The past seven years have seen the Internet emerge as the binding fabric for many of our daily activities at work and at home. From email to chat, from search to stocks, from news to music, the Internet has become as indispensable for us as the telephone or electricity. The Internet has become the underlying and enabling network for communications, content, community, commerce and entertainment for many of us.
Communications: The Internet started as life as a communications medium, and that still continues to be its dominant use in our lives. Email and Instant Messaging have bridged distances and cut costs for individuals and organisations. The emerging mobile Internet will untether communications from the desktop and bring it to a personal device (a wireless PDA or a cellphone, or a hybrid of both) which will be with us all the time, making us forever reachable – “always-on”, whether we like it or not.
Content: Access to information has become better as the years have gone by. From the days of the human editors who mapped out the rapidly growing Web at Yahoo to the automated algorithms of Google, information has become easier to find in the billions of documents that now comprise the World Wide Web. This 1-way web is now going 2-way through the thousands of weblogs which are bringing into the open voices of people like us. These personal journals enrich thinking and bring forth perspectives which otherwise would have gotten lost. Even as the sites we access may be shrinking, weblogs are ensuring a greater diversity in the opinions and views that we imbibe.
Community: The Internet has also helped in the creation of ad hoc communities through platforms like Yahoo eGroups. This has created clusters of people unbound by geography but connected via similar affiliations or interests, enhancing sharing and learning.
Websites like Slashdot with their self-organising capabilities help in bringing forth the collective intelligence of a community in a way a newspaper or magazine article could never do.
Commerce: The hype may have subsided, but the fortunes of consumer commerce sites that have survived look bright. The truly original business model of eBay has connected buyers and sellers of all hues, and will continue to thrive. The b2b electronic marketplaces may have failed, but that has not stopped enterprises from moving significant amounts of procurement to the Web. The Internet will not supplant but will complement traditional distribution channels. It has its advantages in the purchasing process – take for example, the book recommendations proferred by Amazon at the point of sale.
Entertainment: Napster shook the world of music, and forever changed notions of what music should cost. Even though Napster may have been “courted” out, various free music sites continue to thrive. Technology has made it much easier to download music and cut CDs with one’s favourite songs. As broadband proliferates, the Internet will bring forth new applications which move video as easily across computers as text documents now do. Gaming consoles are putting the building blocks for multi-player games, which can create parallel universes (watch out for The Sims Online which debuts in 2002).
The Internet’s impact has only just begun. But in countries like India, it has still remained somewhat elitist. The next few years will see a 10x increase in the numbers who use the Internet, driven by people and enterprises from the emerging markets. This mass market Internet will leapfrog millions into the world of technology, one which is an invisible utility.