This Friday, 24 September, a host of technology luminaries will gather at a private estate in the very exclusive San Francisco suburb of Atherton, California, for a very special bash. The object of their celebration: The Internet. The occasion: Its 30th birthday.
But unlike a twentysomething who's taking that next ominous step toward middle age, this isn't an occasion for thinking about getting old. Even as fast and as big as it has grown since 1969, the Net is hardly greying. If anything, in fact, it's still in its infancy.
That might sound outlandish in a day when "dotcoms" seem as common as cars. But the proof is in the numbers: A recent report found that although 10 million Brits are now online, with almost 40 percent getting hooked up within the past year, 20 million people currently have no intention of ever connecting to the Internet. A 1998 US Department of Commerce study revealed that 58 percent of Americans don't own a computer, and almost 75 percent of American households still don't have access to the Internet.
The Internet still has a long way to go before it permeates everyday life in the way that the television or telephones do. A substantial slice of British society still lacks basic Internet access, with a substantial gap between northern and southern regions. And, in other parts of the world, the digital divide is even wider. (See: 'First World, not World Wide, Web'.)
Plus, even among many of those who do have access, the Internet still hasn't become one of life's necessities. "I don't use the Internet at all," said police Lt. Bob Mitchell, a 25-year veteran of the Sacramento police department. Mitchell's department increasingly relies on computers, but he doesn't use the Net for help in catching child abusers and paedophiles. He prefers information gathered from police department sources, because they're "a little more reliable than gathering something up on the Internet".
Mitchell isn't alone. Beth Dalton has been a middle school teacher for seven years in a school district outside Los Angeles. As part of Dalton's teacher training, she's provided with dial-up Internet access from home. The perk is meant to encourage teachers to explore the Net and pass their enthusiasm on to their students. The result has been just the opposite. "The service was really slow so I didn't even try," explained Dalton. "For me, it just hasn't become a part of my life at all. I don't see it as a convenience."
Their complaints are not going unheard in the Internet industry. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, believes it's just a matter of time before people like Dalton and Mitchell find their place on the Net. "The good news is that with each turn of the technical crank, the system gets faster," Saffo said. "It gets easier to use. It gets more integrated."
Integration into daily life is what the experts believe will be the key component of the Net's future success. "Many will use the Net without knowing it," said Vincent Cerf, co-inventor of the computer networking protocol TCP/IP. "Their cars and appliances will be online and use it without their knowledge."
Cerf, who made his comments via email, believes one billion people will be hooked up to the Internet by 2003. He's also among those who agreed to serve on an honorary Internet birthday party committee established by UCLA, the home of the Internet's very first node. He's joined by the likes of Netscape browser creator Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist John Doerr, AOL CEO Steve Case and others -- many of whom will attend the Atherton bash at the home of financier Ron Conway.
Lawrence G. Roberts, the designer and developer of ARPANET, the first generation of the Internet, is also a believer in the growing momentum towards a wireless Net. "My expectation is that radios will change to become an Internet receiver. More and more, the devices like radios and phones and everything else will become Internet devices."
For the Internet's future, the good news is that its sceptics aren't necessarily Luddites. Mitchell, for instance, recognises the increasing proliferation of technology in his workplace. "The way technology is going, within a matter of years it will be almost impossible for a law enforcement officer to do their job without computer knowledge," he said.
While most people seem to be coming around to the idea of using the Internet for research or in the workplace, many balk at the huge push into e-commerce. They say they don't want to go online if the Internet is simply the world's biggest home-shopping channel. "I've never bought anything online," says Cathie Younie, full-time mom to three young boys. "I'm leery of it. I don't like having my credit card number out there. As a mom, I just don't have the time or need to use it."
That will change, claims Jerry Michalski, president of Sociate.com. It's just a matter of time. "It's still dramatically more difficult to use today than it will be in another decade," Michalski said. "So I don't blame people for not wanting to go there. It's expensive and cumbersome. It just happens to be really rewarding also."