businesses that have hidden under their duvets are waking up and smelling the coffee. I arrive at this conclusion partially because the T shirts out numbered the suits-and-ties by only five to one. At earlier Internet gatherings-of- the-tribes there was a much greater bias in the direction of the t shirts and jeans, long hair, beards and other techie badges of honour.

Indicative of the corner being turned by the Internet and Web, several major vendors made their presence known at the Convention. IBM and Digital, to name two, were out in force trying to surf on the Internet wave. Sun and SCO, two companies with recent Internet products, however, were rather oddly under- represented.

IBM provided RS/6000 workstations for the assembled multitudes to connect to the Internet. The Blue One was also busy showing off Web Explorer that is now bundled in a free BonusPak with the new OS/2 Warp. The competent browser was received enthusiastically but it is hard to see how a free copy of Web Explorer is any better than a free copy of Cello, Mosaic or any of the other readily FTP-able Web browsers, though. The IBM Network promises to be a big earner for the future.

Digital is getting its Internet house in order. They, too, will be bundling a Web browser with every PC sold in the US but there was no word as to whether this policy would extend to the UK in the future. Digital were quite keen to emphasize their ability to provide a firewall security package for tremulous corporate users hot to get on the Internet bandwagon but wary of the hacker menace.

Microsoft was there, too, with stickers saying "On the Internet, no one can tell you are using NT". I suspect that they might not know that there is a popular cartoon showing two mongrels in front of a PC saying "On the Internet, no one can tell you are a dog." It also had echoes of "In space, no one can hear you scream". In this majority crowd of non-commercially motivated Websters, Microsoft are indeed Aliens.

The gentlepersons from Microsoft attending the Convention were quick to assert the suitability of NT as a Web server but were slow to say just when it would be a supported product. There are a few sites using the http server software (including www.microsoft.com) that can be obtained from EMWAC (emwac.ed.ac.uk), and, what do you know, you can’t tell that you are connected to an NT machine. It’s ingenious the way they made it look and run like UNIX!

It is uncertain if the unfolding of the Web will benefit large companies, like IBM and Microsoft, or small companies more. With a cheap Intel based Web server and a 64 Kb leased line, an enterprising Web capitalist could build a shopping mall in their cellar. However, at this stage of the game, it still takes a large marketing budget to push Web presence into a broad enough public awareness for it to make commercial sense. Ultimately, the Web looks likely to be a great leveller of commercial promotion.

Educators and publishers were out in force at the Web convention. But making better education cheaper and hypertext publishing are such an obvious Web applications (check out the interactive frog dissection at http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/~insttech/frog) that they bear no further examination here. However, enthusiastic Web educators and publishers are a bit like turkeys voting for an early Christmas! The sweeping changes in those areas occasioned by Web replacements will wreck havoc with staid institutions. The commercial interests of publishers await a resolution of the micro-transaction dilemma, about which more follows.

Because business is about to arrive in force, a new battlefront is forming to set the standards for the Internet’s World Wide Web browser software. Mosaic, the first example of graphical Web browser software, has been distributed free to millions of Internet users around the world. It has spawned a competitive field that includes NetScape (known as Mozilla in beta), SlipKnot, Air Mosaic, Tapestry, WinWeb, Enhanced Mosaic and others.

IS FREE GOOD ENOUGH?

Today most Web browser software is free for the asking. This is changing, however, as the Web turns from an academic experiment to a commercial marketplace, according to David Mooring, Marketing Consultant at PIPEX.

"The business model for Internet software is undergoing rapid evolution. Right now the browsers are available cheap and the server software is quite commercial. The world’s academic institutions and their talented students have started the Web ball rolling, but the time is rapidly approaching for a more commercialised approach, say the commercial Web software vendors."

The primary focus of the new browser contenders, like the Netscape Communications Corporation’s NetScape, are 40 million or so Windows desktops. And most of those efforts of the commercial browser companies are aimed at increasing performance for legions of 14.4 Kb modem users. Once the bugs are under control and support is available for paying customers, the next level of differentiation for Web browsers is speed. By poaching most of the talent that created Mosaic at the University of Illinois’s NCSA, including star programmer Mark Andreesson, NCC has a head start on the pack.

