Last year, while giving a lecture at Macworld Expo--a lecture based, in large part, on the assumption that computer networking was a subject so cryptic that mere mortals would shy from the very notion--I was astonished when a roomful of hands rose in answer to the question "How many of you have set up a Macintosh network?" With that response, a light came on--I realized that networking was no longer the bailiwick of IT geeks.
I shouldn't have been surprised. With the increasing prevalence of portable computing devices and the wider availability of broadband Internet connections, there's a greater need to make everything work together. The driving force behind this networking Manifest Destiny is, of course, the Internet. The Net is now a very real extension of our world--offering information, entertainment, and commerce. More and more, people feel a need to get online. With that desire come technological breakthroughs that bring this e-world to people in new ways--through faster connections and without wires.
It's no longer enough simply to be able to access the Web. Richer content such as music and Web video makes speed important. If you don't currently have a fast connection to the Internet, it's likely you soon will.
According to Jupiter Communications, by the end of 2000 the number of people reaching the Web via broadband methods such as DSL and cable modem will have increased threefold--from 1.3 million in 1999 to 4 million. With omnipresent outfits such as Earthlink and America Online entering the broadband market and DSL connections going for as little as $40 a month, it's possible that 4 million users is a gross underestimate. And that number will only increase as prices drop, the speed of broadband connections increases, and users gain the ability to install their own broadband connection.
One of the biggest pains involved with getting a high-speed connection--waiting for a technician to come hook it up--may soon disappear. Do-it-yourself DSL is coming with G.Lite (also known as Universal Asymmetric DSL)--a recently ratified standard that will allow you to plug your phone line into a G.Lite modem and access the Web at speeds as fast as 1.5Mbps.
And would you watch movies or listen to music for hours at a time if you could do so only perched on your crummy office chair? Thankfully, the days of clambering into attics and behind walls to string cables between computers, hubs, and routers are nearly over. Your Macs no longer have to be tethered to share resources. Mobile computing will become truly mobile when we can access the Web and any computer connected to it through the thin-air technologies found in Apple's AirPort and other Internet devices.
The Web Widens
As fast as today's high-speed connections may seem, they're nothing compared to what's in the not-too-distant future. Agilent Technologies is working on a fast form of Ethernet that will deliver broadband data at speeds of up to 10 giga bits per second. This will open up a new world of possibilities for what we can do with the Internet.
The signs of things to come are already clear. If you wanted to see trailers for Lucasfilm's Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace, for example, you first did so through Apple's QuickTime site. Only the most patient person would suffer through one of these 25MB downloads armed with nothing more than a 56Kbps modem, but broadband users had--for better or worse--the opportunity to view Jar Jar and pals in a matter of minutes.
It won't be long before you can watch far more than movie trailers over a broadband connection. TiVo ( www.tivo.com ), the subscription-based TV-programming service, has signed deals with Liberate Technologies, a developer of software for TV set-top boxes, and Blockbuster Video that will lead to video-on-demand services over the Internet. Just think: you could watch DVD-quality movies, streamed to you across the Internet, on your TV (no more waiting in line with screaming kids to rent the latest Austin Powers film).
Certainly gamers will appreciate the lack of lag when they log on to their favorite game servers. But better things are in store. Today's games relegate the most-intensive chores to the player's computer--allowing central servers to act as traffic cops--but with gigabits of bandwidth to play with, servers could house the major components of a game. Instead of requiring each player to download an update that increases the capabilities of the game on their hard drive--adding new villages, characters, and battles to a role-playing game, for example--game environments could be changed on a server, allowing players to enter an ever expanding world with each log-on.
At Home at the Office
On a more practical note, with superspeed networks up and running, telecommuters will have even better reasons to avoid coming into the office. Why face a trying commute when you can sit down with your camera-equipped PowerBook, toss a computer-generated office backdrop behind you (to conceal the beach where you've sprawled), and participate in a high-resolution videoconference with a dozen coworkers scattered across the globe?
Can We Be Too Connected?
Cell phones and PDAs that connect to the Web to retrieve local movie listings or the location of the nearest ATM are a clue to what the near future holds. Will your refrigerator be able to send a message to Webvan when you're low on milk, or could your garage-door opener page your spouse when you've come home from work? This isn't science fiction--the technology is nearly in place.
This fact raises questions that are personal rather than technological. Do we want our cell phones flashing ads for the store we've just passed? Are we interested in being available 24 hours a day? How much of our privacy are we willing to sacrifice to simple convenience? Ultimately, the answers to these questions will determine the scale and extent of our networked world.
Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN pens Macworld's Mac 911 column.