The Internet continues to evolve, integrating video and podcasts as well as the inexorable increases in broadband access and processor speed. Browser enhancements proceed and the Web is now the largest recipient of advertising dollars. Blogs have achieved a critical mass and online magazines are more central to the intellectual debate than printed materials as more people get their news online than from any other source.
These changes, however, are only marginal in nature. The Internet, at least as experienced by most users, feels as if it has at last plateaued. One cannot help but get the impression that changes from this point forward will resemble consecutive versions of the Windows OS -- more a honing than transformation.
This is an illusion.
Forces are coalescing that will produce a shift comparable at least to the spread of broadband. This change will have enormous financial, cultural and political repercussions, and the most interesting aspect of the coming transformation is that it will not be some new and unexpected thing.
Rather, the Web for many will become the cliched 3D virtual reality that has been so overused as a literary and cinematic device that most of us have forgotten how compelling that vision was when it first appeared. Before describing this evolutionary leap, however, we should spend a little time thinking about the key event that led to the last one: the Internet you are using now to read these words.
Specifically, I refer to the misunderstood role played by Netscape Communications.
In the mid 1990s, the Mountain View-based Netscape Communications released Netscape Navigator, inspired by the Mosaic browser that founder Marc Andreessen co-authored for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. It was neither the first nor the only software capable of accessing online content, but it was the first user-friendly browser or "client" unbound by the limitations of content providers and ISPs.
Those who were not paying attention in the early days of the modern Internet may not find this point immediately useful. So, let me expand on it.
The online world prior to Netscape Navigator consisted of two groups. On one hand was the Internet of relatively sophisticated users exploiting the open system created by the Department of Defense ARPAnet. On the other hand were the balkanized ghettos such as AOL and Compuserve where content was mostly controlled and supplied by the service providers.
I actually don't know much about those closed services, as an email address from within those walled providers provoked utter disdain among many of those who were capable of navigating the original Internet -- largely for e-mail and newsgroups. Those early netizens had at least a basic familiarity with Unix and some hardware issues. To view a photograph or play a music file, one had to download a program and install it manually. There were no plugins or extensions; No built-in media viewers.
To a remarkable extent, this more knowledgable community of users happened to be in Silicon Valley. The Internet then was almost a local phenomenon, if you lived in Northern California. Though nodes spanned universities and research groups around the world, the majority of casual Internet users actually lived and worked on and around "The Peninsula," the spit of land running from San Jose to San Francisco.
The reason was simple. As the home of the computer hardware revolution and industry, it was the center of the tech world. I lived around the corner from the minimally guarded SRI complex in Menlo Park where existed the master DNS server, the very heart of the entire Internet.
I remember, therefore, as an event of revolutionary impact the announcement by Netscape that its graphically enabled point-and-click browser was available for download. And I do mean revolutionary -- in the political as well as technological senses.
Netscape's real impact came from merging ARPAnet's openness with a relatively easy-to-use interface. For the first time, especially when Netscape added the ability to easily put content on the Web, anybody could publish and anybody could access. The metaphorical walls fell and the Web was truly born. For the first time, the Internet was one place, accessible to anybody, and the astonishing transformation began.
Many people were already thinking seriously about an electronic three-dimensional real-time world, open to everybody. This included people like Doug Engelbart, author of "The Virtual Community", and Xerox PARC's Howard Rheingold, author of "Virtual Reality".
On the culture side, William Gibson's novel "Neuromancer", in which he coined the word "cyberspace", was published in 1984. Two years before Netscape launched, one of the best elucidators of the VR concept, Neal Stephenson, published "Snow Crash", in which he popularized the term "Metaverse" to describe a shared computer-generated world of commerce, entertainment and media. In the same year, the movie "Lawnmower Man", initially titled "Cyber God", was released.
