Think back to 1986. President Ronald Reagan was forgetting the Iran-Contra affair, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was irradiating Europe, and Apple introduced the Mac Plus after selling 500,000 Macs in two years. In a world where almost no one had a computer at home and modems were rare, could you have imagined the Internet of today?
I certainly didn’t when a friend and I first sat down at VT100 terminals between classes at Cornell University and puzzled through the flickering white text of what then passed for the Internet. But soon I was using it to stay in touch with friends from high school via e-mail, download transcripts of Monty Python skits, and set up the rec.arts.int-fiction news-group to discuss my major, Hypertextual Fiction.
One thing is for sure–whether it’s because of its amazing powers to connect people, or because of the vast financial rewards that now follow in its wake–in the years since 1986 the Internet has begun to find its way into almost every aspect of our lives.
Our kitchen Mac, a PowerBook G3, has gradually wormed its way so deeply into our lives that we can’t imagine being without it. It plays MP3s that we’ve converted from our CD collection, provides access to our networked calendar and contact database, and lets us search My Yahoo’s television listings, phone books, local headlines, stock portfolios, and weather reports. I can’t remember the last time we pulled the beefy Yellow Pages out of the drawer.
Like many laptops, our kitchen Mac remains tethered to its external speakers and Ethernet connection. As the Internet became more important, laptops became increasingly sedentary; you couldn’t get e-mail or browse the Web without ungainly cables. But, thanks to the AirPort Base Station, we can now roam anywhere in the house with our iBook.
Wireless networking is the future. It lets laptops (especially those with good battery life, such as the iBook) follow you rather than forcing you to stay rooted with them. That may seem minor, but it’s actually a tremendously important step in making computers adapt to us and our lives–instead of the other way around. New gadgets and appliances will take this further.
Show Me the Money
Seeing the Internet as a venue for commerce was literally unthinkable in 1986, if only because it directly violated the policies of the organizations that owned most of it. How far we’ve come since then.
Last year marked a sea change in how my wife, Tonya, and I viewed e-commerce–prompted in large part by the birth of our son, Tristan. HomeGrocer.com, the Seattle-based Internet grocery delivery service now joined with Webvan.com, helped us almost entirely eliminate tedious trips to the supermarket. Once we learned that infant clothing slavishly follows seasonal patterns (try buying fuzzy sleepers in the spring), we started ordering from WebClothes.com. Of course, our Christmas shopping in 1999 fit neatly with International Data Corporation’s estimate that 1999’s consumer online purchases were double 1998’s.
A lot of very bright people are staking a lot of money on the fact that you will shop online, and this shift toward online shopping will start to have serious repercussions. Stores that mimic what you can find online may die out–in fact, Metropolis magazine reports that retail analysts believe “that during the next decade something on the order of 8,600 malls … will go bankrupt.”
Despite all this straightforward e-commerce–a total of $7.1 billion in the fourth quarter of 1999 alone–we’re finally seeing the Internet create some long-overdue changes in the way we pay for goods and services. A good friend with two small children couldn’t find the time to go to movies anymore, but after getting a DVD player, he’s become addicted to NetFlix.com, an Internet-based DVD-rental service that sends you all the DVDs you want to see for a fixed monthly fee. No more late charges. Bye-bye, Blockbuster.
But the real battle to be waged is over how we buy music. We’ll see monthly subscriptions to Napster-like services soon–a recent Webnoize Research survey found that more than half of college students currently using Napster to download illegal copies of music would be willing to pay $15 per month for the service. And can it be long before artists start distributing their songs with an ad jammed in the middle?
The ideal solution is micropayments. First proposed as part of Ted Nelson’s visionary hypertext system, Xanadu, in the late 1960s, micropayments are very small payments for very small amounts of data or service. Electricity is essentially a micropayment system–every time you turn on a light, your electric bill increases by a few tenths of a cent. Instead of paying $15 for a CD, you could pay a penny each time you play an MP3 song.
That way the MP3s I play frequently on our kitchen Mac might cost a few bucks per year, but others would barely add up to spare change. And if the MP3 songs came from an independent musician, you could be sure your entire fee would go directly to the artist. To co-opt Nicholas Negroponte’s terminology, existing payment schemes and pricing models work well for atoms, but micropayments make more sense for bits.
Ghosts of Internet Past, Present, and Future
We take so much of the Internet for granted, whether it’s online Yellow Pages searches, accessing customized maps and driving directions, or ordering books from Amazon.com. Much of what we do was barely possible even a few years ago, much less when my friend and I sat in front of those VT100 terminals at Cornell. The incredible rate of change has caused not a few of us to become techno-ostriches, with our heads firmly buried in the sand. Sure, much of the Internet is overhyped, but in the end it’s so damn useful we just can’t afford to ignore what the future offers. It’s a small world, and the Internet is making it smaller all the time. m
Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST writes the monthly column “This Wired Life” for Macworld.com and is the publisher of TidBits, a ten-year-old electronic newsletter about things Macintosh.
September 2000 www.macworld.com