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Potential Of The Internet

Cutting Edge By Dave Shapton
Published March 2001

Pinnacle's StreamFactory may show the way for Internet control of other electronic devices.Pinnacle's StreamFactory may show the way for Internet control of other electronic devices.

As the 'dot com' business world's first flush of enthusiasm for the Internet fades, is a deeper understanding of the web's greater potential about to emerge? Dave Shapton speculates.

It's nine months since the 'dot com' gold rush ended. There's been a massive backlash which has completely flattened people's hopes and expectations that the Internet is going to change the way we live. Downsizing of the Internet Future is still going on, in both the popular and business cultures, fuelled by events such as the Madonna concert in December. Billed as the biggest live Internet event ever, what this actually achieved was to show millions of excited Madonna fans exactly how bad the Internet multimedia experience can be. I even know someone who cancelled his plans for starting a major audio and video streaming business as a direct result of the Madonna débacle.

But all of this is actually a Very Good Thing.

The Internet Bubble

It's good because it clears out the semi‑mystical Internet soothsayers (never trust anyone who uses the term 'Cyberspace'), and the dot com liggers whose only skill is in blagging millions from gullible (which is a kind way of saying stupid) venture capitalists. The utter and groundless rubbish that has persuaded financiers to lend billions to Internet start‑ups would be dismissed as old–fashioned quackery in any other field. You might compare the kind of claims that were made to me suggesting that the new drug I've just invented will cure most diseases and make you immortal, at the same time as boosting your intelligence and, as a side effect, making you more attractive to the opposite sex. Not even the spectacle of directors of dot com startups commuting across the Atlantic on Concorde rang any alarm bells.

Was the financial community really so stupid? Well, it's easy to talk up the Internet, especially to non‑technical people. That's because it's a 'crossover' technology: it's based on the most nerdish collection of computer networks and programs imaginable, and yet it brings us things like Yahoo and email clients that even your parents can use. So it's easy to think you understand it when, in reality, you don't have an inkling. You can tell that the Internet has crossed into popular culture because when the media talk about the Internet, they get it completely, one hundred percent, without exception, even on a good day, WRONG. I've never, ever, seen a report about the Internet on a popular news program that left me feeling that I'd actually learned anything about this important new medium.

No wonder, then, that almost every week I get a phone call at work from someone who has a new business plan that involves putting feature films on the Internet. They tell me they've got their business plan worked out, and all they need now is a capture card for their computer that will put high‑definition video down a telephone line, and do we have any in stock?

Now, having one hole in your business plan the size of the Grand Canyon is bad enough (the expectation that everyone with an Internet connection will watch the films you transmit, for example), but to think you can put decent TV pictures through a 56Kbit/second modem, and that this is a function of the capture card, betrays a staggering ignorance of the subject.

Please don't misunderstand me. I don't expect everyone to know about video compression and the associated bandwidths. It's a specialised topic. But if you're going to set up a business based around providing a service that is unique because no‑one else can do it, you kind of have to, er, know how to do it!

Wait a minute! I've got a great business proposition. I'm going to set up a teleportation business. I've even got planning permission for the terminal. Someone is recruiting the staff for me, and we've got all our check‑in software sorted out. It's a dead cert, because you won't need those airplane things anymore. We've got a few million from the venture capitalists and I'm just off to Maplins to see if they've got any teleportation chips, so we can build the teleporter.

So that's the Internet, then. Relegated again to being an object of fascination only to nerds and anoraks (hang on, I'm one of them!), and a distant memory to the vast majority who are content to sit in front of their Sky Digital TV, sending SMS messages courtesy of their One2One pay‑as‑you‑go mobile phones.

Faster, Bigger, Easier

Actually, no. It's not the end of the Internet. Not by a long way. In fact, the Internet has hardly started yet — and that's the problem. Most of the failed dot com startups have at least some kind of business idea behind them. Aside from the profligacy and naivete of their founders, the biggest obstacle to their survival has been simply that the Internet is not ready yet. It's come a long way and it's growing at a phenomenal rate, but it's still in its early childhood. And it still has some very significant hurdles to jump.

The first of these is speed. Sure, there are all sorts of higher‑bandwidth connections already available to some, and supposedly just round the corner for others (see last month's Net Notes column). But how many people do you know with an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) connection right now? How many do you think will have it in six months or a year? Probably not very many. Like as not, only a very small percentage of Internet users with a conventional dial‑up connection — and certainly not as many as everyone (including me) was predicting two years or 18 months ago. But without high‑bandwidth connections, the Internet — from the perspective of a typical home user — is as efficient as a supersonic train network where the nearest station is 20 miles away and the only way to get to the terminus is by horse and cart. Without speed, many past, present and future Internet business proposals will flounder, because they are based on the premise of streaming high‑quality audio and video. Your connection to the Internet needs to be permanent. You don't want to wait while a dial‑up connection staggers into life.

