CHICAGO--Apr. 3--Convergence. The fascination over the Internet that can be found in the executive suites and recreation rooms of America boils down to that single word.
What convergence means is that your TV, telephone and computer will soon become one.
You'll be able to watch your favorite programs, order pay-per-view movies, buy groceries, phone or write a friend overseas, pay your taxes and do countless other tasks - all on the same box.
This will be possible because modern technology allows those who control the world's entertainment, information and education media to turn out everything they produce in the form of 0s and 1s that computers understand.
It's not a fantasy, this convergence. In fact, major U.S. companies from Ameritech to Microsoft to Disney are gambling billions of dollars that its full reality is only a few years away, when fiber-optic cables connect the homes of America.
What does this have to do with the Internet? More than you might think. The Internet already joins telephones with computers, giving the power of convergence to the millions of Americans who in the last year or two bought multimedia PCs - machines that can capture film clips, check stock quotes, record rock concerts, make phone calls and transmit vivid photographic images.
All this is happening as something known as the World Wide Web becomes available to the public. The Web, when viewed through ``browser'' software, promises to do for the Internet what first the Macintosh, then Microsoft Windows did for the home computer: make it accessible to novices.
As it does, perhaps within two or three years, the ever-growing Internet will become the infrastructure that makes true convergence possible.
Everyone will be connected, either through telephone lines or cable hookups, and everyone will have the computer technologies needed to take advantage of these connections.
Or at least those who can afford them will. Seers like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Disney's Michael Eisner predict that the same computers that now move a wealth of on-line information will soon carry the content of cable television programming and even telephone calls as the sweep toward convergence continues.
No one knows exactly how this is going to play out, though conventional wisdom assures us that it will. Everyone, in fact, is betting on it.
Only days ago, MCI Communications Corp. and the regional Bell company Pacific Telesis Group announced they will soon become Internet service providers, bringing direct Internet links to their telephone customers. Ameritech intends to offer such service before year's end. And the other phone giants won't be far behind. Cable companies, too, are experimenting with Internet access.
A branch of Gannett Co.'s USA Today is offering Internet access starting April 17. And Microsoft, the software giant, is creating its own service in August. It's even including a Web browser as part of its new version of Microsoft Windows, making it that much easier to choose Microsoft's Internet over the others - a fact that has many in the industry raising antitrust issues.
IBM's new operating system, OS/2 Warp, also includes a Web browser. These browsers are the key to what's happening today, though what role they will play a few years down the line is anyone's guess.
By using a mouse and on-screen icons, browser users get easy access to the Internet - whether through newsgroups, gopher searches, e-mail or any of the other network tools. Browsers work by manipulating ``pages, `` which are screens of information on a given topic or directions on where to find such information.
Their role is simply to make an Internet search easy. Until recently, you had to buy this software - it costs about $100 - or download it from the Internet itself. And for many Internet users, these two options still may be best.
Soon, however, browsers will be standard issue with the big three on-line services, and some smaller ones, too. Prodigy already includes a browser with its Microsoft Windows version, and America Online and CompuServe vow to add browsers within months if not weeks. The phone companies and others now entering the Internet also will include browsers.
Meanwhile, the rest of corporate America is tripping over itself to create something worth browsing. And why not? Through corporate ``home pages'' - central locations from which users can branch off to additional information, products and services - they are able to control what goes to the public and how it will be presented, much like the growing use of television infomercials.
Disney created a home page to promote such recent releases as ``Pocahontas'' and ``The Lion King.'' There, a user can get printed material, film clips, photos or songs from the soundtracks.
Time Warner and Viacom put sound bites and film clips on their pages. Marriott and Hyatt show hotel rooms and take reservations on theirs.
Playboy and Penthouse offer photographs, essays and reviews. So does the New Republic, the Saturday Review and Wired magazine, not to mention Time, Sports Illustrated and People. The Chicago Tribune has begun placing help- wanted advertising and some editorial matter, including this series, on the Web.
But it's not just companies that are rushing there. Universities, museums, orchestras, government agencies and even individuals (including the writer of this series) have home pages. So do the National Rifle Association and the right-to-life movement. In the last year alone, in fact, the number of home pages has exploded.
The Field Museum of Natural History has a home page called ``DNA to Dinosaurs.'' The Chicago Academy of Sciences has one that lists its collections. Stanford University offers a home page called ``Yahoo'' that gives directions to other pages; those, in turn, go to hundreds of reference works, from the text of the CIA World Factbook to a list of commonly used scientific constants.
