Episode IV – A New Hope

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

Whether 1999 will go out with a bang, a whimper or a scream remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure. We are certain to be swamped with an endless tirade of roundups – hits of the millennium, significant moments of the millennium, the making of the millennium, monotony of the millennium… the list is bound to be endless. So let me add my own two pennies worth to the list – the internet.

Feel free to yawn and shudder all you like – but my viewpoint is slightly different from most. Few would dispute that the internet is still a growing organism. Personally I’d put it somewhere around early teens – it’s lazy, sleeps a lot, needs a strong guiding hand, and eats far more than it produces. Aside from the mood swings, there are three major problems with the internet.

Problems With The Internet 
Firstly, means of access. Aside from alcohol-induced speculation and science fiction, for the vast majority of users, the sole means of access is via a PC. As key players in the software industry, we know better than most how unstable and notoriously difficult to use your average PC can be. The day that my Grandmother can install and use a PC is still a long way off; and that keeps them out of reach of a great many people’s everyday lives.

Add to this the fact that the average PC is near-impossible to transport, and imprisoned by different operating systems and platforms, and you start to see why the PC-internet marriage is a very one sided relationship. One benefits enormously, the other is held back almost completely. I’ll resist the opportunity to dwell on this analogy.

Secondly, the internet is hard to use. The marketing machines of the e-commerce giants will tell you otherwise, but the current situation is somewhat chaotic. Nobody really knows what’s safe and what isn’t, and new technology is coming out faster than anyone can keep up with it, including the companies actually using it.

Thirdly – the network itself. Show me a company website, small or large, that hasn’t at some point gone down – server overload, hacking, error, system crash… the backbone of the very system itself is unreliable and unsecure. At the time of writing this, I have just heard that the Amazon.com website has gone down. Hardly a good base to build on.

So what am I saying here – am I predicting the end of the internet? Absolutely not. The internet can’t end as such; it has developed into a massive structure resembling an organism with many, many heads. And as pointed out earlier, despite its size, it is still a child, and has a long way to go to maturity.

The next stage surely has to be the extension of the internet – taking it beyond the desk-bound, system-shackled PC, to the non-beige-box world at large. Project BlueTooth may be the start of this development. BlueTooth is not connected to any UFO investigation by the US Air Force, but rather a joint effort by some very big names to establish a standard for short-range device communication. Picture it – talking on your mobile phone and asking for a copy of the diagram to be sent; the image is then sent directly to your phone where you can view it, then at a touch of a button printed out on your printer in the next room, and a copy sent to your PC’s hard-drive upstairs. Science fiction? I think not – and neither do Nokia, Ericsson, Intel or IBM, who are all taking part in the project.

No Shakespeare Monkeys On The Web
On a different track, I remember an old English teacher (the teacher was old, not the English) telling us at Junior School the theory about twelve million monkeys in front of twelve million typewriters – that sooner or later one of them would produce writing comparable to Shakespeare’s. While this reflects rather badly on the British Education system – even more so considering that there is a population close to 60 million – the internet has to be the ultimate proof that this simply is not the case.

Look how many pages of information there are out there (okay, so I don’t actually know), and aside from the fact that most are certainly not worth looking at, they exist in this strange order and structure of absolute chaos. Many search engines have tried to order and index them, but so far, this has been to little avail. The problem is that words alone are meaningless – index this article and you might find it using the words backbone, UFO, marriage, tooth or organism. Hardly a reflection of any relevance.

XML May Be The Answer
The search engines, and the web itself, have to develop some sort of more efficient system, and this may have already arrived. XML – one of the latest in misunderstood webisms, is not a replacement for HTML, but an extension of it. Harold Holmes chose XML as the foundation of his PADGen software, and this may well prove to be an important factor in the success of the new standard.

XML effectively allows HTML to know what it is; while most of the HTML tags that we all use (and love) deal with presentation, XML allows tags to indicate content. <NAME>, <PRICE> and <COLOUR> would therefore be as useful to an HTML page being displayed on a monitor, as information sent to an electronic organiser, a cellphone, a reader for the blind etc. This is real progress.

Throughout the last millennium (back to that again) mankind has demonstrated an extraordinary tendency, and not one to be proud of. We see something we like, and we do our utmost to take it over; control it, rule over it, manipulate it, and ultimately plunder it for whatever we can. The computer industry, like every other, follows this pattern, but the internet could well prove to be an exception to this rule. So it’s chaotic right now – give it time. There’s new hope. Be seen, be sold.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.