FYI France

File 10.1993b FYI France Essay :

 

October, 1993

Live from INTEROP

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

For Connexions: the Interoperability Report,
v. 7 n. 10, October, 1993, p. 2-5, available from the Connexions Archive in elegant .pdf at,
http://www.cbi.umn.edu/hostedpublications/Connexions/ConneXions07_1993/ConneXions7-10_Oct1993.pdf

 

Introduction

The following conference report is being transmitted on a wireless radio modem-equipped PowerBook laptop, via a little "cigarette-girl" front-pack display rack, carried by a guy named Chris who is part of a team walking around San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, selling this service (from RadioMail Corporation) to INTEROP Conference attendees:

INTEROP ("interoperability") is where the computer world now goes to find out what is coming next. The conference is only a few years old but has grown wildly, so much so that today it is one of the largest conventions hosted by San Francisco: all the hotels here are full tonight, and rumors are that conference attendance will top 65,000.

Computer people come to INTEROP because "interoperability" -- networks, and linking different kinds of electronic gizmos to each other -- apparently is where they have decided their future is "at". Television -- including cable! -- and telephone people are here too, presumably for the same reason.

Everyone looks a little worried -- they all have well-publicized financial troubles -- but they are excited as well: they seem to think that INTEROP offers the next big hi-tech solution. I've been worried as well, as a librarian and information-user: I still can't find things easily on the Internet, and every time the "techies" tweak the system it gets more complicated and much, much bigger -- I wanted to find out what they think is in store. I have, I think.

 

The Deaths of TV and the Telephone

The keynote speaker Wednesday morning declared the deaths of television and the telephone. George Gilder, "futurist", ex- of Harvard Economics and Henry Kissinger's staff, declared that digital cellular telephony coupled with wireless computer networks will replace TVs, telephones, and computers, all as we now know and love or hate them, within 20 years.

Gilder also said some other very interesting things. "A computer without a network is like a car in the jungle", for example: the one without roads or service stations, the other with nothing to plug into to "get online" -- interesting to consider how important networks have become, in such a short time, to the little boxes which we used to call our computing capacity.

Gilder described the three technologies of "sand" (silicon chips), "glass" (fiber-optics), and "air" (the electromagnetic spectrum) which are emerging to rule the new "telecosm": he strongly contends that the technology of "air" is infinite -- that there will be enough bandwidth to go around for cellular technologies.

He also called the Clinton/Gore National Information Infrastructure / NII effort a "cock-a-doodle-doo" policy, an effort to "celebrate the sunrise": the sun comes up anyway, Gilder said, and the "telecosm" is going to land on us whether Washington develops its NII or not.

The "death of TV, the telephone and the computer" prediction, though, was by far Gilder's most dramatic pronouncement. Mark Twain once protested that rumors of his death had been "greatly exaggerated". Twain's jibe has plagued "futurists" ever since.

Still, predictions can be fun, and they can serve to animate and inspire an audience. Gilder's woke up our 9am audience. The part which woke me up most was the "20 years": setting a time-limit is the most dangerous part of "futurology" -- but now I have encountered Chris and his front-pack wireless walking Internet workstation, and I am becoming somewhat of a believer.

 

Conference sessions for humans and Non-

INTEROP conference events number in the many dozens: 72 Sessions attended by 200-500 people each, 41 pre-conference Tutorials, various Executive Sessions, Special Sessions and Plenary Sessions, Birds Of a Feather (EOF) meetings which seem to go until the middle of the night, covering a vast variety of issues, "invitation only" vendor-sponsored parties at the hotels, amazing amounts of intense corridor-conversation and politicking and selling.

INTEROP sessions have titles like "SNMPv2", "Implementing Distributed Object Services", and "Alien Protocols (TCP/IP and OSI Net¬works) in SNA"; although there are the more human-sounding "Public Data Networks", "Managing the Management Process", and "How to Write the Best RFP", as well. Clifford Lynch, Paul Peters, Jim Fullton and Howard Besser are here, presenting, "Online Libraries, Electronic Libraries and Networked Information Resources". One has to choose.

