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How the web was lost

November 9, 1997
by Zac Belado

Its hard to decided what scared people away from the internet; slow connections, too much hype or problems configuring their 56K modems? Either way the internet has been undergoing some "right sizing" lately. And to be frank any pain suffered by pundits and industry leaders from this lack of home users gorging on net content is totally self inflicted.

Net-hype. Its been so bad that it would make P.T Barnum gawk in disbelief. Remember the AT&T commercials showing doctors viewing live video feeds of x-rays and mothers talking to their children from public video phones? I contrast this with the 15 minute search I made for a pay phone the other day.

A year ago, when the blush was still on the net and technology prognosticators weren't shunned and hounded from polite circles, the net was going to be in every home, we'd all do our grocery shopping over the net and send flowers to our mothers through AOL.

Forty years ago they thought we'd be living on the moon right now, flying to work in jet cars and having our laundry done by robots.

Some people never learn.

Got a 56K modem? Got an ISP that uses modems with a different 56K standard? Ever try to connect an ISDN connection to your home machine?

The ubiquity of a technology is in direct relation to that amount of hair pulling it takes to get it to work. Cable TV works only because the hardest part of the installation is waiting for the cable guy to show up. Plug a coaxial cable in, turn the TV on. Watch Seinfeld re-runs. Its that easy. Until getting a fast, consistent net connection is just as simple the industry is going to suffer with numbers much smaller than it predicted.

The Net magazine recently announced it would be refocusing its content and changing its target audience from new internet user to established business internet users. No more articles about the best internet service and more articles about hot IPOs. This change of audience came up in a discussion with a local developer who has moved the focus of his company entirely to corporate clients; presentations, web-sites and product demonstrations. The mom and pop corner store never had the money to produce a website and even if they could none of their customers use the net for shopping. Its big business that is setting up shop on the net. Problem is no-one is shopping.

It seems that the expected explosion of new home internet users never developed (or to be more accurate never developed into the saganesque numbers that industry pundits announced). If you run a web site yourself you might notice that very few of your visitors are non-business users. The number users who browse "the web" from home is still very small. And probably won't begin to enlarge significantly until the telecommunications industry does something about connection speeds.

Do you, like the vast majority of home internet users, still use a 28.8 modem? If so you know how hard it is to get decent throughput. Each week ISPs and the telecommunications industry add more users and we as developers add more content and each week the problem gets worse and worse. During the day I'm lucky to get 1K/sec throughput on my modem.

This is, mind you, in a major metropolitan area of a Canadian province that has almost no copper wire in its telephone system. In fact, British Columbia probably has the highest percentage of fiber-optic wiring in North America (although someone did mention that this title may now be claimed by Saskatchewan). And if I can't get a stable connection what happens when your average user in South Dakota dials in? Or, even better, your average New York user where, I am told, you're lucky to get a dailtone out of the antiquated telecommunications system in that state.

Welcome to the future. Hope you've got time to wait for it to transfer.

A friend of mine has ASDL. Its everything that the net is supposed to be. Fast and transparent (for the most part). We were listening to a live Black Sabbath concert the other day (don't ask why even I don't have an answer for that) and when the show was done we calculated that we had downloaded over 750 MB of audio data.

Do the math for a 1K/sec connection and you'll see why the dream was stillborn.

Problem is there is a two month wait to get it.

Welcome to the future. Hope you've got time to wait for the installation.

Is it any wonder that the home user has tossed their modem in the trash and gone back to watching Seinfeld? Is it any wonder that magazines like The Net have to retarget their advertisers and content to the users that can afford to upgrade their systems and their phonelines to enable "proper" usage of the internet? Push, pull, CDF, Java...its all great and really neat but only if you have ISDN and P166. Anyonelse is left in the cold (or left wondering why their machine crashed) scratching their head and wondering what the fuss was all about.

Yes, "was".

The modem-bound home user has already been burned and they aren't going to be coming back. Users in large metropolitan areas that can get access to advanced transfer options like ADSL will come back and be happy net-consumers. But the numbers will never, at least in the United States, reach the projections or the potential until access is ubiquitous, transparent and affordable.

Time to rethink those business plans.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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