W e b w o r d

IEEE INTERNET COMPUTING
Vol. 1, No. 1: JANUARY-FEBRUARY 1997

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THE NEW ENGINEERING COMPUTER

Charles Petrie

Stanford Center for Design Research
<petrie@stanford.edu>

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Many ask if the Internet is the CB radio or the 8-track cassette player of the 90s. The better question is whether the Internet is the Los Angeles of the 40s: an urban frontier of the Far West, where every person has a chance to create something new and fine, where success takes only intelligence, creativity, and courage.
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If this analogy holds true, we have less than a decade in Internet years before it becomes a sprawling wasteland of commercial interests and cyber-carhops hoping for a big break because they have a Web page best viewed with Netscape 3XX.0 or better.

Then there is the "Dilbert" view of the world in which the engineer hopes eternally that reason will prevail and those who understand our technology will get to make decisions about its future . . . and is frustrated eternally by organizational inanity.

These two dismal views have something in common. The movie and later television industries were created by technical innovations, but the business was ultimately run by those who understood packaging and marketing. The same will hold true for the Internet. It already does.

The engineer's rationality and functional esthetic seem like sandcastles before waves of much stronger forces. But three major currents run counter to the tide. One is that novel ideas have great power at the infancy of a technology, and the postpubescent Internet provides as much power, energy, and hope for profit as any new technology ever seen. Agent links have rotted because the technology has gone commercial. PhD students turn their research into companies before they ever get their degrees. Realtors in the San Francisco Bay Area hold "open houses" for small rooms in shared condos. If Dilbert ever wanted to run the company, now's his chance.

Of course, not everyone wants to be MGM or Microsoft, or even Marimba. But technical innovations and decisions have a huge leverage in the youth of a technology. Even if you don't start a company, as an engineer you influence the technical decisions that will determine the future shape of the Net. If you're a network hacker, you're either an IP cowboy or an ATM evangelist. Will bandwidth or switching win? Maybe you're at the phone company pushing either fiber or the latest copper compression.

Or you're with the opposition (isn't it nice to have major industries competing to give you cheap fast bandwidth?) determining whether cable is going to be big/big or big/ little pipe. Or you're a software developer pushing instead of pulling the Web. Or you make it possible for people to edit Web pages easily with a browser. Or you're an agent hacker developing the right message protocol.

We're all going to have to live with these Internet decisions. The message is that the Internet is finally shaping up as the big computer in the ether, and right now engineers forming companies or leveraging within existing ones are competing to determine what kind of computer it will be.

But commercial interests are not the only hope for the engineer. There is a second force to counter the vision of cyber-Hollywood and enslaved Dilberts. The Internet is a strange place. Adam Smith would have loved it, but so would have Karl Marx. The second reason for hope is that the commercial market is competing to give engineers the information needed to free them from organizational constraints. Some Internet technologies promise to raze the high-rise cyberscape and open fallow fields for engineers and others to work.

Collaborative technologies on the horizon have the potential to change the nature of employment for engineers, making everyone a participant in an array of projects for a variety of temporary consortiums. No more middle management; just contracts and nondisclosures and peer-to-peer project coordination. The Internet could tear down Dilbert's cubicle and free him to work with peers, with minimal interference and the resources he needs.

And there are lots of other technologies coming out of the labs that will do more than shore up the black ice around corporate intranets. Researchers are producing some inspired work using the new Internet energy. A lot of it promises extra-corporate connections among the engineering and other professional communities as well as freeing the individual from some of the internal bureaucracies that now soak up productivity and creativity.

We want Internet Computing, as a magazine for the practicing engineer, to be a part of this revolution. Our focus is understanding the new Internet computer. What are the impacts of Internet technologies? Given a technique, what follows? Who's doing it already? How could you use it? Like other Internet publications, we'll report on these questions with interviews, tutorials, columns, and industrial reports. In this issue, we have an interview with one of the best people around for understanding the new technology, George Gilder.

But we're also an IEEE Computer Society magazine, so we'll bring technical depth to the task, including peer-reviewed descriptions of new technologies and research.

We all know that a lot of what's in peer-reviewed journals has more to do with tenure than relevance. We'll try to bring you the real thing: information you need to keep from getting trapped by the machinations of a mega-telecom or the pizzazz of the latest IPO. We intend to address those technologies that promise to change the way you work. Examples in this issue are Arthur van Hoff on Java programming and Maly et al. on distance learning. The former is an argument for Java as a programming language by one of its developers; the latter looks at what can be done for distance learning with state-of-the-art Internet multicast protocols.

The third hopeful force is that existing market forces and Internet technologies are generating useful services, even if no one else starts a company or no new research comes along to change engineering practice. In addition to the corporate information on intranets, the Internet now offers access to a growing collection of catalogs, remote analysis services, and case studies. Some are worthwhile and some are not. You'll find both in the Web site reviews of the column "Arachnoid Tourist."

How close are we to product design over the Net? You'll find a survey by Bill Regli on what the CAD companies plan for Internet technologies, and a report by Martin Hardwick on the status of transmitting product data over the Net using STEP.

Here's the bottom line: how do we avoid Los Angeles, shuttling on Infobahns, obeying automaton rules through a cyberscape of intranets surrounded by black ice and digital neon? Will the Internet turn out to be like the TV and movie industries, a broadcast media that affects many but in which only a few create? Or will it become an emancipating media, interactive and connective, that allows more voices to be heard and more people to collaborate in larger and more complex projects? The answer depends on you. The readers of this magazine are exactly the people who make things happen and use what does.

This is the major rationale for having a webzine: not to look cool but to increase participation. Like every other magazine and journal, our purpose is to support our community. Print gives you convenient portability, tremendous bandwidth, and the random access of page turning. The Web not only allows multimedia, searches, and demonstrations, but, most important, it lets us form a better community.

We invite you to participate in our new magazine, and one easy way is by adding your comments to our webzine, IC Online. It will include individual forums for our articles and columns as well as a general discussion group. Instead of a "Letters" column as such in print, we'll publish the best of your comments from the webzine forums.

The Internet is changing every day. And it's likely that in the near future, it will go the way of electric motors and microprocessors: so embedded in our lives that we won't notice it anymore. Then this magazine will go away.

The question is, what are you going to do right now while it's all happening? We'll find out together, and this is one place we can talk.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., All rights reserved.