The sight of Netscape
stock racing from $25 to $75 in a couple of hours reminded the world (as if it needed it)
that the Internet was still causing wise men to loose control of their senses and go barmy
at the mention of the magic "I" word.
And speaking of NetScape, if ever there was a man in the right place at the right time,
Marc Andreessen is he. Plucked from obscurity at the University of Illinois where he was
credited with creating Mosaic (a simple enough concept) he has been thrust in midst of
bottomless pits of venture capital providing him and his team with the finest development
toys that money can buy. I am insanely jealous.
But NetScape has quite squarely abandoned the principles of the Internet in their
scramble for browser supremacy, forever knocking on the head the idea of gentlemanly
agreement concerning the way the Internet used to work. Not the past tense here, it's
fairly pivotal, because the name of the game is to do something as non-standard as
possible and thus corner some aspect of the Internet market into what us capitalist regard
as the finest money printing machine available: a monopoly.
Standards are for wimps. Microsoft invents standards when it has rounded up 80% of the
market. Sun is about as "open systems" as it gets, and yet they too revel in
proprietary tweaks that means that most of their users are also locked in to Suns support
and supplies tighter than PJ Proby's trousers (one for the oldies out there). I have
been on the wrong end of this too, having been asked (but not paid) £1000 for a
replacement socket on a big Sun monitor "sorry sir, we have one charge for all
monitor repairs", although I was tempted to drop the monitor and get my money's
worth, I spent an hour with a soldering iron and fixed it myself.
In fact, truly open systems are the end of any commercial enterprise, because by
definition, only the cheapest solution will ever "get sold". Although
that's the wrong term, because the cheapest solution is freeware, and Linux is the
living proof that free can give expensive and proprietary a run for its money in both
performance and support. Yes, I said support: there is no Linux Inc.
I'm terribly sorry to tell you that you cannot wait on hold to for hours while the
support bod gets round to you; but there are numerous support groups, IRC channels and
other Internet media that will cater for your every need in a way that is lacking for
expensive stuff from the likes of Sun and Novell.
This rankles with the people who try to earn a living from selling UNIX, and so various
stories about Linux seem to appear from time to time to try and unnerve its fanatical
Value added, liberty subtracted
More worrying than a bit of a stir in the software business is the plethora of Internet
service providers who are not content to offer some standard "here's the IP, now
get on with it" approach that exemplified Demon for so long, but instead are seeking
to do all sort of strange things in the name "adding value".
CompuServe started this whole game of operating a corral in cyberspace, and remained
utterly proprietary for ages, until it saw the writing on the wall and suddenly sprung IP
connectivity via its vast POP network. It may not be the fastest connection in town, but
at least it's a real IP connection. And it worries me.
Why does it frighten me? Because it seems that the rest of the world wants to emulate
this mix of proprietary service and IP connection deal, where the idea that the Internet
is a network, and that information providers are information providers is being quietly
subsumed into the notion that you have to be a major content monger as well as a PoP
operator. The result being something that brand managers can manage and talk sharp
marketingspeak about it all at sharp suited PR events.
This is not the Internet as we knew it, Jim.
Frankly, Internet connectivity ought to be provided free as a function of the phone
rental you pay. And various pundits suggest it will soon enough, but meantime the
"brand managers" are doing their thing, and we even hear tales of Virgin having
a whack at the game. Saints preserve us. A The time is fast approaching when we can
recycle all those Mac/Nun jokes I fear:
"A Virgin connection won't go down you" etc.
Dicky Branson, in between famously poaching pigeons and flying balloons, apparently
wants a piece of this bandwagon to add to his others. The rumours I heard include games
playing via the net. Terrific use of bandwidth, so I hope if it's true that Virgin
won't be let near LINX to mess with MY bandwidth, thank you very much.
And how about that Delphi/MCI deal? Rupert Murdoch's Delphi hasn't exactly
hit the spot in terms of the UK market up to now, but maybe it's been biding its time
as the surf subsides and a different category of user emerges. Various Sky TV people have
been seen wandering around shows (notably at Networks) muttering about big things in the
works. Mind you, the same people have been wandering around with an air of self importance
for quite a while with very little to show for it.
Well, the Murdoch approach is very much the notion of cleverly establishing what
amounts to nothing more sophisticated than a fleet of proprietary monopolies. Heavens,
Rupert and his minions actually managed to make Premier League football Sky-specific, so
God knows what he has planned for the Internet.
Does he plan to corner newsgroups like alt.sex.binaries.bigboobs and hide them behind
Sky smartcards? One would have to say that on past performance, this is well on the
But all these big services have one thing in common, they can't really get whole
heartedly into the anarchy of the Internet that has thus far provided its charm. What
CompuServe and UK Online publish on their service is subject to their censorship and the
myriad of confused rules that apply in various countries around the world where a
"publisher" can be identified and pursued.
The raw IP mongers are "common carriers" in the way that he Post Office
delivers letters without opening and censoring them. The moment the operator starts to
propose it has some sort of content management and control, then all sorts of abysses open
up to swallow the unwary, and a barrier of proprietary exclusion is necessarily erected.
After all is said and done the Internet is just a rather slow computer network. Yet
because it is accessible to anyone with a phone, it actually probably will be
instrumental in establishing world peace and finding the cure for AIDS. Something that I
wonder if all the efforts of the CompuServes, Delphis et al are likely to have contributed
to in any discernible measure.
Stick to raw IP. When the big services come along wanting to nanny and manage you, just
say "no thanks".