The Next Internet: Just In Time?

    A famous philosopher I know likes to say, "There are 350 million Web pages, and 340 million of them stink." That sage is yours truly, and I see the explosive growth of the Internet and other networks as a double-edged sword. True, everything good about the Net and other nets seems to be tripling every six months, but what about that old bugaboo, quality? How does one separate the virtual wheat from the cyber-chaff in an environment where volume rules? And even more important, how do users who need quality, privacy and reliability - researchers, academics, graphic artists, etc. - deal with the slowdowns and meltdowns of an Internet that some feel is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own load?

    The answer is the creation of a new Internet. Two main programs now underway - the Internet2, or I2 as it's popularly known, and the Next Generation Internet (NGI) - promise a high-speed, high-quality network that can host robust applications and a sophisticated user base. For example, in a recent demonstration of I2's capabilities, two doctors based hundreds of miles apart were able to collaborate on a surgical procedure through network-based video and audio. And best of all, the technologies to come out of I2 and NGI will someday become part of the Internet itself, lending their own stamp of quality to the public Net.

    In this issue's cover story, "The Next Internet", Dennis Fowler looks at the promises - and the problems - of adding another layer to the Internet infrastructure. Fowler, whose work you see every month in his other role as editor of the NetNews section, sees I2 and NGI as simultaneously extending the Net and fulfilling the needs of its users: "What we are not likely to see are sudden, revolutionary changes. The Internet has already revolutionized everything from telecommunications to commerce itself....I2 and NGI address the evolutionary steps needed to maximize the potential of the network; they promise a faster, more mature, more reliable medium, one that is capable of making real the dreams of the entrepreneurs. This is the incubator tor the technologies of the future Internet."

    Two other feature articles in this issue tackle vastly different topics but come up with similar conclusions. "Internet News Clipping Services: How Companies Keep on Top of Their Markets" by Arik R. Johnson describes how Web-based news-gathering sites can be an excellent tool for businesses to keep tabs on their competitors' activities and plan strategies to keep their edge in the marketplace. Johnson, an expert in the field of Competitive Intelligence (CI), reminds us that in the corporate realm, ignorance is never bliss: "Ninety-nine percent of surprises in business are negative....One of the simplest and easiest ways to get started [in CI] is to 'use the news' as delivered by the growing roster of Internet-based clipping services. What's more, these news services can be fully integrated with the IT infrastructure of the enterprise and its business partners, via the company intranet or extranet."

    Our other featured piece examines the rise of XML (Extensible Markup Language) as a powerful document-description technology for companies and other users. In "XML Gets Down to Business," Aaron Weiss, a veteran writer on XML, Javascript and other Web-related languages, stresses the difference between XML and HTML, the current Web markup standard: "HTML, in short, does not tell us anything about the meaning of the data in the document. Instead, HTML details the structure of the document....XML is an attempt to apply the 'you are what you eat' maxim to electronic documents - that is, it's what's inside the document that counts. The ultimate display or appearance of a document, if any, becomes a function of its inner structure."

    Elsewhere in this issue, Kate Gerwig examines in "Apps on Tap: Outsourcing Hits the Web" the push for network-based enterprise applications that smaller companies can "rent" without all the costs - and headaches - of initial purchase and ongoing maintenance. Gerwig believes that "applications outsourcing is another iteration of convergence, and yet another example of the emergence of Web-enabled business." And Jill Ellsworth tells those same companies that it's "Time to Consider a Web Search Specialist." Such a person, according to Ellsworth, can help codify a company's search structure so that online research doesn't become a waste of time and money. As the volume of information on the Internet continues to mushroom, "The question is no longer whether you can afford a Web search specialist, but can you afford not to have one."

    Clay Shirky, as usual, offers a back page full of food for cyberthought. So-called "intelligent agents," Shirky explains, aren't nearly as smart as a good old robust server when it comes to prompt delivery of valuable information. In "Agents vs. Big Fat Webservers," Shirky favors practical over trendy solutions: "The primary thing smart agents seem to have going for them is the 'cool' factor (as in 'This will work because it would be cool if it did'). The primary thing they have going against them is that they do not work and never will work - not just because they are impractical, but because they have the wrong problems in their domain, and they solve them in the wrong order....[Big Fat Webservers] are A Good Thing for the same reasons markets are A Good Thing - they are the best way of matching supply with demand in real time."

    As always, we welcome your feedback on what you like - or don't like - about netWorker. Please send your comments to networker@acm.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

Jay Blickstein, Executive Editor

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