An important time saving feature of NetScape is that you can click to your next hypertext link before the rest of the page has completed transfer. You can also use more than one copy of Netscape at the same time. A final release version, available free on the Internet, looks to be out before the end of the year complete with security appendages ready for commercial exploitation.

NetScape gets some of its speed by exploiting the multi-tasking capabilities of Windows and using some non-standard trickery in its own home pages. While they have been open about their use of new http features, their enhancements are just ignored by other browsers. Standards promulgation has its performance problems, too.

Also present at the Convention was Spyglass, the company that now has almost exclusive distribution rights for the original NCSA Mosaic. Sales of Enhanced Mosaic by Spyglass are said to have reached 10 million copies and AT&T has adopted it for internal use and distribution. The ‘enhanced’ prefix comes from the work invested by commercial programmers to increase Mosaic’s stability, reduce its system requirements and improve performance.

Other Web browser products aspire to fulfil the promise of a single box solution. Spry’s Air Series includes TCP/IP networking software along with a ruggedised browser. Since one of the highest hurdles to pass in getting a computer on the Internet (or the Web) is integrating the various applications (like browsers) and the networking, the all-in-one packages have some allure. Sales of the box product are now said to have reached 10,000 in the US.

Here in the UK, Internet providers like PIPEX have created their own Internet in a box. "There is a huge market that needs to explore the Internet and it is starting from scratch," observed PIPEX’s Mooring. "We find that a large number of businesses are taking our PIPEX Solo package when originally we thought that its appeal would be more for hobbyists or home users. It just goes to prove that Internet connectivity at all points of the business spectrum is an immediate issue."

The big challenge for all the new browser software companies is to get people to pay for what can be had either free or ‘free’. Microsoft, Lotus and Novell are all adept at turning market share points into big money with ‘free’ software. The Web browser software confrontation, however, is over software that is, for all of its current and many future users, utterly free and has grown up in the Internet culture that is based on voluntarism. It may be a tough transition for the young companies and users.

WHAT GOES UP...

While many new and interesting products were debuted and forecast, the Convention also saw the demise of at least one ambitious idea: MecklerWeb. Imagine the position that the COO Bill Washburn was in when he addressed a seminar on ‘The Commercialisation and Economics of Web’ having read in the Wall Street Journal that he was almost certainly out of a job because one of the founders was pulling the plug!

Washburn’s extemporaneous explanation was that the ‘hold outs’, those companies that were initially enthusiastic about the concept but were reluctant to part with money, killed the project. What actually happened may have been the cold hand of old style business-think wanting to turn a large profit instantaneously - it didn’t happen and so MecklerWeb died before it had a chance to fly. MecklerWeb may have been too early for its own good, a case of being just six months ahead of the market. MecklerWeb was asking for 25,000 a pop for a Web presence for its Blue Chip prospect list.

"That was unrealistic for this stage in the development of the Web. Most interested companies want to get their feet wet before they take a big plunge," explained Peter Dawe, managing director of PIPEX. "PIPEX is offering space on their World Server for much, less than what Meckler was trying to squeeze out of inexperienced customers while providing a Web publishing platform that is unequalled in the UK or Europe. We are looking for opportunities to partner with Web pioneers such as Ernst and Young. We were able to publish their full budget analysis at the same time that the information was on its way to the printers. Which was, I hasten to add, a long time before the Postal Service was able to drop it on the thousands of their client’s mats the next day or the day after."

Before commerce, large or small, is possible on the Web, issues revolving around security and payment must be answered. All of the browser companies were at the recent Web Conference in Chicago, touting their views on secure communications and innovative forms of electronic money. The second generation browsers are now warming up in the wings to take advantage of new payment methods that essentially re-invent money to suit Internet on-line opportunities.

NEW MONEY

Many Internet users are hesitant to broadcast their bank or credit card details across the global network fearing the attentions of thieves and nuisancemongers that could filter out their financial details from network traffic. This cautionary hesitation often means that some additional form of communication by fax, telephone call or letter is necessary before consummating a transaction, providing an obstacle that deters impulse buyers.

