By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
It amazes me that my five-year-old son is now riding a two-wheeler without training wheels and learning to read and spell. I suppose that's not so amazing, considering that millions of five-year-olds before him have accomplished similar feats. However, it is still surprising when after months of preparation, reinforcement, and encouragement children, all of a sudden, figure it out and then there's no looking back. It's as if the skill were there all along, just waiting to get out, but in reality there is so much groundwork being laid, conscious and unconscious, starting from the time of birth.
I recall that when my son was just four months old, I was on my way from Denton to Irving to present a seminar at the University of Dallas . On the way, I checked in with his baby sitter, using my new-fangled cell phone, to be sure all was going OK. Five years ago, I was asked to give an Internet "orientation" to University of Dallas faculty. They had limited connectivity at the time, and one of the science faculty had a Sun workstation on which he provided faculty with e-mail accounts. Most faculty at that small, Catholic liberal arts university had little or no prior exposure to the Internet, other than what they might have read in the newspapers at the time. I proceeded to call upon my six long years of Internet experience to provide an introduction to Internet staples like telnet, ftp, Usenet news, gopher, archie, e-mail, and that new thing that was really catching on at the time, the World-Wide Web.
Brave new World?
I was nudged into this reminiscence when I heard a radio commercial for the University of Dallas promoting their executive MBA degree program and the fact that the entire degree program can be studied online via Web-based courses . What a transformation must have occurred in five years, to have gone from a Sun workstation with a few e-mail accounts to a sophisticated online presence. At UNT we now offer scores of online courses and a number of online programs, none of which existed five years ago.
The expansion of Internet technology has been phenomenal, to the point where we now take Internet access for granted. In looking at the developments over the last 5 years, it's as if we went from the 1909 Ford Model T to a 1957 Chevy. A car was pretty well standardized by 1909 and Henry Ford took that standardization one step further. By 1957, cars still had four wheels, an engine, a metal body, a standard steering mechanism, but the technology was much more sophisticated and the capability of the auto was increased, particularly in speed.
It seems that a similar fifty years of development has been compressed into five in the history of the Internet. We've gone from presenting digital images and formatted text to providing complex user-driven services ranging from online banking to the acquisition of an advanced educational degree. In such cases, a single Web page is no longer the object of our browsing. Web-based systems implement services in multiple pages and those pages are sometimes generated entirely on the fly based upon data that you provide.
Infinity and Beyond?
Sun Microsystems head Scott McNealy is quoted as providing the catch-phrase, "The network is the computer." The premise is that a collection of computers connected by a common network can be much more productive than an individual unit. The Web has certainly grown to match this description and a search engine like google is a good illustration of the power of that concept. The most sophisticated Web systems rely on a combination of computation, data, and interconnectivity to accomplish their tasks.
By 1957, automobiles were pretty sophisticated, but roads, traffic control, and safety measures had not kept apace. On today's Internet, bandwidth, that is the capacity of the Internet to transmit information, is used up almost as soon as it is expanded. The anticipated growth of digital video transmission on the Internet will just aggravate this problem (until then, we still have Napster to deal with). The Internet may run out of addresses. The numeric addressing scheme of the IP protocol is made up of four sets of three digit numbers which range from 0 to 255. That provides a large number of addresses, but that number is not infinite. The number of computers on the Internet world wide continues to grow. There are also limitations to the address names on the Internet. It seems that we've outgrown the address designation types of .edu, .com, .org, .net, .mil, and .gov. While there are a number of proposals, both official and unofficial, to expand the number of address designations, the actual implementation may be a rocky road. Finally, the Internet is like a car with no door locks. Chances are there's nothing in there that is worth stealing, but if there is, you have to take additional measures to protect your goods.
The Final Frontier?
Just as the NSFnet spurred the growth and development of the Internet in the early 1990's, Internet2 (http://www.internet2.org/) promises a similar initiative to tackle some of the technical problems facing today's Internet. To quote their Web site: "Internet2, led by over 180 U.S. universities working in partnership with industry and government, is developing and deploying advanced network applications and technologies, accelerating the creation of tomorrow's Internet." The Internet2 Project, of which UNT is a member, hopes to develop new Internet technologies but also to develop more efficient ways of using Internet bandwidth as well as expand the addressing scheme available.
It remains to be seen whether Internet2 will have as great an impact as intended. There is a large arena of commercial Internet use that didn't exist 5 years ago. That activity developed from a baseline of zero. It may be much harder to make change occur, now that so much economic activity is based upon today's Internet's way of operation. It's inevitable, however, that change will occur. The groundwork is laid and it is just a matter of time before the right components come together and change the Internet in a surprising and maybe unanticipated way. You can take if from me, a person who has seen the rise and fall of Gopher and run alongside a two-wheeler ready to catch a careening five-year-old.