Web and E-mail Technologies as Product and Infrastructure

EN: This seems to be an enumeration of communication technologies, explained to those who are wholly unaware of them. I'll skip over a lot.

Of the various protocols used to send and receive data, e-mail and hypertext (the Web) are by far the most popular.

Networked communication predates the internet as we currently perceive it. ARPANET went into operations in 1969 and TCP/IP was developed in the later 1970's. And so, the technology of the internet, and its fundamental uses as a medium for transmitting and storing data, are not new - though the availability of these capabilities to such a large audience seems so.

Since the Internet was developed in academia for open communications, it originally lacked many of the features the commercial users desired: the ability to lock down their content, closely monitor the behavior of visitors, require payment for accessing information, etc. Had these features existed, it seems less likely the Internet would have caught on.

Data sharing also predates the Internet. It originally had to be done through hard media (swapping disks), then in a direct computer-to-computer patch, later in standing networks to which computers were constantly connected, and finally via an open IP network.

E-mail also predates the Internet, as it was used on bulletin board systems in the form of private messages in a user's queue, which is essentially the same as e-mail in its native form.

With the advent of the Internet, the systems were easily converted: each user already had a unique ID for that host, and all that need be done is to append the host ID as the destination address: user_id@host.com wasn't a great invention, or much of a logical feat.

The difficulty of using text-based e-mail systems created a demand for user-friendly e-mail clients, a market opportunity that was completely missed by the commercial sector. When some companies later attempted to develop commercial software, or commercialize freeware versions, the market merely moved to another of the plethora of options. "Free" became the standard price for internet client applications.

Likewise, the sale of server-side solutions was, for many years, a fruitless enterprise: both mail servers and Web servers were freely available, and not until much later would companies show a preference to pay for software to do the same job (and often, less efficiently) than the free options available.

Web-based mail systems, such as hotmail.com began a few years later, enabling the user to read and compose e-mail messages within a standard Web browser. These free services had a number of additional advantages, such as a permanent address (enabling individuals to keep an address even though they change ISPs and jobs) and accessibility from multiple locations (not just the computer where the e-mail client is stored). But again, the standard price for such software is free, though corporations have attempted to monetize the product through advertising and data warehousing.

The use of e-mail as a commercial medium - sending commercial bulk e-mail commonly known as "spam" - rose rapidly, much to the chagrin of users. Since the network was designed for open communications, with no consideration that a person might not wish to receive certain messages, it has been a pernicious problem. So much so that a cottage industry has sprung up in selling services to ISPs and individuals to block and filter incoming messages to remove it

The author addresses instant messaging and Internet chat as variants of e-mail, with shorter messages and the expectation of immediate receipt and response.

The author discusses the use of "FTP" (date?), WAIS (date?), and "gopher" (1991) servers as an adjunct to mail. Rather than sending lengthy documents, over and over, to those who request them, an individual could post a document to a server from which it could be retrieved.

The Web, then, is an evolution of such servers, the difference being that the documents are created in a standard format (you had to have specific software to open a file downloaded via FTP) that could be opened with a Web browser, specially designed for viewing hypertext content.

Later, the Mosaic team at University of Illinois created a gateway interface (CGI) that would enable users to access data stored in databases or execute programs on remote systems, without having to download the entire database or an executable program to be run locally.

The emergence of the Web indicates another opportunity taht was entirely missed by the commercial sector: the ability to provide an efficient and reliable Web browser program. By the time companies got the idea to try and sell browser software, there were already several high-quality versions available for free, and commercial products never caught on.

The growth of the Web led Wired magazine to pronounce, in 1994, that online services (AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy) were effectively dead, given the large volume of content available, for free, on the Web. They didn't die instantly, but soon either went out of business or transformed into standard Internet Service Providers, selling access instead of exclusive content and services.

This author also indicates that, in the early days of the Internet, it took some degree of technical sophistication to access the Web (install and configure the proper software), and AOL enjoyed great success as an ISP that provided easy-to-use software that would do many of these tasks automatically. However, she does not attribute its death to the growing sophistication of Internet users, but through the development of other software that made it easy to connect to the Internet.

Businesses did, however, seek to make money using the new medium, primarily by establishing Web sites to market their products, and later online stores to enable online ordering. Much of this is straightforward, but for one exception: the Internet was not designed for secrecy of information, so transmitting, receiving, and storing confidential information (credit card numbers, etc.) was absent.

To support commerce online, it was necessary to create a secure server (where data could be stored safely out of the view of unauthorized persons), secure protocols (so data could travel securely from client to server), and basic commerce functions such as credit card processing. These thigns came, in time, and created a market for server products designed to accommodate the special needs of commerce.

A side note on Microsoft, which seemed to discover the Web in alter 1995, is that the company stumbled clumsily onto the scene and attempted to take control: selling Web servers and browser software when more advanced and reliable versions were available for free, and alter bundling them with its operating system software to the exclusion of any alternative (which prompted a few high-profile lawsuits about the ethics of its trade practices), the creation of private-label content that was available for a fee (in spite of the same information and services being available for free), and other such nonsense. The company made practically every mistake that could be made, in a painfully stupid manner, before finally getting the message and going back to doing what they do second-best, creating operating system software.

However, Microsoft wasn't the only company that, in its greed, got things painfully wrong. Sun Microsystems spent untold millions trying to promote java, a programming language that was at the time good for little more than creating simple animations, Oracle tried to reverse the entire client-server paradigm by moving processing back onto the server in hopes of selling branded client-side services, and a joint venture of companies who should have been much smarter attempted to move the Web from the computer to the television screen.

In the present, the medium continues to evolve. Some things are new (more focus on community networks, higher-end presentation technologies, Web 2.0), other things are old (the browser wars continue, with Firefox stealing market share from Microsoft), and companies still trying to invent new ways to make money off of the Internet.