W e b w o r d

Vol. 2, No. 6: NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 1998


A Brief History

Charles Petrie

Stanford Center for Design Research


The more the Internet changes things, the more things stay the same.


The first issue of this magazine appeared in February 1997. I came on board as editor-in-chief in 1996. At the end of this year I will hand over this enterprise to Munindar Singh, who you already know from the "Agents" column. I commend him highly and believe you and he will have fun.

But before I go, let me share some thoughts about where we've been and where we are headed.


Ted Lewis had the idea for IEEE Internet Computing and conned me into doing it early in 1996. That summer, the IEEE Computer Society approved the magazine and we launched. I really must brag a little here. We (lots of heroes on the masthead) were the first magazine, at least in the Computer Society, to do all electronic reviews. We also were the first in the Computer Society to have a webzine, publishing our issues in HTML before there was a digital library. Check out the interviews we've done - you'll see that they were innovative too.

For the last two years, we've put out one issue every two months, as promised, along with the webzine with unique online content. And you will notice that we are still the only Internet magazine with peer-reviewed technical articles. We did all this during a very interesting period: 1997-98.


Recall the times. Bill Gates had only recently discovered the Internet and Netscape still ruled. There were lots of new, small ISPs and the telecoms were only watching carefully. Few of your nongeek friends and family were on e-mail. And, as I indicated in my first column (written in the Fall of 1996), some people were still thinking that the Internet might be just another CB radio fad.

Since then, the Internet has become a part of our lives. As usual in these things, Silicon Valley citizens were a few years ahead, but now the rest of the world is catching up. The flip side is that whereas once California technologists liked to believe that the US East Coast was out of it and irrelevant, they are now flocking to lobby in DC.

The time to make a technical statement by having a flashy Web page is long gone - the last two years have been marked by very expensive startups rather than individual artists. That is, we went to modern Hollywood economics much faster than I anticipated when I wrote that first column.

The Internet didn't crash and Metcalfe ate his column. The small ISPs have gone away and the big ones learned that they had to get bigger fast. The telecoms are still flailing to find the right strategy but they are now committed to Internet technologies, including IP-based telephony. Microsoft entered the game in such a big way that it's now them versus everybody else. And all of your friends and family are on e-mail. Even my mother.

But what has really changed technically? In 1997 there was a big push for ATM switched networks over IP routing. These protocol wars seem to have subsided into clever combinations of the two - IP was a lot stronger than anyone anticipated. E-cash is still in the confused state it was when we interviewed David Chaum but e-commerce has exploded. "Agents" used to be an academic topic, but now everyone is claiming the value of intelligent agents and mobile agents, and we will have some useful ones Real Soon Now. Push has come and gone but Java has proven to be the biggest Internet development since the Web. Super-complex HTML and XML are new drivers. They are as yet unproven but obvious harbingers of the Internet technologies for the turn of the century. (Imagine how quaint these issues and technologies will seem next century.)


What does all this signify? You can find lots of pundits singing about how wonderful it is going to be - sort of reminds me of an old joke about a computer salesman, back when Microsoft was IBM. But the dark sides nag at me.

The disenfranchised

One is that the "friction-free economy" only works for those who are clever at assimilating and restructuring the increasing amount of information out there, and are able to resist the increasingly personalized cyber-marketing. Imagine one group of people not able to sort through the personalized long-distance rate offers they receive while another group uses the Net to find the best deal on their home mortgage or stock portfolio. If this doesn't sound familiar yet in your country, just wait. Those who are not so entrepreneurial and information-savvy will fall even further behind in the age of the Internet than they did under Reagan, only now this will be felt globally, rather than just in the US. An increasing division of wealth between those with an adequate information-based education and those without will cause increasing societal frictions. Now add to this that even good (lower education) schools fall down on analytical skills and we have the makings of a new global crisis.

The irrelevance of research

Another is the dismissal of the envy-of-the-world US computer science research community. One hears business people say, "We already have more technology than we can use." Companies rename their research organizations to remove the now-dirty word "research". And where the word is used, it means a product enhancement. ("Basic research" means the product won't be out next year.) Congress now views long-term research funding as a form of welfare with no large constituency. It's hard to keep good students from jumping into startups prior to getting their Ph.D.s, which are now all too frequently regarded as somewhat irrelevant. (See " Current Trends in Basic Research" at R&D Magazine Online.)

Internet technologies have accelerated this trend. If you are not creating a useful Internet technology, you are not likely to find funding for computer science research. Since WW II, most university research funding in the US has come from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, although there used to be lots of industry-supported labs also. Many industry labs have closed and now DARPA funding is for military missions or applied Internet technologies. (See FYI: The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News.)

The shift of our economic base from manufacturing to services is not new, nor is the trend away from support for basic research. The technology and culture of the Internet is neither a cause nor a symptom of these trends. Rather, it is like sunrise on an airless planet, brightening our highlights and deepening the dark places. We can only hope that the glare will illuminate our understanding rather than blind us.

It's still up to you.

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