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Untrue Lies

Anyone who is using the Internet regularly - but has only been doing so for a couple of years - is regularly exposed to two great lies. Well, let's be honest, many more than two (!), but what are these two great lies?

 

Lie One: the Internet is technologically advanced.

Truth One: No - it's not. It's obsolete. That's why you're now allowed to use it - and that's the truth. The Internet was replaced for its original purpose with a much more sophisticated system.

If you want to know all about this, do a search anywhere on the Internet for DARPA. You'll probably drown in data, because the Internet is very proud of its history. If you don't know anything about it, or are in a hurry, here's a quick potted version.

The Internet was designed to be a nuclear-war-proof computer communications system. It started out just linking the West and East coast of the USA. It worked, at least as a communications system, so was extended to more and more computers. Eventually, there were more than 20 systems connected! 20? Yes, 20 – this was way before the epoch of the personal computer. Each of these 20 computers was a large mainframe, with perhaps thousands of simultaneous users. The war-proof part of the system was that messages did not have a fixed route; if a particular pathway was blocked or destroyed, the message delivery system sought out an alternate one.

Over time, universities that were involved with and developing for the military got connected to the 'net. This brought the students and professors online. It also brought the first big virus problem – the Internet Worm (follow the link or do a search if you're really interested).

The Internet nuclear-proof failsafe communication technology has actually been tested – well, at least the war-proof part – in Operation Desert Storm. All early attempts to knock out Iraqi communications failed, because they were using an internet system and routing. This worked as it was intended to, and routed messages around any damaged communications links, delivering them where they were supposed to go. Ironic? Perhaps only one of the ironies connected with war, of whatever flavor.

However, there are many compromises inherent in Internet technologies. Many of these stem from the simple fact that the Internet was designed not so very long after the time (1944) Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM said (I paraphrase), 'We envisage a time when the world may need five computers', and before Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment said that he could see no reason why anyone should ever want a computer in their home (1970). I'm not laughing at them, by the way: you try and get the future right, see if you do any better.

These compromises and inefficiencies are such that a replacement system design was deemed necessary by the early 1980's. The (US) military together with some US universities moved to the new system in the 1990's, and stopped supporting the costs of the original Internet. This cost burden was taken over by commercial interests – previously, it had not (generally) been permissible to advertise on the Internet at all. And so what we got is the brand-new, revised take, commercially sponsored, but overall technologically completely obsolete Internet you are accessing right now.

Truly New Technologies

Now it is true that some new technologies are associated with the Internet, and that new technologies are being developed. Don't, however, confuse these new technologies with the underlying Internet technology that is used to deliver them to your desktop. What are these new technologies?

First, and most obviously, the World-Wide Web. This is what most users think of as 'the Internet', but it's actually a recent graft on top of the underlying communication system. The web technology was developed by a British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, working then at CERN. The idea was to enable easy access to, and cross-referencing of, scientific data. Although developed by a Brit, the underlying ideas owe a lot to Hyperstack« on the original Mac and that in turn owes a lot to Ted Nelson.

Next, Multimedia. The WWW format originally just dealt with text and textual material. Since 'a picture is worth a thousand words', methods for adding graphical material were soon appended to the basic technologies, by adding a multimedia descriptor known as MIME.

Since the first pictures appeared in web pages, many other types of data have been added: video material in various formats, audio material, interactive images, 3D representations, streaming media ('internet radio' and 'TV') and so on.

Secure Transaction facilities. The original Internet was designed to be immune to enemy action, not insider malice. Recent add-ons permit encrypted transaction data to be transmitted, received and verified in such a way as to permit financial transactions to be carried out on the web, at least as safely as at a supermarket or hole-in-the-wall bank till.

No doubt many more new ideas are yet to come. But note that all of these 'new technologies' are carried by the 'old technology' of the Internet, conceived in the 1960's - and so well-conceived that it still manages to be useful today, with several orders of magnitude more computers connected together than even existed back then.