Computer systems and users are converging, they say (both of them), which interests me, and I am not too good at things which call themselves names like "SNMPv2", and I have a general allergy to acronyms, so I've decided to go to anything in human language having to do with users.

So far I've seen an excellent presentation by Susan Estrada -- ex- of CERFnet, now of Aldea Communications -- called "Internet 101", then an interesting grope toward users by a group calling themselves "Commercial Use of the Internet", and finally an even more interesting although somewhat distressing session ably managed by author Ed Krol on "Personal Access to the Internet".

 

"Internet 101" -- the basic course

Susan Estrada's basic take on the Internet is that a "can-do" approach will work, for just about anything which one wants to do, if one is realistic. Her "can-do" approach came through in discussions, during her two-day tutorial marathon, of the Internet's infamous Acceptable Use Policies / AUP.

Susan basically considers such policies worthless, and frankly describes the ease with which countless efforts have succeeded in circumventing them since the Internet's inception. Listening to Susan, one gets the impression that those of us who have been respecting AUP restrictions on non-academic network use have been in a very small minority for a very long time.

Academic AUP does appear to be dying at last, this year -- the Internet is going public, and commercial -- but her description of the historical holes in AUP can serve as an eloquent warning to future government policy-makers against narrow-minded, restrictive, and most of all short-sighted networking policies.

Susan's realism came through in her basically negative assessment of accessibility on the Internet. She presented most of the new Internet "tools" in her tutorial, but was frank and often funny in her description of her own difficulties in getting these tools -- mail, FTP Telnet, USENET, Gopher, WWW, WAIS, Archie -- to work right.

It's not a perfect world on the Internet yet, she told us, and it's far better that we admit this and admit it to our users than that we pretend that we can do the impossible on what nevertheless still is the most exciting new information resource since the printed book.

 

Commercial use

The session on "Commercial Use of the Internet" featured three commercial users describing how a business can use this hitherto-academic resource efficiently, and two hopeful providers of the Internet resource to such commercial users. The users on the panel included an "instant" printer, someone from Silicon Graphics, and someone from a stock brokerage firm.

Time value of information, ease of access of the technology, reliability of the network -- the Internet is very, the other alternatives are not so -- and security and confidentiality all were much discussed. Great savings over the cost of leased lines appear to be a primary factor. At the close, John Curran of NEARnet warned that commercial users should, "be prepared to use the Internet or lose out to those who do".

 

Personal access

The session on "Personal Access to the Internet", chaired by author Krol, presented four individuals who currently are working on providing access to the general public: Martin Schoffstall of PSI, Edward Vielmetti of Msen, Walter Howe of DELPHI, and Michael O'Dell of UUNET.

Krol cautioned that analogies mislead: the Internet is less like the "highway" which Al Gore likes to invoke, he said, than it is like airplanes taking off and landing from a vast system of airports -- the real question now becoming, he added, what type of plane did the user take?

Schoffstall described the efforts which his firm and others are making now to reach the general public with Internet services. He made the interesting suggestion that policy makers consider, "the environmental impact of removing one day of automobile commuting for all information workers in a metropolitan area".

Vielmetti warned that public access still needs work. There still are many entry barriers, he said: primary among these is the lack of market research -- the question still to be asked is, "what will motivate people at home to use this technology?"

Howe proudly described his own firm's efforts: DELPHI is the 5th largest "information provider" now, he says -- after CompuServe, Prodigy, Genie, and America Online -- and in the last six months has added 40,000 new subscribers.

O'Dell added his view that the "new transnational marketplace" for networking is showing a shift in emphasis, from Internet connectivity to Internet access.

