When Will Hearst, scion of the famed newspaper family, unveiled a new venture called @Home earlier this year, he seemed to be proposing the solution to every Internet surfer's dream. By offering access to the global computer network via big, fat cable television lines that can transmit data a thousand times faster than standard phone wires, @Home promises to transform the very nature of the Internet, and especially the graphics-rich part of it known as the World Wide Web.
But the real transformation that @Home portends has little to do with speed. Rather, it's a manifestation of how the relatively egalitarian Internet of today, in which everybody has access to the same Web sites, newsgroups and communications services, is breaking into distinct layers.
There will soon be one genre of Internet experience for subscribers to @Home and other cable-based services, another for people who dial into the Net to get information, and still another for those who enjoy "chat" rooms and other types of on-line socializing. There will be large, sophisticated commercial Web sites that won't be free and will bear almost no resemblance to the individualistic cacophony of home pages that dominate the Web today. There will be an enormous variety of private sub-networks offering only rudimentary electronic mail connections to the Net.
"It's possible to have the regular freeway system and also have extremely high-performance toll roads," notes Eric Schmidt, chief technical officer at Sun Microsystems Corp. "Someone like me, I won't use the 'random' Internet. Instead I'll use the specialized network."
To some, this transformation is unfortunate--and, in the long run, self-defeating. Aneurin Bosley, editor of the Ottowa-based Internet Business Journal, points out that it is precisely the egalitarian nature of the Net that has led to its enormous popularity.
Unlike traditional mass media, in which communication is essentially one-way, the Internet enables people to be producers of information, not just consumers. Anyone with desire and a credit card can create an on-line magazine that is, at least visually, in the same league as anything from Time Inc.--and just as easy to access.
"On the Internet, like-minded people can exchange ideas and establish a far broader community," Bosley says. Services such as @Home, which will be mostly one-way delivery of services summoned by customers, are "the kind of model the Internet is designed against," he adds.
David Coursey, writing in the latest issue of the industry newsletter PC Letter, says there is "every likelihood the Internet will soon be about as enriching as television, at least as far as the mass consumption of the Net is concerned." And he doesn't mean that as a compliment.
Befitting something offered over cable TV lines, in fact, @Home will in many ways bear more resemblance to a TV service than an Internet link. It will provide subscribers with 10-megabit-per-second Internet access, but there's a big catch: Only the information and entertainment providers who rent space on the @Home network will be accessible at that speed. Access to other sites will still be fast by today's standards, but generally much slower than 10 megabits.
In practice, this means that big media organizations will be able to deliver a panoply of elaborate, video-intensive services via @Home. Mark Potts, editorial director of @Home, says the company will also be supporting innovative new applications from all types of firms. But the John Doe Journal won't be able to pay the freight. And access via @Home will cost $30 to $50 a month--considerably more than most Internet service providers charge today.
Segmentation is, in fact, already taking place on the Internet in a variety of ways. New Web programming languages, authoring tools and extensions of the basic protocols of the Internet are making it possible to create much richer and more interesting Web pages. But fancier sites take a lot more money to create and maintain, and some will probably be useful only to those with a certain kind of Web browser or a certain speed of modem.
Commercial on-line services such as America Online and CompuServe, which briefly appeared to face a mortal threat from the sudden rise of the Web, will probably prosper as specialized sub-sections of the Internet. AOL, for example, generates enormous revenue and customer loyalty from its chat services, and its monitored environment is a far cry from the buzzing, blooming confusion of the Internet at large.
Indeed, the fragmentation of the Internet isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the best case, it will create more choices for people of different tastes and income levels, and spur creativity at all levels. But there is a danger that it will reduce big swaths of it to one-way, least-common-denominator mass marketing dominated by big media companies.