Lie Two: just being on the Internet will make you rich.

Truth Two: No - it probably won't. It'll certainly cost you some money, though - isn't that always the truth?

The Internet has turned into a sort of lottery – and the issues surrounding registered Internet names (the 'domain name' that you are often urged to buy, no? :-) are even more of a lottery. What do I mean by that?

Well, you've probably heard people refer to lotteries, contemptuously, as 'the stupidity tax'. What they mean is that, in general, you've got a better chance of being hit on the head by a passing meteorite, or of dying in a plane crash, than of winning a lottery (I mean actually - on the whole it's as likely!). What many of these people do not know is that lotteries were in fact the precursor to formal taxation; they have been used for centuries, perhaps millennia, to raise money for government expenditure, whereas standard taxation is a fairly recent idea, originally introduced as a temporary measure to finance wars.

Now the probabilities of winning on a lottery are much the same as the probabilities of making your fortune with an Internet domain name. That means, yes, some people have made a bundle. But then, someone usually does win a lottery. Everyone else pays – and that's how it is with the Internet, too.

Why should you need a domain name?

Does this mean we're telling you not to register a domain name? Of course not! We did! But don't expect the fact of registering a name - as such - to make you rich. There are web sites out there, and domain name providers, selling you on that idea. We recommend you not to believe them – though sometimes, you just might be the winner in the lottery.

The real reason for registering a domain name is that you want to do something with the Internet. You may want to establish a non-commercial presence. You may want to establish a commercial presence. You may want to boost your ego – why not? You may want to sell products, or give them away. You may want to support products. You may wish to provide services, or promote your latest book, or music, or poetry, or whatever you do. Well, the Internet is a very good way of doing all these things cheaply. Let's look at the advantages:

  1. The Internet is a very cheap medium. It's expensive to advertise in Print media - magazines, newspapers - and the medium rapidly becomes out-of-date. That's good for the print providers – they are in the business of making money out of their medium. But if your business is not 'selling print', then you have no interest in your message being thrown in the trash at the end of the day, week or month. Internet sites are available 24 by 7 – jargon for all day, every day. Local radio and TV are more expensive, and have similar sorts of problems to print. Nationwide TV and radio are beyond the means of most – yet Internet presence is worldwide for the one simple hosting fee.

  2. The Internet is a contemporary medium. No doubt it will get to be old hat – but that's not yet. At the moment, having an Internet presence shows that you are bang up to date and right on the ball. Maybe. Not a bad impression to give, perhaps.

  3. You can do-it-yourself to a large extent. Although the entry threshold has been raised a little in the last five years, there is nothing that an 'Internet Website designer' can do for you that you cannot do for yourself, if you are so moved. Of course, you may have better things to do with your time, but the essential issue is that there is no need for any sort of difference to be apparent between your $500 site design and BigCorpX's $50,000 design – except yours may well work better, because many of BigCorpX's ideas come from traditional print media, and these almost invariably don't work so well on the 'net.

  4. Return communications from the visitors to your site are easy to arrange. They just click on the button or link and they can mail straight to your desk at no extra cost, complete with written record and return address.

  5. Your single website can be the basis for your whole business -- shopfront, promotion, demonstrations, example uses, purchaser testimonials, product testing, supply and if it's commercial, payment.

  6. On-line purchasing is fairly easy to set up. The whole thing can be almost instant. If you're selling something that can be transferred using the internet -- software programs, images, sounds, data or any other information -- the customer can see, try and (optionally) buy in a few moments, if they wish.

  7. And last but not least: on the whole, Internet users are in the higher socio-economic brackets (or are heading that way, if students). They are likely to be able to afford (at some point) to buy what you advertise – if you're advertising something, that is.