I asked a question then. I hadn't heard much discussion yet, then or elsewhere at INTEROP, I said, of the folks whom I consider to be "the general public." Walt Howe describes his users as including, "experienced school/work Internet users", "BBS users", "professionals looking for access", "new modem users" and, interestingly, "the visually impaired." I told the panel that these categories did not include "the general public", as I understand the term. I think more of someone very un-professional and in-experienced, who is, moreover, not "looking for" anything and more probably really doesn't want to be bothered.

That's a fair description of the "general public" which many libraries would like to reach, and certainly of the "general public" which must be reached by any successful effort to "go public" with the Internet.

After some initial hemming and hawing I got some brave and, I think, honest answers. Walt Howe mentioned DELPHI'S "talk"-style online interactive help, and their unique (?) Gopher capacity to combine FTP with zmodem to get data to a home computer: both are part of their conscious effort to make all this technology increasingly invisible, he said.

Ed Krol was frank: we're not to the general public, thus defined, yet -- but he is most encouraged by the success of many K-12 Internet pilot efforts, which he feels will create a "next generation" of network users. Ed Vielmetti thoughtfully mused, then and after the session, that a little "Internet diskette" in a pretty package, on the shelf at Egghead Software (for $19.95} -- one that would handle "login" and "password" and "billing" and "Z39.50" and "WWW" all "invisibly" for the user -- might be a nice thing to have.

 

Internet Marketing -- Calm before tidal wave?

I couldn't help thinking, though, as I toured through the vast commercial exhibits in the enormous Moscone Center later -- over 500 vendors, names like IBM and Apple and AT&T and MCI and Pacific Bell, and Klever Computers -- that unless these folks get their marketing together quickly the "general public" may escape them. The really big sharks are gathering on this one, and they are really hungry, and some of them know marketing to the general public very well,

Ed Vielmetti and I had a talk over dinner and came up with a 3-part scenario (Ed agrees with most of this, I think): 1) the telephone companies will handle the "bits", 2) the cable companies will handle the generic services -- entertainment, mass media, the "sex 'n drugs 'n rock 'n roll" -- and, 3) the small rugged independents like the pioneers at INTEROP still will have the personalized services -- training, navigating, filtering, anything lower-budget & higher-risk & labor-intensive, of which there still will be a lot under any realistic scenario.

Library service, in my opinion, fits in somewhere in category #3. There is no guarantee, of course, that any of these three players will survive, particularly at the hands now of the other two: there are no rules written -- the game still is being invented.

A comment of George Gilder's supports this scenario. "Intelligence will be on the periphery", he asserts: the days of centralization are over, he says -- the "pipe" will be neutral. This, if it's true, bodes well for both the large and the small players here: there will be a role for small, rugged independents, developing personalized networking, just as there will be a need for large economies-of-scale monoliths, which will supply and maintain the mass market, and the "pipe".

One remaining question, though, is how to accommodate the very major change which appears to be implicit in the burst of activity going on this week at INTEROP. I'll be back at the conference during the next two days, poking into sessions, wandering the trade floor: my thought is that any librarian or information worker about to make a large hardware or network acquisition, or wondering about upgrading a telephone service, or puzzling over the future of a "media" center, or fussing with the continuous problems of logins, modems, syntaxes, norms and compatibility, might want to be at INTEROP too.

 

References

Bio

JACK KESSLER has academic degrees in philosophy, law, and library and information studies, and has pursued these and other subjects at Yale, Oxford, and the University of California. He spent fifteen years in the handicraft importing business, until he found the glamor of international travel to be at odds with the joys of married life and of the raising of two small boys. His love affair with books and love/hate relationship with the computer are long-standing. While an importer he fought the automation battles of the 70s and 80s, most often siding with the Luddites against the machines but then reluctantly giving in. He's still suspicious. Currently he works as a networked information consultant, and just has concluded a one-year study in France of the French Minitel and of foreign library applications of the US Internet. He is a member of the American Society for Information Science, the American Library Association, and the California Library Association. His ambition in life still is never to take another airplane trip. His Internet e-mail address is: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

 

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