I devoted my first column of 1995 to discussing what I thought would be the things which would have the biggest effect on the development of the Internet that year. Since I'm an aficionado of tradition, it's time once again for me to dust off my crystal ball, make a few mystic passes and try to define the events, technologies and trends which will most significantly impact the evolution of the Internet in 1996.
Perhaps the fairest place for me to start is with a review of the predictions I made in 1995 and an evaluation of how they turned out. In my January, 1995 column, I speculated that the two signal developments of the year would be the defunding of the National Science Foundation Internet backbone and the rollout of the Microsoft Network.
My NSFNet thesis was that the shutdown would free the Internet from the constraints of what was known as "appropriate use"--the policy that no commercial traffic should use the taxpayer-funded NSF high-speed backbone--and thereby open the Internet to general business uses. I think it's fair to say I was right on this one. If anything, I underestimated the impact that removing the constraints on business uses would have on the character of the Net in general and the Web in particular.
My other prediction was that Microft's bundling of the Microsoft Network with Windows95© would put Microsoft in the position to successfully dictate standards to the Internet, bypassing the Internet Society's consensus-oriented Internet Engineering Task Force process. With Microsoft having voluntarily limited MSN subscriptions to 500,000 users through the end of November, 1995 and the slow adoption of Windows95© by the corporate users Microsoft was counting on, I'd have to say I blew it on this one. Although it's probably true to say that the perceived threat of MSN was a critical factor in motivating other online services, particularly America OnLine and CompuServe Information Service, to roll out enhanced Internet services of their own (and, in CompuServe's case, to radically restructure its pricing), the effect of MSN on Microsoft's ability to dictate standards was indiscernable. Instead, the standards bully turned out, much to my surprise, to be Netscape Communications Corporation, maker of the wildly-successful Netscape Navigator.
Netscape has come under intense criticism from the IETF community for becoming "the Microsoft of the World Wide Web" because of its proprietary extensions to existing and proposed HyperText Markup Language standards (http://home.mcom.com/assist/net_sites/html_extensions_3.html). You wouldn't know it from the widespread adoption of those very extensions, (how many sites have you seen which feature blinking text, or backgrounds or variable-width horizontal rules?), but there's a fair amount of resentment on the part of old Internet types of what is viewed as Netscape's high-handed imposition of its proprietary HTML tags on the standards promulgation process.
Unfortunately for the old guard, I think this trend will continue in 1996. In fact, I think it's safe to predict that the mossbacks will lose this one by a knockout. The newly-released Navigator 2.0 (ftp://ftp1.netscape.com/netscape/) incorporates still newer, Netscape-proprietary tags, such as frames (http://home.mcom.com/assist/net_sites/frames.html), that I think the Web-building community will rush to adopt wholesale. The old IETF decision-by-consensus mechanism is simply too slow and cumbersome for the warp-speed evolution rate of the Web, and I'm afraid that consensus will wind up taking a permanent back seat to expediency on this an other Web-related issues. The major squestion is, besides Netscape, who else will get to drive?
Microsoft is in there pitching with its Internet Explorer 2.0 (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/download/msie20.exe), which implements client-side image maps in a proprietary fashion different from the Netscape method. Microsoft also offers tags to create scrolling marquees and for playing and controlling embedded Audio-Video Interleave (AVI) movies (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/ie20html.htm). Unfortunately for Microsoft, I suspect that the attraction of marquees won't be strong enough to persuade Netscape's loyal user base to abandon the greater flexibility of frames and plug-ins. As for AVIs, the charm of animation will, in many users' minds, be far outweighed by the cost in time to download these often- huge files at the agonizing pace of 14.4 kilobaud.
This brings up another battle that's looming on the horizon in 1996: the number of Web sites implementing Sun Microcomputer Corporation's Java programming language (http://java.sun.com/) applets versus those offering similar functionality via Microsoft's equally-proprietary Blackbird technology. Again, I think the road ahead for Bill Gates' gang is a rocky one. Netscape Navigator 2.0, which already owns an enormous share of the Web browser marketplace, natively supports Java. Microsoft's Blackbird, on the other hand, isn't even supported by its own Internet Explorer. By the time the Redmond gang make it onto the battlefield, the war will be over and Sun will have won.
Unless I miss my guess, one of the more important trends of 1996 will be the integration of additional service funtionality into the Web browser user interface. As Mark Andreesen agreed in his May, 1995 LAN Times interview, the role of the Web browser is rapidly expanding to consolidate into itself the email, ftp, newsreader, Internet relay chat and other Internet services which used to require separate applications. This should be good news for corporate LAN environments, where that unified interface should reduce the complexity of the training and helpdesk support needed by the user community.
Finally, there's the rise of the corporate Intra-net. The twin technologies of the Web and Simple Message Transfer Protocol- based Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions-enhanced Internet-standard email deserve a place in the corporate LAN.
(Copyright© 1996 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)