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WIRED : Businesses Create Cyberspace Land Rush on the Internet


So what if it lacks the cachet of 90210? Who cares that the neighborhood is still full of nerds? An address on the Internet is the latest gotta-have status symbol in corporate America.

Once the hidden preserve of academics, scientists and defense contractors, the Internet--that grand global network of computer networks--is now the site of a cyberspace land rush, with businesses pouring onto the system in something resembling a digital stampede.

In the process, the computing world's closest approximation of a countercultural stomping ground is being transformed into an adjunct to corporate America's cash register--much to the displeasure of many longtime users.

Thanks mostly to businesses, a system that already reaches 15 million people worldwide is growing at the rate of perhaps a million a month. An estimated 6,500 U.S. firms, including more than half the Fortune 1000, subscribe to telecommunications services that give them an Internet mail drop, and more companies are gaining full-blown access all the time.

From Sterlington, La., Argus Chemical relies on the Internet instead of Federal Express to disseminate up-to-the-minute results of important research tests throughout its organization. The Internet, after all, is available 24 hours a day every day.

From Los Angeles, Unocal uses the Internet to transmit to remote locations any maps and land surveys needed for its oil and gas exploration. Why? The Internet spans the globe, reaching nearly 130 countries.

From New York, McGraw-Hill is trying the system to deliver some of its newsletters and magazines. At least a dozen other book publishers are openly advertising and taking orders via the Internet.

Even cable television operators, led by Tele-Communications Inc. and Time-Warner Corp., are exploring ways to offer their subscribers access to the Internet via the living room TV set.

Businesses would be pouring onto the Internet even faster if it weren't for worries about security. Nonetheless, the rush for Internet access has been so great in recent months that some companies, including Miller Brewing Co. and retailer Nordstrom Inc., have reserved Internet addresses for potential future use.

"Remember when a fax machine seemed an option? Now everyone has one. The same holds true today for a corporate Internet address," says Christopher Locke, a software engineer and former editor of the Internet Business Journal. "Companies that have no presence in this new arena will quickly fade from view."

That may be hyperbole, but there's no denying the growing importance of the Internet or the broad implications of its rising use. For any user with a personal computer and a modem, the Internet offers cheap, instant global communications.

You can use it to send a fax to Finland or locate the works of Shakespeare. You can talk to fellow orchid fanciers, find a fiance or publish your memoirs. There are perhaps 4,500 special-interest conferences--from autos to Unix, Anne Rice to Elvis. Electronic mail on the Internet can be had for less than $10 a month through a commercial service. Individuals can get access to the whole shebang for less than $20.

Businesses, by contrast, pay from $1,000 to upward of $300,000 a year, depending on their type of connection and what services they consume.

Navigating the system isn't easy. Written by the computer literate for their own ilk, the required sequences of keyboard entries are arcane and difficult. As a result, the Internet long remained out of the reach of the uninitiated.

But over the last three years, a few entrepreneurs have gone into the business of making it easier for firms and individuals to connect to and find their way around the system. Businesses, many of them by now loaded with university graduates who were issued Internet addresses with their student cards in the 1980s, have responded enthusiastically.

"The Internet is still a long ways from being a resource for the masses," says Vinton Cerf, the preeminent computer scientist credited with developing the Internet's unique technology. "But it still is the closest thing we have to an advanced, public data network."

Indeed, the Internet is a prototype of the so-called information highway touted by two of its more recent subscribers: President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

A 1960s-style cooperative of computers, software and telephone wires, the Internet was started by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency to link the Defense Department with its suppliers across the nation. Over the years, the network grew to include universities and laboratories around the world.

Like the long-distance phone network created by AT&T at the turn of the century to tie together tiny phone companies, the critical link uniting Internet members is a common telecommunications software that bridges what would otherwise be incompatible systems. Anyone using that software gains access to the Internet.

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