MIAMI - Things change so quickly in the vast expansion of the online world that dog years look like eons.
I got a reminder of that when someone e-mailed a question last week about something I'd written early in 1996. The topic seemed so ancient that I could hardly believe it.
Reflecting on the pace of change is a good reason to gaze at the horizon and gauge where cyberspace is headed in 1997.
While we're at it, let's take a quick peek at the forecast I made a year ago. I said then that the static, text-heavy World Wide Web of 1995 would be radically changed by multimedia, and that's exactly what happened. Pages now routinely pop and sizzle with animations and designs that were unheard of back then. On the other hand, I thought that VRML 3-D worlds would be popular, but they're still on the margins.
I said modems with speeds of at least 28.8 kpbs would soon become necessary, and that also proved true. In fact, even faster speeds are now being pursued.
My most controversial vision last year? I predicted that the Internet would flounder as an entertainment and advertising medium, but would excel as an information source.
It turned out the heaviest usage on the Net all year was during the Olympics, when people wanted to get results and statistics, and on election night. Web surfers scouring many of the excellent election pages brought the Web to the slowest crawl I saw all year - that's an urge for information, not entertainment.
The two hottest products of the year were PointCast, which sends news to people's computers, and Netscape's Inbox, which allows a variety of web pages to be sent to your e-mail box. Both of those are primarily news tools rather than games or entertainment.
But I was a bit off on the advertising side of my prediction. Commercials continue to expand online, though advertisers are questioning whether they're getting their money's worth. Some innovative new advertising vehicles include free e-mail and World Wide Web access for users willing to accept advertisements along with the service. We'll see how well that pans out.
Finally, I said I was skeptical about online shopping, but figured it would pan out since it's no more unlikely than shopping by television. In fact, online commerce was a major disappointment in 1996. The industry blames the tardy development of systems to protect credit card transactions online. Meanwhile, for those who want to buy online, there are some good spots, like firstsource and Amazon books.
OK, enough of the past. What's going to happen this year? Some predictions:
I think it's likely to be a frustrating year for home users eager to get faster connections online. I'm skeptical about the promised 56 kbps modems (download only) working on residential telephone lines. Also, different companies haven't agreed on a way for various modems to communicate at that speed. Cable television modems aren't here yet, ADSL is still a way off, and satellite systems and ISDN are still too expensive.
Web-by-television products won't grow too much, since they can appeal only to the narrow band of people willing to spend hundreds of dollars to get a peek at the Internet, but who don't want to be able to write a letter or play a multimedia CD-ROM or store any information. They can serve a few people well, but not most of us.
Internet telephones will remain a product useful only for those who constantly make very specific long-distance calls, such as international calls - and to the same people. It won't be usable for general conversations for most of the population because the technology remains confusing, awkward and unreliable. And worst of all, it offers poor-quality calls.
While a few hardy pioneers are playing with videoconferencing, anything that tries to present TV-like video over the Internet will still have problems in 1997.
Information will explode online even more than it has in the past. It's hard to believe that the growth can accelerate, but it will. Tools are now widespread, for instance, for allowing expanded access to large databases and enormous archives of government and business information.
The "push" method of sending information to people (like PointCast and Netscape's Inbox) will be hugely popular and spawn many imitators. You won't think of web "surfing" anymore; it'll be more like sorting through the information delivered right to your (e-mail) doorstep.
Finally, the worst news for the Internet in 1997: gambling. Efforts to allow gambling online will open the door to the law enforcement community that has been dying to put the clamps on the online world. Classifying telephone-based Internet communication under the law that restricts bookmakers from operating by telephone, the cops will assert a much greater presence online.