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Jenny Sinclair's Surfin'

Everybody's gone surfin'

Jenny Sinclair

The Age, Melbourne

© The Age, 1999

This article was published in The Age on 19 June 1999

This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/Surfin.html

See also Roger Clarke's Brief History of the Internet in Australia


It is 10 years since Australia hooked on to the Internet. Jenny Sinclair looks at a medium on the make.


When the Internet first came to Australia, no one really wanted it. For example, not long after Australia hooked up to the rest of the world - 10 years ago next week - Melbourne University asked its staff if they wanted e-mail. The survey team reported back on their findings. ``No way'' was the answer.

``They said `look, this is a waste of money. There is absolutely no demand for electronic mail','' says the university's first head of computer science, Emeritus Professor Peter Poole. ``And I said `of course there's no demand, because nobody knows the advantages except computer scientists'.''

In June 1989, the staff at Melbourne University and most other people in Australia also didn't know about the Internet's potential: online share trading (in Internet stocks), working from home over a phone link, reading international newspapers seconds after publication, downloading Star Wars trailers, or checking out the weather in Helsinki over a live webcam in one PC window while booking a trip to Vanuatu in another. They know now.

Ten years ago, the entire Australian Internet ran through a link smaller than the one that runs into your home or office PC.

That tiny link worked exactly the same way as today's bandwidth-munching applications, thanks to a loose alliance of computer scientists and network staff in Australia's universities. It was ``turned on'' by a technician at Melbourne University, Robert Elz. At the other end of the link was a University of Hawaii academic, Dr Torben Nielsen, who logged into a Melbourne University machine and wrote a simple message: ``Link is up ...''

The United States' version of the Internet, ARPAnet, was already 20 years old but confined to a small group of university, military and research institutions. In Australia, what little computer communication there was took place over different networks, mostly incapable of talking to each other, and all on different hardware and technical standards.

In 1999, even stripped of the hyperbole of over-excited industry analysts, the Internet has touched the lives of most Australians. Using it is Government policy.

What has the Internet evolved into? The Internet isn't really any single thing. It's a set of rules that lets computers communicate about anything - words, programs, sounds, pictures - almost instantaneously. By applying those rules, a low-powered personal computer can tap into the power of the largest machine. One ``server'' can send out images to thousands of people at once - with each set of images personalised for each user.

Using search engines and common gateways called portals, people interested in the most unlikely subjects can find each other halfway around the world and communicate, as long as they have a relatively decent computer and the free software that the Internet thrives on.

Australians have the world's third highest rate of Internet usage. The head of the National Office of the Information Economy, Dr Paul Twomey, points out that one of the first international telegraph lines ran from London to Melbourne: ``We have been, for 150 years, great consumers of technology which overcomes distance.''

Home Internet connections jumped by nearly half in six months last year, and the amount of traffic on the Australian Internet has been doubling yearly since 1989.

Australians spent more than $100million online in the past 12 months and 350,000 Australians had bought something over the Internet by the end of last year. Two in five Australian adults have used the Internet and about a quarter use it regularly. Nearly all large companies and half of medium-sized companies have e-mail and web access.

Twomey says the Government ``suspects'' that much of the country's recent economic growth can be attributed to Internet-related spending, or Internet-enabled efficiencies.

Every new study of Internet use makes the previous numbers look like chicken feed, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

It wasn't like that in 1989. To set up the first half-a-dozen connections to the first international link, network manager Geoff Huston and a colleague personally flew around the country, linking universities and the CSIRO to the ``hub'' at Melbourne University.

Huston was the first manager of the Australian Vice Chancellor's Commitee network called AARNET. He says the computer scientists and university computer centre operators who collaborated on the network believed they had something special.

``We saw this technology as being as socially significant as the introduction of the printing press by redefining what information is and by rewriting the rules. It's not a static thing ... it's negotiable.''

The first Australian user, Robert Elz, says he's ``not sure he thought about it in terms of revolutions. (But) there was no question that it made communications easier, and a total farce out of attempts to control the flow of information... I could never see a reason why anyone wouldn't want to be connected to the Net, and always assumed that everyone would want to, soon enough.''

This new international link ran to a massive 56 kilobits per second of data - standard for most PC modems now. Within six months it doubled, and it has doubled every year since. As usage went up, sometimes the system was threatened. ``We did flop from disaster to disaster,'' Huston jokes.

That 56,000 bit link to the world is now running at about 500 million bits a second, and rising. It took six years for the AVCC to realise the Internet had outgrown it - the ``backbone'' was sold to Telstra (Huston is now Telstra's data networks manager) in 1995.

Growth in Internet usage was driven by the new Internet users - not researchers but businesses, students and home users who were signing up via a new kind of business - the Internet Service Provider.

One of the first of these was Connect.com.au (now part of telecommunications company AAPT). Founder Hugh Irvine had been working for a Melbourne technology company, Pyramid, that had a link into AARNET. When his employer decided to stop providing the link, Irvine didn't hesitate to quit and start Connect.com.au with his wife and a work colleague.

The first commercial customers were software developers, electronics firms and computing consultants who wanted links to US computer companies. ``These were people who had money and knew what they were doing.''

Students leaving university were another group of ``early adopters'', and during the '90s, having a website became fashionable - then essential - for any self-respecting company. And office workers, as they learnt more about e-mail, demonstrated their liking for it.

More than half the 18-24 age group are Internet users, and families with young children are not far behind. US surveys show that heavy Internet users watch less television - an early sign that interactive entertainment and information might threaten seemingly entrenched media.

According to Huston, the fairly rapid success of the Internet is largely due to the web, which is the set of images and sounds you access through your Internet browser.

Browsers were being invented around the same time as the Australian link was put in and without them cyberspace would still be a techy's world of text, transfer protocols and difficult-to-navigate links. And although Bill Gates's Microsoft was famously late to jump on the Internet bandwagon, the Windows operating system also had a lot to do with this success by getting PCs into people's homes and on to their desks. ``With the advent of Windows and the web, all of a sudden this was a network for everyone else,'' Huston says.

Connect's Hugh Irvine says another key to the Internet's move out of academia into everyday life was the lifting in 1993 of ARPAnet's research-oriented ``acceptable use'' of the Internet, creating a user-pays, anything-goes environment that's built into both the politics and the structure of the Internet today. This may explain the industry's resistance to the Australian Government's new plans to control content.

In the late '70s, a text-based adventure game called Adventure got so popular with the university's computer users, Poole had to ban it in the interests of productivity. ``It was all the sort of things you see in games today, but text-based.''

Where does the Internet go from here? After 40 years working with computers, Poole should know the answer: ``I don't think we've got a clue,'' he says, ``any more than we did in 1957.''

But a clearer picture of the future is emerging. Three-dimensional technology is making realistic ``virtual environments'' possible online for those with a big enough link into the Internet. Banks are claiming Internet banking can replace actual banks in country towns.

Governments are getting virtual too - in Victoria, you should be able to do everything from pay your car registration to change your voting details online by the end of next year, and the Federal Government has promised similar services, including the ability to make payments online.

The Internet is also developing as a health centre with doctors treating patients in remote areas over web links.

Paul Twomey says the Internet is growing faster than any new technology before it and ``it's just going to continue to accelerate''. To him, the savings in transaction costs for newly efficient businesses with computers linked over the web are enough to justify the whole revolution.



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