Open Eye: Caught In The Web Life On The New Frontier Of The Internet

Simon Newton previews a major new prime-time evening TV series from the OU which looks at the past, present and future of the World Wide Web
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If the Web is the gold rush of our times, will it be those who look for gold who make serious money, or those who sell the picks and shovels?

The Web, a prime-time series from the Open University, explores the reality of life on the new frontier of the World Wide Web, and the dreams of its founders. Entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to Sheffield argue the case for this new marketplace in cyberspace. Idealists still view the Web as the new communications medium which defies censorship and empowers the individual.

With 100 million people now using the Web and three more people connecting every second, the Internet is the fastest growing technology in history. The Web promises, at best, to become a genuine democracy of knowledge but it can also carry the worst of human life. Libertarians see the Web as a key battleground against the censoring instincts of government and the commercial ambitions of corporations.

The Web explores the British contribution to the development of the Web, made by scientists in the National Physical Laboratory in the mid 1960s who developed `packet switching', the essential innovation which underpins the global communications system. Like taxis fighting their way through traffic, `packets' of messages reconstitute themselves at their final destination. So why is the Web seen as an essentially American creation? Tony Benn, Minister of Technology in the mid-1960s, explains `the Americans had more money' and with the Cold War at its peak, US defence research money drove forward Internet technology.

The founder of the Web, the British Tim Berners-Lee, now leads the World Wide Web Consortium. In The Web, he recalls his time at the CERN laboratory in Geneva where, instead of smashing atoms, he determined to build something. With a personal need to simplify the amount of information he was receiving each day, he used the mouse, personal computer and hypertext to create a new world. In 1989, this was a simple but great idea. "The compelling simplicity of the Web roaming freely across the world of the Internet makes it irresistible."

Using text, sound and video, individuals can now buy a book, search for a partner or make a global protest on-line. For Berners-Lee, the Web has become a `universe of all knowledge' and it's still just at the toddler stage.

So who is winning this battle between Web idealism and commercial attempts at market dominance? The Microsoft versus Netscape fight illustrates the very short life-cycle of success and failure in the webbed world. Netscape had a paper value of $6billion within six months of its birth but now it is fighting for its life. The US government's anti-trust case against Microsoft could result in its becoming a number of `Baby Bill' companies. The struggle to control the gateway to the Web is epic and the serious money is bet on the Web's future potential. Already advertisers can achieve a highly-targeted response of an amazing 40%. As one advertising guru remarks on The Web Story.Com, `eyeballs are our target audience'.

The story of Richard Noble's land speed record demonstrates the commercial power of the Web. Needing $800,000 for fuel, his appeal through the Web generated nearly half the sum needed in a fortnight. As Noble remarks, this was `a viable piece of real estate on the web'.

A former jeweller in Sheffield, Wendy Hebb, has created a virtual city, `Made in Sheffield', an umbrella organisation for Sheffield craftspeople and manufacturers, but still wonders how it can become financially viable. "I do it because I can, because it's new and exciting. But I'm trying to create an international brand with no budget." But, already, local manufacturers speak of the new global shop window she has created.

The founders of Yahoo, a key brand and service, still intend to charge only advertisers and sponsors and see the Web as anti-censorship, thus keeping faith with the Web's anarchic origins. But for how long? Techno enthusiast Tony Benn sees the Web as the `People's Medium', an antidote to big government which `undercuts the media moguls and can be a soapbox shout across the world'. Yet one-third of the world's population lives in countries still not connected to the Net, with only the telephone as the basic electronic form of communication. Is the Web creating a world of electronic haves and have nots and what are the social consequences?

For Berners-Lee, the future of the Web depends on bandwidth and becoming more intuitive. While the Web sometimes seems to be the World Wide Wait, the medium will still be more geek than chic. When it becomes as easy and as fast as a phone or television, it may well become the major shaping influence of the new century. Search engines will be more refined and the Web will be trusted and secure - a wish-list shared by thousands on- line.

The information gold rush has begun. The Web provides the route map.

All programmes are shown at 7.30pm on BBC-2

Monday 19 October

The Web The big software companies are fighting to control the World Wide Web. Can the inventor of the Web, Englishman Tim Berners-Lee, protect his dream?

Monday 26 October

The Web /Tomorrow: From Silicon valley to Sheffield a wide range of companies and individuals are now trying to make money from the World Wide Web. How are they doing it, and will they suceed?

Monday 2 November

The Web In 1989 a young British academic Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, how and why has it become such a phenomenon?

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