Then there's what I call Pervasiveness, by which I mean 'everywhereness'. Until your hi‑fi, your fridge, your microwave and your digital console are transparently connected to the Internet, I don't think you could call its presence pervasive.

The Internet also has to be easy to use. The very technology that has enabled the web firstly to exist at all, and then, at a phenomenal speed, to grow to its current status, conflicts with the concept of simplicity. Setting up and configuring Internet connections is often painful, even for the moderately technical among us. Yes, the Internet is a new and massively popular communications paradigm, and yes, setting it up is as abstract and challenging as the bit in your maths homework you always got stuck on.

The Web Is Dead, Long Live The Web

So where does that leave us? Where are we actually going with this Internet thing?

Well, it certainly isn't going to disappear overnight — or ever, for that matter. Even if there were no more developments in connected culture, email is now an irreplaceable part of our lives. I get a lot of email at work and you could almost say that these days my work is my email. I'm not saying that's typical, but it's certainly not unusual. And then there's music downloading. You can muster all the copy–protection schemes you like, but I still have a feeling that it isn't going to go away.

As I suggested in an earlier Cutting Edge, the Internet in its current form is likely to fade away into something that is actually much more powerful. What I mean by this is that the way we use the Internet now, which is almost exclusively by means of a web browser running on a personal computer, is going to change. It'll change because, as the Internet becomes more pervasive (see above!), it will do so by inflitrating things that aren't in themselves computers, and it will let you control things that aren't computers from computers. If you find that difficult to envisage, here are a couple of concrete examples.

Imagine a component in your hi‑fi that looks rather like those old‑fashioned CD players, but is actually the device you use to play music streamed from the Internet. Chances are that it will have a display not unlike a CD player, but instead of a dumb listing of track numbers it will have a directory of available tracks for you to listen to. It may even display information about your account with the online music provider. If you can't find what you want with the current provider, you'll probably be able to flip to the search page, which will list alternative providers.

If all of that sounds a bit familiar, it's because the process is exactly the same as web browsing. The only difference is that the web page is formatted for the rather more restricted display found on hi‑fi components. Exactly the same technology could be built into electronic keyboards. With a permanent, possibly wireless connection to the Internet, what could possibly make more sense than having an audio sample search engine client built into your keyboard? Need a grungy B3 sample? Just press 'Search', 'Audition', and, finally, 'Save'. No doubt you'll already have registered your credit card number with the sample search engine.

That's one possibility. Another is that the complex electronic devices we currently struggle with, because of their inadequate displays, will abandon on‑board displays altogether, in favour of hosting a web page that can be accessed on any Internet‑connected device. Displays, and the electronics needed to program and drive them, form a significant part of the cost of a device. In a studio, you potentially only need one web browser to control just about everything. Just enter the device name on the network and away you go.

If you like the sound of this idea, the good news is that it's already happening, albeit in conjunction with a fairly esoteric piece of kit. Pinnacle's StreamFactory is a rackmount device that can produce four live video and audio streams at different rates from one input. The available input formats cover digital and analogue video, as well as balanced analogue and digital audio. Stream Factory is, in essence, a PC running Windows 2000. It has its own built‑in web server, which means that, as far as the user is concerned, it sits unattended in a rack while streaming sessions are set up from its web page — on any computer on the Internet. And it works, really well.

These are just a few ideas about the road map for the Internet. As for the Internet itself, I'd say we're at a stage in its development which is possibly analogous to the early days of electricity. Think about it. When we marvel at someone's new DVD player, mini hi‑fi or lava‑lamp, we don't (typically) say "this electrical device is wonderful", or "it's amazing what electricity can do". Rather, we say "the picture's great", "the sound's good", or "the lava looks like lava". In other words, we focus on whatever the device does, and not what it's connected to.

Disco 2001?

You realise you're getting older when your niece, who was playing a recorder last time you saw her, prises open a new‑looking flightcase and produces a contra‑bassoon.

Possibly the most ungainly instrument ever invented, it's what your intestine would look like if it was made of wood. It is, effectively, the sub‑woofer of the woodwind section. The instrument‑least‑likely‑to‑get‑you‑a‑pub‑gig's lowest note is the B‑flat at the bottom of your piano keyboard. You don't really hear it as a tone, but as a series of clicks you can practically count, accompanied by a strange feeling in your stomach (as one form of intestine speaks to another).

The only reason I mention it here is because I couldn't resist a jam with such a strange device and the only keyboard I had to hand was a Yamaha DJX, a dance‑music workstation. Beats taking hallucinogenic drugs any day!