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Collisions Along The Internet Timeline

When caught up in the center of a storm, sometimes a timeline can help you regain your bearings. That's been true for me this summer--a time of historic change and memorable anniversaries for the Internet.

A dozen years ago, in articles for this publication, I wrote of the great dispute over whether the Internet should become commercial. Yes, younger readers, there was a time when a substantial number of idealistic people, including myself, fiercely argued that the Internet should be free of all advertising. We envisioned a truly democratic communications medium that would serve the interests of people, not corporations.

Of course, we lost. Or at least we thought we lost after the floodgates opened and every major media company tried to stake a claim to the Internet frontier. It's funny, though, how history can monkeywrench the best laid plans. Over the next decade, the Internet would evolve in both the best and worst case scenarios. Ironically, that adventure continues since the fat lady has yet to sing.

As the remarkable Internet summer of 2005 comes to a close, it's useful to look at a timeline of the past decade to see where we've come and how we got there. With that perspective, it's easier to appreciate what happened in July--the month I predict will be remembered for the coming of age of Internet television.


It began on July 2 when America Online provided 5 million viewers with about 175,000 simultaneous streaming video feeds from Live 8 concert sites around the world. The event was a tour de force in interactive broadcast technology. Nothing like it had ever happened before.

Three weeks later came another milestone. Online viewers--most in offices--watched about 500,000 simultaneous streaming video feeds of the launch of NASA's space shuttle Discovery on the morning of July 26. More than 330,000 of those feeds were provided to Internet users by Yahoo.

Not only did these on-demand streaming media feeds work, they worked like never before--proving that the era of jerky, erratic Internet video is finally behind us. For many, it was a powerful first demonstration of true Internet interactivity combined with compelling live television.

In the midst of these technical achievements, several of America's top news organizations announced plans to significantly scale up their video activity on the Internet. By fall, CBS, CNN and The Associated Press expect to launch major new interactive video Web portals for their newsgathering operations.

"This is a place that all journalism has to go," declared CBS News President Andrew Heyward in announcing an ambitious new Web site that will showcase more than 25,000 video news stories and allow users to construct their own newscasts.

To give the events of this summer a little perspective, let's look back 10 years to 1995. At NAB that year, a start-up company then called Progressive Networks introduced a new Internet technology called streaming audio. It was branded RealAudio.

Later that year, in a vending machine room in the basement of Javits Center in New York City, I conducted my first interview with Rob Glaser, the chief executive of the soon to become RealNetworks. Rob tried to convince me that first-generation RealAudio was "AM radio quality." Barely able to hear through the stutter and static, I joked that it seemed to me more like the quality of two paper cups tied together with a string!

That same year I listened to presentations by an Internet whiz named Marc Andreesen and Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics and then an Internet entrepreneur. Andreesen had been a key developer of the infamous Mosaic browser during his college years and had joined Clark in the early 1990s to commercialize user-friendly Web browsing. They formed a company called Netscape to launch their new Web browser.

On an August morning in 1995, the 16-month-old Silicon Valley startup attempted to go public. Demand for the shares, however, was so high that morning that for almost two hours, trading couldn't begin. The stock, originally priced at $28 a share, exploded as high as $75 that day and closed at $58. The madness of that initial public offering signaled that the Internet gold rush had begun.

Those two technologies--streaming media and Web browsing--exploded over the last decade and underlie the events of this summer. The speed of which they took hold and changed our lives has been staggering. By comparison, the development of an HDTV standard for the United States began in 1987 and still drags on.

Perhaps the best part of the Internet revolution has been its prickly unpredictability. Media corporations that were so sure they were going to control it quickly found the 'Net would not conform to their wishes. More often than not, creativity turned out to be a more valuable Internet currency than dollars.

Netscape, which dominated the browser market in 1996, long ago left the stage. RealNetworks, the inventor of streaming media, is now one of many players who can only dream of dominating the technology. Today, Real advertises premium podcasting services--a hot new media delivery service that's been driven by non-proprietary MP3 technology.

Though the usual suspects will continue to predict the next generation of Internet winners and losers, experience tells us they are usually wrong. Rather than look at the 'Net in purely economic terms, perhaps it's best to see how the technology has changed the lives of its users.

For all the hoopla about peer-to-peer downloading and copy protection, the bottom line is that a new generation wants its media on its own terms. That means audio, video, games, movies--everything--on demand, any time and on any device.

No matter how hard traditional media companies try to resist this trend, they come up short. The technological cat is out of the bag. If video content owners don't find a business model to allow customers to buy their products in this manner, they face a similar fate as the music industry.

As a younger generation grows more comfortable watching television online, the Internet--with its inherent interactivity--could easily develop into the next great distribution system for all media. Any Web site can become a media "channel"--whether for music (recordings, video and concerts), movies, documentaries, episodic television, news, podcasts... anything.

If the playing field is kept level, any producer--whether it's a kid at home creating programs on a PC or a team of professionals at a major motion picture studio--will have equal access to the Internet for the distribution of their programming. That, of course, is the dream. But dreams don't come easily.

Just as they do today, the deep-pocketed media gatekeepers will rev up their political action committees and petition Congress to protect their "investments." Within those marble halls in Washington, D.C, the free and open Internet will meet its biggest threat.

Yet, left to its own, the Internet has had a remarkable decade--outwitting even the wiliest of potential tamers. Let's raise a glass in admiration to the most important technology of our time and hope for more of the same over the next 10 years.

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.