The Internet presents shoppers and resellers with another, new problem, too. Selling information or software on the Net could be big business for information providers but regular credit card charges are too dear for Net micro-transactions.

Imagine if you wanted access a collection of my previous editorial contributions (or, perhaps more practically, a Which? evaluation of refrigerator/freezer). That information could be worth perhaps 10 p for each article. If thousands of shoppers ‘bought’ that information there would be a good return for the author/publisher. However, the cost of a credit card transaction would be several times the magnitude of the information purchased, perhaps making micro-information too dear for widespread sales.

First Virtual Holdings has brought together EDS (Electronic Data Systems - a division of General Motors) and First USA Merchant Services, a rapidly growing US credit card company and created a fast efficient way to buy information on line. Unlike other Internet payment systems, FVH is focusing only on buying information available on line; sellers of goods or services off line are not in the FVH game plan for the moment.

Spending money has never been easier! When an Internet shopper finds an article, software or other information that they wish to purchase, they request the item quoting their FVH account number. The buyer gets to download the material immediately after FVH verifies the account number for the vendor. FVH then sends an electronic mail (email) message to the buyer. The buyer responds to the email one of three ways: yes, no or fraud. FVH will not debit the buyers account until they have had confirmation. Abuse by buyers that repeatedly receive information and decline to pay will result in account closure.

While a positive step, FVH’s transactions may not be micro- enough. Sellers will pay a fee of US$0.29 cents for each transaction plus 2 per cent. Sellers also pay a US$1 processing fee when payments are made to their account. This is fine for ten quids worth of software but no where near small enough for the snow storm of penny transactions that may come to revolutionise the information economy.

DigiCash, another electronic money hopeful, launched a global trial of its electronic cash (ecash) system at the Web conference. Ecash allows you to ‘click and pay’ when using the popular NCSA Mosaic Web browser.

Ecash provides more than impulse purchasing power. Like real paper money, it is anonymous, calming the fears of users that do not want their transactions monitored by electronic marketing junk email programs or big brother. Ecash also offers the same security as cash for both the buyer and seller. The software for both paying and receiving payment is free of charge but the card companies will take their cut. At the Convention, DigiCash released one million cyberbucks, making them the first electronic bank notes in circulation. The DigiCash system will enter full commercial use pending the outcome of the test.

The Cybercash Internet payment system, yet another brand of Internet lucre, simply seeks to leverage current credit card systems by adding security. Cybercash involves running a free program on their computer that encrypts their ordinary credit card number so that it will be safe from net-thieves. This offer added security to the convenience of using a payment system that is already familiar. However, still much too expensive for micro-transactions.

A European Union ESPRIT project called CAME (Conditional Access for Europe) is attempting to develop the equivalent of an electronic wallet for use in within Europe. The project is examining the use of smart cards or even existing personal digital assistants (PDAs) to create secure and convenient electronic money for use both on line and off. ICL, Bull and Seimens Nixdorf all have their noses in this Euro feedbag along with DigiCash.

It is not clear which Internet payment system will win the day but the backers of each system are taking pains to make it clear that there is room for several. Web browser software is adept at taking plug in software modules and provisions are being made to make sure that any form of electronic payment will move money. However, it will take a global organisation and a mega marketing spend for whatever it is that ‘wins’ to elbow its way onto the world stage. This means that Microsoft and their recent connection to VISA International bears careful watching.

Other Web related problems (or in American English, challenges) aired were the perennial difficulty associated with finding what you are looking for. This is especially so where Web URLs may go dead after a brief amount of time. Sorcerer/Apprentice, Harvest, WebMap and Web Link were all proposed as partial solutions to the ‘find it’ conundrum.

The Web Convention was a glimpse of an on-line future that some will welcome, some will fear and others will find no more noteworthy than wallpaper. Roll on the day that teleworking and teleshopping replaces M25 queues, air pollution and provides informational access for all.

The Fall ’94 Convention forecasts a world that isn’t five or ten years in the future but just around the corner in 1995.


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