Moving Beyond The Web

What is the Internet? The Internet was begun in 1969 as a way to connect universities and research institutions and for scientists to collaborate on their ideas. Much of the impetus for this project was as a U.S. Department of Defense response to the Soviet military threat and the potential need to transfer data under less than ideal circumstances.

At its technological core, the Internet is a vast infrastructure of wires and independent computers all hooked together through high-speed transmission lines, much like the neural network of a human brain. It consists of computers, telephone lines, satellites, and myriad other peripheral components, communicating via a multitude of different protocols and standards.

Over the years, we have radically transformed our perception of the Internet, from a massive infrastructure to a broad, content-based distribution system that now includes such technologies as distributed computing, wireless portable devices, email, instant messaging, FTP, Gopher, newsgroups and the World Wide Web. Fundamentally, though, the Internet is still a communications tool that facilitates the cheap, global and immediate sharing of knowledge and information across physical and political boundaries.

While it is indeed true that the Web is the world's first truly democratic, cross-cultural and politically boundless communications medium, the infrastructure of the Web is profoundly undemocratic. Like cable television, the Web is primarily a one-way medium in that a limited number of powerful computers "serve" text, images and information to many individual consumers, or "clients". For example, lists millions of books for sale on its website. A customer can retrieve archived information on a book, purchase it through secure payment methods, and continue to browse the site while thousands of other customers are simultaneously accessing the same data. This extremely efficient, "business-to-consumer" relationship, in which a vendor spreads its goods, products or services to many users at once, is known as "client-server", and it forms the basis of most ecommerce and information systems on the Internet today. However, one of the agonizing downsides to this method is that when a central server goes down, say, for maintenance or because of a "denial-of-service" attack from hackers, the entire network ceases to function. On an ecommerce site, this means that the site is temporarily inaccessible over the Internet, and the resultant loss of business can spell disaster.

Not all computing situations benefit from a client-server relationship. Distributed computing involves spreading a complicated computing task across two or more networked computers to create a "virtual machine" that can tackle big problems usually reserved for supercomputers. In this manner, every computer that is added to the "grid" bolsters the total computing power of the network, at a fraction of the cost of a supercomputer. One popular use of distributed computing is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. Running as a screensaver, SETI takes advantage of millions of private desktop PC's to help search for life in outer space. Each individual computer on the network processes a small amount of data, but the collective computing power is enormous. Two other increasingly common uses for distributed computing are sequencing the human genome and modeling weather patterns. A unique advantage to this system is that if a single computer goes down, the rest of the network still functions.

Peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster are another popular form of distributed computing. With Napster, users bypass the Web entirely and peek into individual users' computers to peruse, download and swap MP3 music files. On a peer-to-peer network (also known as "P2P"), the information available for download or for dispersal across the network is always changing as computers join or leave the network.

Peer-to-peer networking also has important implications for personal electronic payments. For example, PayPal allows users to send payment for online auctions to one another via email; while ProPay is a service that allows its members to collect credit card payments from other users. This is especially useful for small businesses who want to set up shop online.

Finally, machine-to-machine computing promises to revolutionize back-end business transactions. Machine-to-machine ("M2M") networks allow computers to communicate without the help of humans, thus facilitating many tedious, humanly inefficient or error-prone transactions. For example, eBay's proxy bidding system utilizes M2M to automatically place auction bids in preset increments, up to a user's specified maximum offer. An even more palpable use for M2M is in automating back-end transactions. A book distributor, for example, could determine when inventory at a particular store is low and automatically place replenishment orders. Ordinarily, a clerk would have to take inventory and manually order product, which may result in loss of potential sales. M2M could also result in increased office efficiency, because a company's computer could order printer cartridges, paper and other supplies when it senses that those supplies are getting low.

Indeed, the Internet is much more than just the Web, and a number of powerful new technologies available today promise to alter the digital landscape in much the same way as did the Web in the 1990s.


Michael Tanenbaum