There was also a political aspect to this community, though it did not fit well into the traditional left-right model. Numerous journalists have noted, in fact, how ideologically libertarian the Internet was in its youth. Even as libertarians, however, these early activists did not fit the model. having had less to with the Libertarian Party than they did with the formative more "geeky" days of Reason Magazine when the publication focused more on science fiction and futurist issues like longevity research.
The milieu was a seditious, infectious expectation that an unrestrained Internet would liberate information from the control of the philosophically monolithic media. Others daydreamed of landless tax-free sovereignties where citizens chose their allegiances based on personal preferences. Serious thought was going into issues like encryption and private money along the Austrian economists' model. Behind it all, of course, was the long game -- the Metaverse.
There seems, ironically, far less discussion of VR today than there was then and the very term has a distinctly cheesy ring to it now. VW for virtual worlds, in fact, seems to have replaced VR among serious researchers, as has been pointed out by one them: Edward Castronova. Similarly, the libertarian dominance of the net world no longer exists, though its imprint persists as a bias in favor of an unregulated Internet among activists such as EFF and net celebrities such as Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds.
As an example of that initial Silicon Valley culture, I remember a party in a private home somewhere in the Valley held about the time Netscape launched. It was attended mostly by people who were working on immersive VW systems, and had been well before Snowcrash or Lawnmower Man. Timothy Leary was there as well as a Japanese television crew, interviewing developers for a market already obsessed with its own cyberpunk anime like the 1987 classic Baburugamu kuraishisu, or Bubblegum Crisis.
As far as I know, none of those VW projects survives today, but not because the technology did not exist to allow their success. While processor speed and bandwidth were not ready for a fully-blown real-time metaverse, the more important limiting factor was the market. People, even the early adoptors who downloaded Navigator betas, were simply not ready for such a radical transition. It is largely forgotten, or was never known by most people, that some of Netscape's earliest browsers contained incredibly advanced and visionary groupware and 3D browsing features that have not yet appeared in Microsoft's IE or even Firefox.
During the first few years of Netscape's meteoric rise, it was understood that the company's open Internet strategy, as opposed to the efforts by AOL, Compuserve and Microsoft to build huge subscription-based "walled gardens", would eventually force a response from those giants. "Has he noticed yet?" was a question I heard frequently around the Netscape offices.
The giants did notice when Netscape acquired a small startup led by Bill Turpin, from whence came the technology that became Composer -- the first WYSIWYG HTML editor that was henceforth included with the browser. Suddenly, anyone could build online content.
In addition to competition from formidable competitors like Microsoft, Netscape had its own bureaucratic problems; probably not surprising considering how quickly it had grown. In the end, I suspect, it may not have been possible to compete head-to-head with Microsoft, but there might have been an avenue of escape if Netscape had taken advantage of its status as the number one site on the Web to do something besides market its servers. The ultimate error, in my opinion, was the choice to forego developing its own search engine.
Regardless, to recap, Netscape accomplished one critical thing, setting the stage for the modern Web. It tied together the entire Internet and gave everybody, free of charge, the ability to produce and access dynamic content. Instead of having to be another huge organization like AOL, you could be a scrappy startup born in a garage (eBay) or a dorm room (Google).
Having made that point, we can return to the original vision of a 3D virtual space. That it did not appear full-blown at the time should not lead one to think it will not eventually. In his book Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova makes the point that practical VR is already among us, in the form of the virtual worlds of video games. We will return to this point. Much work has been done regarding business/technology cycles but it will suffice to paraphrase Ray Kurzweil who has said that the impact of new technologies are almost always overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run.
When the promise of practical VR is fulfilled, its impact will exceed most expectations, simply because three dimensions, even virtual dimensions, are so much better than the two we experience on our monitors today. It is the difference between having a series of walls to work on versus real space. Programs, web pages, desktops, all have in common now that we hang stuff on two-dimensional screens. You may be able to go to another screen through something you've hung, but its really just 2D.