The pages of Fermi National Laboratories in Batavia offer hoards of information, including satellite pictures of everything from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the harbor in Sydney, Australia.
Yet as wonderful as it is, the World Wide Web remains a perplexing place. Getting the proper phone links alone can be one of the most difficult problems many otherwise adept computer hobbyists will ever face. And retrieving information, especially something other than text, can be a time- consuming process.
Prodigy's browser, which comes with the package, allows Internet users to avoid the hookup problems. That may explain why more than 350,000 Prodigy subscribers logged onto the World Wide Web during the first week it was up and running in February, according to company spokesman Brian Ek.
CompuServe and America Online, as well as smaller services like GEnie and Delphi Internet, are expecting similar results when their Web browsers are made available in the next few months.
The ease of this, however, doesn't make it faster. Several seconds often can pass between when an icon is clicked and when information arrives. If the data is a film clip or sound bite, the wait can be minutes.
Companies that offer slightly more adventurous users better - which simply means faster - access to the Web are flourishing. The home-oriented dial-ups are unlikely to match the speed of these providers for at least a year.
In the Chicago area, the two most visible companies offering faster Web access are InterAccess Inc. in Northbrook and Macro Computer Solutions Inc. in Chicago. A nationwide service, Netcom, based in San Jose, Calif., also offers access to the Web through local phone calls in the Chicago area.
All say they are doing extremely brisk business. Lev Kaye, chief of marketing for InterAccess, sounded typical optimism when he said, ``We have enjoyed steady expansion since the beginning and expect that trend to continue well into the future.
``We're just at the start of this.'' Similarly, Karl Denninger, owner of MCS, posts monthly newsletters telling customers of his progress. In less than a year, Denninger says, his company has grown from a few hundred subscribers to more than 2,200.
These local providers sell connections called Serial Line Internet Protocol and Point to Point Protocol, which allow pioneering PC owners to run browser software. The hookup problem remains, however.
As a result, free-lance consultants like Chicago-area TV engineer Barry Blue, whose business is called Nets to You, say they are reaping substantial profits making house calls to get Macintosh and PC owners up and running on the Internet. ``We just keep getting busier,'' said Blue.
So is the competition. Netcom, for example, has added more than 100,000 subscribers nationwide in less than a year, said company spokeswoman Heather Schoeny.
Behind all of this activity is the World Wide Web itself. The Web dates to 1989, when a consortium of particle physics laboratories in Europe developed what was called a hypertext browser. It was designed to help staff members and scientists quickly find sites on the Internet.
The hypertext browser worked by producing simple text displays on screens and underscoring certain key words. These words, in turn, established links to sites on the Internet where whatever they described was stored.
Thus, a sentence like ``T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings were great poets of the 20th Century'' could have the names Eliot and cummings underscored. When a user selects either word by moving a cursor up or down the screen, the computer would go to the Internet site where information about the chosen poet was stored. It also might include files of his collected works.
This linking of sites was likened to threads of a spider's web going from point A to point B, and the name World Wide Web was coined.
In 1993 computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign converted this text-based software into a graphical form -using the kind of icons so familiar in other easy-to-use programs. This software, called Mosaic, allowed users not only to click on words and pictures, but to display pictures, show movies, play sounds and read text files.
Since then, there has been a rush among software developers to produce versions of Mosaic-type software. Its producers have been as diverse as Microsoft Corp., Prodigy and Novell Inc.
Members of the original U. of I. Mosaic development team formed a company to develop a version, Netscape Navigator, that is available widely.
Naperville-based Spyglass Inc. licensed the university's original Mosaic. Now it licenses that program to other companies, including Microsoft, which plans to incorporate Spyglass Mosaic into its own on-line service.
These companies, and many others like them, are all envisioning the same thing: a future in which everyone is on the Internet.
For 30 years now, the network has been a place for geeks, professors and hobbyists, a secret domain that only the initiated could understand. It had its own language, its own technologies and even its own etiquette and mores.
But that's all changing, though many who have long treasured the Internet resent this fact. They despise the way corporate America is trying to take over the Internet and dread the rules proposed by lawmakers to censor it.
Nor do they particularly care for the new breed of ``Net surfers,'' the millions of newcomers jumping on board only now, when doing so appears easy.
None of this, of course, matters much to the 12-year-old who last May got his first multimedia PC and already can do more with it than most Internet users could even imagine through most of their professional careers. Nor should it.
The sea change is inevitable, and those who have long wandered this vast computer network must accept that. The Internet is no longer theirs alone.
It is yours. END!B&3?TB-INTERNET
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