Originally created 04/27/97

COMPUTERS 102: Internet is worth taming to serve your needs



So there are these three visually challenged yuppies at the zoo, checking out their first elephant. Whaddaya think guys?

Meanwhile, the elephant has playfully entwined its trunk around the third yuppie. "Way cool," he says. "Reminds me of that snake thing that's now in the movies ... "

Then the elephant sits down and crushes them.

That's the Internet, gang. It's big; it's different things to different people, and it has decided to sit down right smack dab in the middle of our lives.

Before we start the how-to stuff, though, you have to listen to some philosophy - our union contract says so. Unless you've been on Mars (or, in the case of some readers, Venus) for the last three or four years, you've been inundated by coverage of the Internet in newspapers, in magazines, on TV and in endless books.

As with much of the propaganda surrounding personal computers, the point of this discussion is to seduce and intimidate. Seduce, in the sense that you are made to feel the Internet is sooo cooool, such a quasi-religious, fundamental change in the very fabric of society, that you're nobody unless you've made an Internet connection. Intimidate, in that you are made to feel like a buffoon if you don't program in Java and have the latest collection of Netscape Plugins installed correctly.

If you've been reading Computer 101, you know we don't think that way. True, the Internet is cool. But no one needs it - at least not in the same sense that they need a washer-dryer combo. And yes, it is humongously complex and intimidating, but as with PCs, when it doesn't work, by and large it is the programmer, not the person using the program, who is the dummy.

Thus we come to Dolinar's first law of telecommunications: No one really understands the Internet. Not Vinton Cerf, who mostly invented it and never made a penny thereby; not Mark Andresseson, the guy who runs Netscape and has quite a few pennies in the meanwhile; and not Bill Gates, who plans to take away all of Mark's money and convince everyone it was really his idea in the first place.

And certainly not me, even though I've been around it as long as anyone.

There's too much of it, and it changes too fast for anyone to catch up. Much of the bizarre and incomprehensible deal-making that surrounds the Internet is just that: bizarre and incomprehensible. The hypercapitalists are still clueless as to the Internet's ultimate shape and purpose. About all they're sure of is that, like the elephant, it will be big.

Well, maybe they're right. But maybe not.

Either way, the rest of us can draw comfort from the fact that all these experts are befuddled, too. The guys who tell you to "Stop Shouting" WHEN YOU TYPE E-MAIL IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS were newbies themselves not so long ago. Three years from now, most of their expertise will be obsolete and, by then, who knows - if you pay attention to this series, maybe you'll be the expert. Or at least know how to fake it as well as most of the experts do today.

Faking it is a big part of what the Internet's about. People fake expertise about it, use it to purvey fakery and may even fake their own identities. All part of the game. Much of what you've read about it isn't true, or at least wasn't true when you read it, or won't be when better data come along.

Four years ago, best estimates said that more than 40 million people were using the Internet, and usage was doubling every six months.

Today, after four years of spectacular growth, reasonably hard counts of users suggest it's grown to a stunning ... 35 million serious users. That's a lot of serious users, and a wonderful thing if, like me, you've been watching telecommunications use grow at a snail-like pace for 15 years.

It is a total disaster for the many businesses that pinned their hopes to the 4-year-old, 40-million figure, which is why there are so many unhappy corporate campers in cyberspace.

We love 'em anyway. Even if they aren't making money, the gigacorporations have spent tens of billions of dollars to make cyberspace an interesting place for you and me. They give us free information, free entertainment, free software, some even give us free mail.

Maybe we shouldn't trade the Internet for a washer-dryer combo.

It's 8 a.m. I'm sitting at the beach, a 45-minute drive from the nearest newsstand, watching three deer forage on the leftovers of last night's salad. But I've already skimmed through Newsday, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, all of which are free on the Internet.

Later I'll scour C-net and a few other sites for column ideas; I'll field electronic letters from a half-dozen of you folks; research probably 90 percent of the queries by using the Internet; write my column; then file my copy electronically. When the editor calls and wants to do a breaking story about America Online, I start pulling wire copy, stock prices and SEC statements to see what's up.

I do this kind of stuff every day, and it still seems like something out of "Star Trek" to me. You can, too.

Meanwhile, there's another pachyderm analogy we'll impose on you: If you would eat an elephant, first you must cut it into bite-size pieces. We start next week with a brief history of telecommunications on the personal computer.