The superhighway is here: shame about the jams

Like early cinema-goers, Internet users are tolerant of the new medium's technical limitations
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The Independent Online
We have entered the Internet Age. Historians will date it as starting in 1995 and running on perhaps 10 years or so. The period will have the same relationship to the development of computers as, say, the Railway Age of the 1830s had to the invention of the steam engine.

A new technology is again transforming the way we live. In the United States, President Clinton, on the campaign trail last Thursday, announced plans to provide free Internet access to every school. In the UK, it is estimated that 3.6 million Britons have surfed the Web at least once in the past six months and it looks as though that figure will have risen to 5 million by Christmas, equivalent to one in 10 of the population.

Events are moving quickly because every company which could play a role in the development is now doing so, and those involved are confident about the destination: the delivery of fully interactive multimedia onto a screen in your home. In other words, it is a new medium which combines all the attributes of its predecessors - text, sound, moving image - and adds a new ingredient, interactivity. It is the last quality which gives the Internet its participative nature. One-to-one communication is its defining characteristic.

It is significant how forgiving consumers are. The Internet at present is like a strange new city, where few things work well and where the roads are in a state of constant traffic jam. The chance of accessing a chosen Web site quickly depends upon what time of day it is. Once North American users get going each day, the speed of the Internet declines markedly.

And yet enthusiasm for the new medium grows apace. Early cinema-goers were equally understanding, as were radio's first listeners. Jerky films without colour or sound, air waves filled with hiss and crackle - the first users were not put off. Nor were train passengers at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, nor were Edwardian motorists. They could all sense what was well done within the existing technical limits; they were sharing an adventure and they confidently expected improvements - both in the technology itself and what you can do with it.

To make the Internet more convenient, there are two lines of advance: to provide hardware which is at once easier to use, cheaper and more efficient, and to improve the mechanisms for making payments for goods and services. As far as the former is concerned, one idea is to give television sets some of the capabilities of a personal computer so that the Internet could be accessed via the TV screen - what is called a WebTV. Among the problems to be overcome are the difficulties of reading text on a TV screen and the question of distance - one watches a TV programme seated some metres from the box but one works at a computer screen only centimetres away.

Another approach is to manufacture and market cheap, cut-down versions of personal computers, known as network computers, which provide Internet access and little else. They cost a few hundred pounds rather than upwards of pounds 1,000, but may be seen as too utilitarian. At the same time a great deal of work is being undertaken to increase the speed of the Internet, particularly over the last mile of telephone cable which joins each household to the main trunking system. But it has to be asked whether the Internet will be like London traffic: will improvements stimulate increases in the volume of traffic rather than bring about quicker journeys?

Payments are made by credit card, but it has been difficult to persuade consumers that transmitting credit card details via the Internet is as safe as other methods. Hence the development of encryption techniques. In any case there has remained the problem of handling transactions where the value is pounds 10 or less. This is the role for a new system, CyberCoin. Users are provided with a piece of software, a sort of electronic wallet, which they fill from their credit cards and then use to make small payments.

The first business activity to migrate to the Internet has been the provision of information. The BBC has announced a link with International Computers Limited to provide an Internet service with news, weather and travel information as well as educational material and entertainment. News International has announced a similar deal with British Telecom. Underlining the participative nature of the medium, BT said that the news service would be able to offer teenagers help with their homework.

Next to move are retailers of books and music. The book seller with the largest number of titles available in the world is an American Internet operation, Amazon. Its catalogue contains two thirds of the 1.5 million English books in print, making it many times bigger than any existing book seller. Before long, Amazon customers will be able to ask authors questions via e-mail and then, perhaps, chat "on-line" with each other about the books they are reading.

What, then, are the features of the Internet Age? National boundaries begin to dissolve. Amazon is based in Seattle; I have never been there but the company is likely to cater for my tastes at least as well as my local book seller. Moreover, the Internet Age favours the individual because it enables and encourages participation. The Internet is not an instrument of mass-marketing . Indeed, it is likely to operate against the growing homogenisation of taste which has been such a feature of life since the Twenties.