The Internet Is Just Warming Up

Summary:Broadband, always-on connections will make a new breed of information appliances useful and practical.

The Internet changes everything. It's already changed retailing, financial markets, the media industries, and business-to-business relationships. It's no longer hard to imagine why ordinary people want Internet access both at home and while traveling. This desire will drive the market for information appliances.

Yet, despite all its success the Internet is immature. We mustn't assess information appliances' prospects based on the state of the Internet today, but on its potential. The technology that will help information appliances achieve their potential is always-on broadband access. It will take time for broadband to become widespread, but there's no doubt it will—and it will make the Web far more useful.

Along with always-on Net connections, home networks will become widespread. With a home network, many devices can share Internet access using a single modem and Internet service provider. When Internet connectivity becomes a utility, whose existence can be assumed by device makers just like they assume the existence of power and phone lines, new kinds of information appliances will become practical.

Kerbango, for instance, is preparing a radio that receives streaming audio from the Internet, providing access to thousands of stations worldwide. But you wouldn't want to use such a device with a dial-up modem connection. Not only is bandwidth marginal, but you have to consume a phone connection to listen to the radio. With an always-on Internet connection, and a home network to distribute it, an Internet radio makes sense. This is just one example of how always-available Internet connectivity will change our world.

Always-on, broadband connections will also spur dramatic improvements in the depth and quality of Internet content. Web content still has a long way to go to match what already exists in print form. Most online catalogs, for instance, rely on databases. At best, they're only effective if you know exactly what you're looking for. For browsing, however, online catalogs are far inferior to print catalogs. Faster connections will help, but developers have to put much more thought and effort into building the online experience.

Part of the problem has been a shortage of talented people to create these interactive designs. And the ease with which Web sites can be changed, combined with the rapid pace of the Internet, has created its own problems: It's seductively easy to put up a hastily designed site with the intention of fixing it later.

In the long run, however, online catalogs will be far more useful, featuring three-dimensional models of products you can rotate and view from different angles. A few sites already offer this, but it's so labor- intensive to create that it's still rare.

In some ways, the Web has set computing back dramatically. Web pages are a terrible way to implement a user interface; the latency after each click, the limited control over presentation, and the limited access to a computer's resources (such as storage) all degrade the experience compared to what you can accomplish with a local program. But the benefits of universal connectivity and compatibility are so great that the trade-off has been worth it. As Internet technologies develop, we will regain some of the responsiveness that's been lost.

One way you can dramatically improve the Web's perceived performance is to download pages in the background, store them on disk, and access them offline. If you visit a Web site regularly you still have to wait while each page loads. If you shift to an offline viewing mode, you can view richer pages in less time. Current browsers and other applications make this possible, but it hasn't been widely adopted because it's difficult to use.

Digital television, while separate from the Internet, will be another growth area. This technology will change the landscape by providing a high-bandwidth digital pipe into most homes. Much of this bandwidth will be used for video broadcasts, but some will be used for data broadcasts. A single channel can deliver 20Mbps, which translates to more than 200GB per day—enough to send vast amounts of news, weather, and other information. You'd select the information you want to receive, and the receiver would monitor this massive stream and capture only the data of interest. The shift to a new world of information—and the devices that access it—is just beginning.

Topics: Broadband

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