The accidental superhighway

The explosive growth of the Internet is not a fad or a fluke, but the result of a digital free market unleashed. Christopher Anderson considers its future.

For the past few years the titans of media and communications have waged a war for the digital future. With great fanfare, telephone and cable TV companies have launched dozens of trials to demonstrate their vision of speedy electronic networks, connecting homes to a boundless trove of information, communication, education and fun. Shambling towards their distant goal of a wired world, they have been too busy to notice the unruly bunch of computer hackers, engineers and students scurrying about at their feet.

Electronic potholes

Sceptics abound. The Internet, they say, is chaotic, frustrating and intimidating. Only those lucky enough to be able to afford a high-speed connection can really enjoy its multimedia side; for those using a modem, it simply takes too long. Finding what you want can be maddeningly slow: in an ocean of information, sense and understanding is often lost in a flood of random facts and rhetoric. Moreover, you need a computer equipped with some telecommunications link to use the Internet in the first place, which excludes most of the world's homes. Even in America, where a third of all households have a PC, only about half of those also have a modem connected to a phone line.

All true, the believers concede, but just wait. Already the Web is making the Internet easier to use, and hundreds of companies are developing software to make it easier still. Hundreds more are developing software and services to make sense of the sea of data on-line. At the same time the equipment is becoming much more widespread. Private consumers are expected to buy some 15m PCs worldwide in 1995: the home is now the fastest-growing market for such computers. And the cost of high-speed data links is falling.

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