You may have noticed that a lot of businesses have worked all this out (I'm tempted to add, 'at last' :) - many other people got in here before them, though! If you want to do any of this yourself, your best bet in the long term is to register your own domain name, rather than hang off some other provider's name. For example, many free ISP's can offer you space that prepends your name to theirs, such as:

www.mysite.freeisp.com

with your email address being

anyname@mysite.freeisp.com

There's nothing wrong with starting out this way, but it gives a clear indication that you are not running your own space. With your own name, you end up with:

www.myname.com

(or .org, or .co.uk, co.de or whatever suffix you choose to register in) with emails going to

anyname@myname.com

-- which generally looks more serious.

Why might you not need one?

Let us balance this wide-eyed enthusiasm with the downside.

  1. You get what you pay for. Print media, TV and radio have long and broad experience in targeting particular potential client groups. With the Internet, you're mostly on your own. You can buy advice of course – but it'll cost you. Moreover, although you have 24 by 7 availability, the internet is a pull not a push medium. That is, the end user has to decide to connect and view your material; you can't blast it at them like a TV or radio advert (am I trying to tell you this is a disadvantage?? :-).

  2. The Internet used to be seen as 'geeky'. Still is, in some quarters – and there's some indication the pendulum is swinging back that way.

  3. You can do it yourself, but you are going to have to spend a lot of time learning how. I spent well over 8 weeks 8 hours a day in writing the first version of this site -- maybe you want to work out how much it cost, because I don't! The sorts of control over presentation that are available in other media don't always apply to the Internet, and if you try and tie everything down as if it was in print, you'll get up an awful lot of people's noses.

  4. Communications are so easy that you can waste a tremendous (in its original sense of 'terrifying') amount of time communicating with people you'd maybe prefer to just 'go away'. Also there's spam, spam, spam...

  5. On-line purchasing is easy – but it still works best with computer-based products, especially software. The key is in the delivery process. With a software product, you can sell the product, the purchaser can download it, and that's that. If you are selling John Deere tractors, then it's hard to see where the advantage to on-line purchases over other methods might be. Of course, this doesn't affect the usefulness of your on-line catalogue. Nor does it mean that you shouldn't sell tractors on the Internet, only that if that's what you're doing the Internet represents an additional outlet, rather than an ideal outlet.

  6. Moreover, it's simple enogh to set up on-line purchasing -- as long as you are in one of the places that makes it easy. Even then, you need a merchant account to sell on the internet -- and if you are not already a merchant, that can be difficult to set up. If you can't do that, you are going to have to pay a commission to some other company to service your sales for you. Of course, if you're not selling anything -- you can forget about this.

  7. And, last but not least, what if your established or intended audience, market or customer base doesn't - or can't - or won't use the Internet? Maybe they don't use computers? Or have telephones? You're not going to get much joy, then, are you?

A Million Scams

There has been lots of publicity recently over 'cyber-squatting'- this refers to the activities of some 'entrepreneurs' who have registered domain names often using the trade names of other companies. Their idea was to sell the names on, at inflated costs. This did work, sometimes, in the early days, when conventions and law had not yet established how to deal with these circumstances.

Generally it's different now. There have been various well-publicized cases where names have been forcibly removed from the original registree and reassigned to the trademark holder. In the US, there is now ample precedent that an established name user has rights over that name. In the UK, trademark law has been adapted to deal with these circumstances, and takes precedence over any domain name registration. Other countries have other views; in some legislations this is simply treated as criminal behavior. 

What is legal is to register a good name that you have thought up, but that no-one has registered (and that isn't anyone's name or trade mark) - or indeed a whole series of such names. Then you can advertise them for sale. There's nothing illegal or immoral in that, but remember what we said – not many win the lottery. Mostly it's a business like any other -- and the same skills are needed to make a business work, wherever it trades and whatever the commodity.


General Links

 

Just to get you started, here are some rough-and-ready links into some of the topics I have mentioned. These links worked when the page was put up. Do they still? If they don't, then you have an excellent demonstration of some of the problems we still have to solve with the Internet…

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