We're all snared by the Web

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The Independent Online

To the middle-aged man pecking nervously at the computer keys, it was a momentous event: he was going to buy his wife some flowers online, his first-ever Internet transaction. He was so fearful of getting it horribly wrong, he had the instructions written out line by line, key by key. Happily, he succeeded in placing the order - even if the flowers went to the wrong address.

To the middle-aged man pecking nervously at the computer keys, it was a momentous event: he was going to buy his wife some flowers online, his first-ever Internet transaction. He was so fearful of getting it horribly wrong, he had the instructions written out line by line, key by key. Happily, he succeeded in placing the order - even if the flowers went to the wrong address.

Buying flowers online was a key moment for Tony Blair, who in September finally took the plunge onto the Net, readily admitting his lack of knowledge. For a leader who evangelises the importance of the Internet to this country's future, he was a long way behind the millions of Britons who this year finally "got" the Net - not just in terms of hooking up to it, but in understanding what it could do for them, and what they could use it for.

To realise how much is changing, one only has to stand, as I did recently, in a queue for undelivered parcels at a post office. A significant number had been dispatched from "e-commerce" sites (as indeed had mine). It bears out what people have sensed: this Christmas has been the first where people have been confident enough to log on and buy things, untroubled by the bogeymen of pornography and fraud.

It also emphasises another fact: the Internet's ethereal nature does not necessarily do away with physical things. We still like reading books. But we have found a new bookshop where the shelves are endless, and they sell records too.

This time last year, The Independent 's observation was that in 1998, Britons arrived on the Web: about 7.5 million people, or 16 per cent of the adult population, had Net connections. This year the number doubled, thanks to hundreds (literally) of companies offering subscription-free Internet access. About 35 per cent of the population is now online, and the uptake shows no signs of slowing down: the average "free" Net user spends 400 minutes per month online, 80 per cent of it in the evening or at the weekend, when call costs are 1p per minute.

Those costs will fall next spring, with BT buckling under commercial pressure to offer "unmetered" Internet access for a rental price, a key step towards the American model (where Internet take-up is two or three years ahead of the UK).

Two more significant steps will happen next year, one in "wired" connectivity, the other - maybe more important - in "unwired" connection to mobile phones. Next spring, BT and cable operators will introduce a super-high-speed connection technology called ADSL, which will be at least four times faster than the fastest modems, and will always be on.

Meanwhile we will see mobile phones able to download distilled versions of Web pages, via a technology called WAP (Wireless Applications Protocol). Europe is ahead of the US in this development, which will mean that if you're lost, you will be able to dial up a map; if you're hungry, you'll be able to get critiques of nearby restaurant in moments.

But don't expect perfection. The promise of the Net is that you will get something that works; the reality is that it does, but only just. Like civilisation, the Net is something that we build on every day, but its underlying ethos - and flaws - remain.

Notably, the presumption by the Net's academic inventors that access to data should be free still predominates. Subscription-based websites (except for pornography) struggle. So businesses find it more useful to make data available, and benefit from the visitors - and commerce - that brings.

This year BT, the Post Office and the Encyclopaedia Britannica all put some of their most precious data - respectively, their phonebooks, postcode database and book contents - online for free. The Oxford English Dictionary will follow next March. Why? To get more people to use their services (or for the encyclopaedia, to buy the CD-ROM - because nobody buys the bound volumes any more).

The passing of reference books in favour of the Net or CD-ROMs is another key change. Information is going digital. This year, music (in the MP3 format) and films (through DVDs) became a consumer form; a year ago, Dixon's staff would have looked at you blankly had you asked for an MP3 player. Now, you have the choice of half a dozen.

Next year will probably be the year for digital cameras and camcorders. Books, film, CDs, DVDs are not malleable (but user-friendly) end points; digital forms are easier to edit and transmit.

From this vantage point, we are just now able to see how the Net could influence our lives. It brings people together in wide-ranging and subtle ways. Family members in distant countries can stay in touch by e-mail. Children's homework is transformed. People who have never met physically can establish relationships online. Your "community" is no longer geographical or even physical. And "e-commerce" is reality, beside being a tedious buzzword.

But not everyone likes the Net. Yet in future, being unfamiliar with it could poison your education and career prospects forever. Tony Blair should thank his lucky stars: no future Prime Minister will be electable with so little knowledge of the thing that is changing our existence so subtly and radically.

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