Written by David Tebbutt, Director 03/95 - scanned

It has taken scarcely any time at all for the Internet to turn from an arcane piece of US defence-orientated computer networking into the putative shape of tomorrow's business arena. Is it all a fad? David Tebbutt sifts the facts from the hype.

If the hype is to be believed, over 30 million computers around the world can now connect to the Internet. In less than five years some experts believe this figure will reach 200 million. So why are all these people hooking up? Is it mass hysteria, or is there more to it than that? And is there anything lurking around the corner that will cause the bubble to burst, just as quickly as it inflated?

For answers, we have to examine the community of Internet users and exactly what information is stored there. Ninety per cent of the information in the Internet is likely to be of no interest to any given user. The remaining ten per cent has value and, because of the storage capacity of the machines, or servers, connected to the Internet, this ten per cent is a significant multiple of the information available on any other on-line service.

The users need to be divided according to how they use the Internet. Millions of individuals use the Internet daily without even realising it. Anyone who sends electronic mail with an "" sign in the address is almost certainly sending it across the Internet. Instead of being restricted to inhouse electronic mail, any company can reach out to other companies and individuals. People who subscribe to on-line services such as CompuServe, eWorld or CIX are able to send mail to others beyond the confines of that service. Once a service or a company's network is connected to the outside world, electronic mail suddenly becomes more attractive and much cheaper than a fax. This electronic mail is the most compelling reason to use the Internet, even if you don't realise you're doing it.

Other Internet users are quite aware that they are ''surfing the net." They are the ones who run specific programs, called browsers, to help them navigate the Internet. They come from all walks of life, but the majority are likely to be students, researchers and computer buffs (call them "nerds" if you want to be insulting) but a growing percentage are consumers and business users, the very group which will transform the Internet into a viable commercial activity.

The content of the Internet can be divided into a number of key groupings. One is downloadable computer files which may be programs, images, data or text. Another is the equivalent of a massive bulletin board system, where every topic under the sun has its own discussion group. Most important for business users, the World Wide Web offers a "hypertext" format for publishing information and providing access to files. This is where most of the "net surfing'' takes place. Companies, individuals and other organisations can prepare attractive pages containing text and graphics in different colours and with different highlights. Hot buttons can be included which take the reader off to a different part of the same document, to a different document, into a search program or off to another location on the Internet.

The Treasury, for example, published Budget information within minutes of the chancellor taking his seat. Within hours, analysis and the full report were available on the Internet for anyone who wanted it. A few hours later, Ernst & Young published its analysis of the Budget, both on paper and, for those who had access, on the Internet. Some of this material - the Budget speech, for example - was plain text which users could download and store in their own computers for perusal off-line. Other information, such as sources of related information, were listed as highlighted text. To move to any connected item, all the user had to do was press the mouse button over the relevant piece of highlighted text. All Internet publishers include these hypertext links in their documents. A popular site can even earn money by including links to their customers' pages.

Clearly a prerequisite for accessing the Internet is a computer and a communications link. This immediately restricts the potential audience for an Internet publisher or advertiser to that subset of the population that bothers to become connected. For the best results a user needs a modem running at 9600 baud and a Macintosh, personal computer or UNIX terminal. In time, this will change and connections to the Internet will come embedded in other devices, be they television set top boxes or personal digital assistants, such as Apple's Newton MessagePad. Today, companies planning to reach new markets through the Internet had better be selling something to appeal to this kind of audience or their promotions will fall on deaf ears, so to speak.

As computers and other on-line devices become more accepted as part of our everyday lives, the Internet will reach beyond these special interest groups to touch even more millions of users around the world. The predominant language of the Internet is English which means that UK companies have at least an equal chance of competing in world markets. If the products and services on offer have value, then they will be sold as effectively in San Francisco as in Surbiton.

One fundamental difference between promoting goods and services on the Internet and doing it on television or printed advertisements is that users of the Internet will cut through hyperbole. Intel recently tried to avoid admitting to problems with its Pentium processor. And it might have succeeded were it not for the awful unorchestrated rumpus that took place on the Internet.

First a mathematics professor discovered the bug and reported it on the Internet. Word spread and, within a couple of months, it spilled out into the press. Intel promised to replace chips if the users could prove to Intel's satisfaction that they might cause a problem. Then IBM, perhaps sensing a PR coup, decided to suspend shipments of its Pentium machines. Intel complained that IBM had overreacted but, nevertheless, finally caved in with an apology and a promise to replace chips with no questions asked.

The coup was really one for the Internet and its power to bypass the work of the corporate spin doctors and big advertising budgets. While most computer manufacturers and users are still supportive of Intel, the Pentium fuss did rather overshadow the expensive "Intel Inside" campaign. Hoaxers and hoodwinkers will be found out very quickly through the incredible interpersonal communication power of the Internet. It has happened before on other closed networks, but never on quite the same scale. For honest companies with valued products and services, the Internet is a great leveller and a great opportunity.

Detractors will claim that the Internet cannot continue in its uncontrolled fashion. On-line service companies such as CompuServe, eWorld and, one day, Microsoft believe that they are better able to deliver what the users and the information providers want. And, it has to be said, they each have a mechanism for extracting money from the activities which take place on their networks. CompuServe, for example, bases its charges on time connected to its various offerings. Information providers are paid a slice of the revenue. Microsoft plans to turn this approach on its head and forget about connect time and get information providers to pay it a royalty. Both, perhaps recognising the unstoppability of the Internet, ensure that various kinds of Internet connection are possible from their services. A fundamental difference between these services and the Internet is that the Internet is not owned or controlled by any one company.

At the moment the Internet backbone in the US is government-sponsored. At the end of April, this direct funding will be withdrawn and individual universities, government users and researchers will have to seek funding for their Internet access costs. The network will be taken over by a number of commercial organisations that will keep it running and provide more robust supporting services. In the UK, PIPEX is the prominent Internet access supplier, ensuring a strong connection to the Internet network and partnering with other, similar, European organisations to provide equivalent service levels across the Continent.

Publishers can rent Internet space on a PIPEX server, giving the world access to their information and those who need access to Internet can pay PIPEX to set them up. Individual users might prefer to go to a company such as CityScape or Demon that offer dial-up Internet access at very reasonable rates. CityScape is currently offering all members of its JP-GOLD server free space on its Internet server in which they can publish up to half a megabyte of their own information. If it's any good, users around the world will connect up and spread the word.

*David Tebbutt is a three-time winner of The Times/HewlettPackard Technology Columnist of the Year and is currently working out how not to spend too many hours "surfing the Net".