Imagine how much more useful your computer experience would be if you were able to design a virtual office as large or complex as you needed, and reach anything in it without leaving your chair. Voice over IP will be integrated, naturally. Your avatar will be your real image, photographed live and enhanced if you don't want to deal with hair or clothing, and you will be able to meet friends and business associates in VW, your places or theirs, as easily as making a phone call. Blogs and punditry will involve virtual talk show and other environments and, with some planning and enough cameras, audiences will be able to visit any place on the globe, from a Baghdad battlefield to a Broadway stage.
You do not need, by the way, to be totally immersed in a 3D environment to use it effectively, as anybody can tell you who is used to playing video games. Though it was assumed at one time that VWs had to be completely immersive (goggles, gloves, et cetera) to be effective, users have proven the experts wrong in this regard and are happy to navigate a three-dimensional world using the monitor as a two-dimensional window. This experience is comparable, by the way, to the way someone with one eye sees the world. The real world, RW in some circles, is still 3D after all even if viewed without binocular depth perception. We are, however, beginning to see relatively inexpensive eyeglass frame monitors that will put users immersively inside computer games or other virtual environments.
Games, in fact, are the thriving frontier of VWs. For those who have never played 3D video games, it is difficult to explain how compelling the experience truly is. This is particularly true when the virtual world is inhabited by other real people.
My 8-year-old daughter, once a devoted PS2 platformer, now spends most of her gaming time online with friends in ToonTown, Disney's Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG or MMO,) This is despite the fact that ToonTown's game play and graphics are clearly inferior compared to, say, current generation Ratchet and Clank. The social element to MMOs is what brings her and many of her friends together online daily, and frequently with cell-phones held between ear and shoulder. Other games already have built-in group telephony.
In case you are not familiar with MMOs or VWs, each user has an "avatar" or online representation. My daughter has, in fact, half a dozen that she varies as her mood dictates. Much of what she does in the game is not, in the strict sense, gameplay at all but simple social interaction and communication. She meets her friends at some pre-arranged location and they "chat." This is paralleled by the rapidly growing online phenomena among young people of online VW chat, such as IMVU. Yahoo has already introduced some rudimentary capabilities to their e-mail services, though they all appear to be about 16 years old. (I refuse to use an avatar that does not have greying hair and a bald spot.)
My 13-year-old son plays World of Warcraft, or WoW, with his friends. WoW is a particularly important development in VWs and MMOs as it gained five million subscribers in only a year's time. The initial $50 fee for the software needed on a player's own computer would have represented significant revenues by themselves but there is a $15 monthly subscription fee as well. With over 6 million players, WoW's developer, Blizzard, earns around $1 billion in subscription fees annually.
WoW has already become much more than a fantasy VR role-playing game. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are using the realm for a multiplicity of non-game purposes, including political rallies and virtual church services. There are dozens of other successful MMOs, and hundreds are trying to attain that status. America, however, is not the world center for MMOs, that being Korea where online gaming has its own television channels with ESPN type coverage for top games and gamers, as well as its own courts dedicated to online crime. Millions of "gold farmers," mostly third world techies with a low cost of living and a high degree of game savvy, are making their livings by manual labor, "grinding" to earn assets that are sold online to wealthier and less patient Westerners.
The legal and economic issues inherent in MMOs are, by the way, fascinating, and an impressive array of academics and thinkers are now working in those areas. The most notable include the previously mentioned Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds and Richard Bartle, author of Designing Virtual Worlds.
The Korean obsession with MMOs has also given us a glimpse of the way that the economics of VWs may develop. Of real importance, in my opinion, is the development of games that are free for users to begin playing but are profitable because of the online sale of in-game items -- real estate, swords, armor, or even nonessential items such as garb and heraldry.
Hollywood, in particular, is taking note of this important new art form. Many entertainment analysts are convinced that the nearly one-to-one correlation between the dropoff in young male movie attendance and the gains in MMO participation is not coincidental, and the industry is beginning to enter the arena with MMOs based on movie titles. Other major studies are looking at MMO investment opportunities.
