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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
There's not much new technology popping up on the Internet these days. There are still a lot of new web sites being published, and some new search engines to compete with Google, but not much technology that's really new and exciting. A few older technologies and services are bubbling their way closer to the top of Internet community consciousness and are terms you may be hearing in the not-too-distant future, if they haven't crossed your path already.
Voice Over IP (VoIP)
"Voice over IP" is a catch phrase which has been around for quite some time, but is only recently getting notice as a serious commercial service. The idea of VoIP is to use the Internet to transmit phone calls instead of the existing telephone network. This is not a new idea. In the old days, when the Microsoft operating system was still DOS, Macintosh users had access to programs like Maven for Internet audio conferencing and CUSeeMe for Internet audio/video conferencing. These programs would allow you to talk directly with others on the Internet who could also run the same programs.
VoIP services have extended the idea of Internet audio conferencing into traditional telephony. They interface a standard telephone to a broadband Internet connection and allow you to talk to any phone number you can dial on a "regular" phone. The advantage to consumers is that it provides a much less expensive alternative to traditional local and long-distance service. The disadvantage is that most Internet connections, including the broadband connections such as DSL or Cable Modem, are still less than 100% reliable. A dropped connection when reading a web page or fetching e-mail is a minor inconvenience. A dropped connection in the middle of a phone call can be a major annoyance.
Currently, Vonage, AT&T, and Verizon are the major players in VoIP services, but it's likely that more competition will arise and more telephone service will be carried over IP. However, unless there's more economic advantage to VoIP at home, its likely to remain a minor player in relation to traditional service and cell phones. For VoIP to catch on, broadband service will need to be less expensive, a condition which will require more competition than there exists in the current home marketplace. However, for businesses or institutions which already have an Internet infrastructure, VoIP may soon be the preferred choice for telephone service.
Here Come the Blogs
Most people have heard of blogs (short for web logs), but I've recently heard suggestions for using blogs as teaching tools. Blogs can range from "ordinary" people's random musings or daily diaries, to issue-based analyses and news reporting, such as Grocklaw. Even politicians have discovered blogs, and the current U.S. Presidential campaigns each have their own official blog sites.
There are a number of blog software packages available, most of which are provided under an open source license. "Blogger" Owen Winkler has developed a chart which provides a cross reference of the various packages with various features they support. There are also a number of services on the Internet which allow you to set up your own blog for a fee or even for free.
Blogs generally allow readers to post their own comments and reactions to a particular entry and can serve as interesting discussion forums. In an educational setting, blog software could provide students a forum for posting their ideas on a particular topic of study which could then undergo a peer review by their classmates and be monitored by their instructor. Whether or not blogs catch on in education, they will likely be around for some time allowing those who are so inclined to have a forum for their personal ideas or interests.
IPv6 stands for "Internet Protocol version 6." Internet Protocol defines the nature of the numeric addresses but which computers find each other on the Internet. The "original" protocol we still use in most cases is IPv4. It features Internet address numbers which consist of 4 8-bit numbers (0-255) separated by three periods. One major concern about IPv4 is that the Internet will soon run out of addresses. Major network sites like UNT have been assigned their own unique numbers for the first two of the four-number sets. This allows for 65,536 unique networks like UNT's, but with a worldwide Internet, that number may not be enough.
IPv6 features numeric addresses which consist of 8 sets of 16-bit numbers (0-65535) separated by colons. This yields enough addresses to literally blanket the earth. IPv6 also has features to help the Internet operate more efficiently. But, since using IPv6 means changing a lot of software, including operating systems, the adoption of the new protocol in the U.S. is proceeding about as quickly as our adoption of the metric system. Most newer OS's such as Linux, Mac OS X, and even newer versions of Windows, now support IPv6 addressing. The addressing can also be made transparent to most Internet applications, since an IPv6 network would still support fully-qualified domain names such as www.unt.edu. But there's a lot of network routing equipment and support infrastructure that needs to be changed in order to support IPv6. It's a few kilometers down the road, but I suspect that IPv6 will eventually get here (IPv6 is already routed on Internet2). In case you're wondering, yes there is an IPv5.
"I" to the Future
There's no doubt that the Internet is still changing and developing, but the pace of change is much slower than some of us "pioneers" became used to. The way the Internet is being used shifts subtly from year to year, but there hasn't been a technology break-through recently to provide the kind of stimulus to Internet use and development that we saw in the late 1990s. Projects like Internet2 and the NLR are supposed to provide those technological quantum leaps, but so far it's more like a quantum crawl. [See "UNT Will Benefit From Statewide Fiber Optics Network" in this issue for some recent developments on this front here in Texas. -- Ed.]