El.pub Analytic Issue Number 14

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Analytic 14 Looking back - seven years of El.pub (Part 1)

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Digital content R&D
The impact of new technology
The place of hardware
R&D focus and projects


1996 was an interesting time to have started the service, as the web was just getting going. Indeed, although the Internet had been around since the early 1970s, it only began its phenomenal public growth in the mid-90s. The Internet Domain Survey (http://www.isc.org/ds/) estimates the number of hosts (web sites) in 1995 as 4.9 million which had grown to about 72.4 million in 2000 and now stands at 171.6 million. The IDS survey is based on the number of IP addresses that have been assigned a name, and as many domains may be hosted on the same machine and some names are not active, the number of host machines is much lower (probably about 10% of the above figure).

The current (2002) online population is estimated to be about 600 million (http://cyberatlas.internet.com/) with about 145 million in Western Europe. It is
interesting to note that Morgan Stanley (http://www.ms.com/) in their European Internet Report (June 1999) estimated 1997 European online population at 22.4 million and were forecasting that to increase to 100 million by 2003; in December 2000 they were forecasting the global figure for 2003 at about 425 million. Even at the height of the dot.com boom, forecasts were significantly below what has happened, even taking account of some differences in the definitions. (MS estimates tend to be conservative both in comparison with outturn and with the forecasts made by some other analysts). The IPOs and investment dried up but not the user demand.

One might ask what led to this growth and whether an R&D breakthrough was responsible. It is difficult to see that any breakthrough was a major factor. The PC market had grown steadily and there was no sudden change in growth in PCs. Modems were not new and had been used by enthusiasts for downloading software from bulletin boards for some years (looking at some old manuals I see that my 1988 Amstrad portable PC had a built-in modem). The factor that must be considered mostimportant was the freeing of the Internet for commercial use and the introduction of ISPs offering services to the public (the first dial-up Internet provider went live in the US in 1990, Demon was running in the UK in 1992).

The most important application in this growth, at least in public perception, has clearly been the web. E-mail and its newer variants such as “texting” have possibly the greatest throughput and volume, but e-mail was growing steadily through a variety of dial-up and fixed line delivery services before the arrival of ISPs. For e-mail the important development has been the success of TCP/IP standards, compared with OSI and proprietary networks, rather than the application itself.

However it would be wrong to suggest that the web was an R&D breakthrough. Hypertext links as a means of accessing information were moving into the
commercial market in the mid-1980s. Guide software, aimed at the technical documentation market, was available from Scottish start-up OWL in 1987 to run under the first Windows OS and I presented an application for statistical meta-data at a conference in 1988. The arrival of CD-ROM in the early 1990s made the transfer of large amounts of information easy and publishers experimented with hypertext as a means of organising such data volumes. Tagging was also not a new idea. SGML (around since the late 1970s) was finding widespread use in the technical documentation market (pushed by the US DOD CALS initiative and also helped by the arrival of CD-ROM). HTML was an application of SGML-style tagging (if not exactly of SGML). Accessing data from online databases was another pre-existing building block that made up the jigsaw. The financial sector (companies like Reuters) had been providing online access over private lines to databases of both numeric and text data since at least the 1970s. It was the combination of these well-understood technologies with the open and soon-to-be ubiquitous nature of the Internet that enabled the web. The aptly named Mosaic browser brought the different parts of the jigsaw together into the market and kick-started the Information Society.

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