What's in store...?

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A., 1994 By Kennedy Maize. Remember citizens' band radio? "10-4, good buddy, this is Hot Cha Cha signing off from I-70, where we got us a convoy and Smokey is nowhere in sight."

CB was a big hit and big news. A series of "Smokey and the Bandit" movies glorified the CB culture. "Convoy" was a hit record on vinyl (remember that?). The Federal Communications Commission was overwhelmed with the mail-in CB licenses. The airwaves were filled with a chaotic cacophony.

Then it vanished, pretty much overnight, just another consumer electronics fad that had its Warholian 15 minutes of fame and flamed out, like Pong and Winky Dink and You.

Today, there are some niches where CB still has a use. But the crazy, demonic, democratic vision of the online citizenry that CB pioneered is gone from the radio waves, replaced by yuppies with cell phones and radar detectors and drug dealers with beepers.

That, I suspect, is the future of the Internet -- the rocket-like takeoff, the brief ascent into orbit, and then the crash of reality, leaving a hardcore cadre of users but no permanent impact. The CB radio of the 1990s.

Two pieces of evidence. Last month, a survey of corporate information systems managers at a Dunn & Bradstreet conference found that 75 percent believe the government will reach its goal to have the National Information Infrastructure in place by 2015. But 73 percent said they do not currently use the Internet and 52 percent don't have Internet access in their offices.

Next, it appears that estimates of the number of people who use the Internet may be vastly exaggerated. The most common estimates -- 20 to 32 million people -- are based on counting the number of computers hooked into the net and multiplying by 10, on the assumption that each computer has 10 discrete users.

Network Wizards, a Menlo Park, California firm, says there are 3.2 million net host computers.

But Internet demographer John Quartermain in Austin, Texas, believes this estimate is wildly overstated. He thinks a more reasonable multiplier is 3.5 users per computer and that the number of active hosts is about 740,000 machines, not 3.2 million. That means the total population of Netheads is about three million. And since about half of all net users are in the US, the domestic Internet population is about 1.5 million. That's a big number, but not nearly as dramatic as 32 million.

On top of that, not all those users are fully interactive. Many hosts are building "firewalls" around their systems to protect security.

So the next time you hear the hype about the Internet being the first lane of the information superhighway, just remember CB radio. 10-4, good buddy.

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