I could go on forever about this subject. Books, in fact, have already been written, though virtual worlds are at a stage of development analogous to the pre-Netscape Internet. Like AOL and CompuServe a decade ago, virtual worlds exist as a relatively small number of isolated, walled-off realms, each requiring the user to download separate software. Just as the Internet did not become the social force it is today until Netscape tore down the walls separating Internet fiefdoms, virtual world technology is currently limited.
There is, however, something going on that has the potential to change that, and quickly. Not coincidentally, a team of core developers from Netscape's early days is now developing the equivalent of a virtual world browser for MMOs. Called Multiverse, the company includes the same portentous entrepreneur noted above: Bill Turpin. His team includes Netscape veterans known throughout Silicon Valley, if not the world at large: Rafhael Cedeno and Robin McCollum, who built critical Netscape server technology still in use today, and co-creators of RSS; Jeff Weinstein, who coded the world-changing SSL; and Corey Bridges, Navigator product manager who then went on to launch companies like Netflix and Zone Labs. On the entertainment side, ex-physics major and film director/producer James Cameron, of Terminator and Titanic fame, has thrown his lot in with Multiverse, joining its board of advisors.
Their plan is to provide virtual world creators the client, server, and development tools to create an MMO world. The entire technology platform is free for non-commercial use, so academics are paying nothing to create economic, architectural, sociological and other simulations. For-profit enterprises would pay royalties, but only when their games or other applications collect money from consumers, not before.
This is significant because, until now, creating a complex virtual world required tens of millions of dollars in initial development costs alone. The Multiverse technology, currently in beta-testing, claims to lower the cost of virtual world production to a fraction of its current stratospheric level. For many purposes, such as personal online spaces, there would be no cost at all.
Most importantly, however, all these Multiverse-based worlds, and many are already in development, would be compatible. With the Multiverse client software, users will be able to access any virtual world built using the company's technology. Virtual worlds will become, in effect, ubiquitous. The Metaverse.
I am, I admit, a partisan in this matter as I worked as a consultant for Netscape, initially writing encryption docs for the company's ground-breaking public/private-key products. Later, I did public and media relations work with CEO Jim Barksdale. Since then, I've followed closely what the key players in the company are thinking and doing, based on my suspicions that at least some of those original thinkers would be at the heart of the next stage in the revolution. I've watched a number of Netscape spinoffs go on but the Multiverse crew of ex-Netscapers seems, to me, to be the first poised to replicate the impact of the original Navigator.
My point, however, is not to give investment advice, as you couldn't buy stock in Multiverse if you wanted to. At this point, the company, which is housed in Mountain View offices next to the Mozilla group, publishers of Firefox, is only at the angel-capital stage of funding.
Rather, my point is to encourage those who are currently immersed in the policy debate to understand that the merging of easily created and compatible virtual worlds will present opportunities and pitfalls, both political and economic, similar to those created by Netscape's original vision of a unified HTML Internet. Moreover, this transformation will almost certainly happen faster than most of us want it to. Beta testers have already succeeded in doing things with Multiverse software that have surprised even the developers, such as easily transforming topographical data from national forests into VW form.
On the other hand, I was markedly unsuccessful in my efforts to convince several policy-oriented groups I had worked with in the mid-90s to take advantage of the tools that were being created by Netscape. Actually, I was treated pretty much like a trekkie in Starfleet costume who had wandered into a Manhattan cocktail party.
We are, nevertheless, on the cusp of the Next Big Thing and those who are ready for the transition to 3D virtual worlds will be far ahead of the game. Those who are actually acquainted with VW will be in a position to help determine the direction of the many critical policy debates that will be engendered as the online VW experience becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the RW.
So don't say I didn't warn you.
Patrick Cox is an economist and editorial columnist in Central Florida where he lives on an island in a remnant of original everglades.