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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 10:58 GMT
Can we rely on the net?
Ten years ago, using the internet was fun. But now that is has become a serious tool for work and pleasure, can it take the strain, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Businessmen using a wi-fi hotspot
The web has become a part of work and home life
A decade ago I was working at Pipex, one of the UK's first commercial internet service providers. Part of my job was to try to show people that the internet was interesting and cool, and I managed to have quite a lot of fun in the process.

In May 1994 I managed to blag my way to WWW'94, the first international web conference held at Cern in Geneva and the geek equivalent of Woodstock.

And in the autumn I built a website for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where we published the arts coverage from The Guardian and The Observer, the first time any national newspaper content from the UK went on to the Web.

Around the same time I built a site for Anne Campbell, our MP in Cambridge, which also got a lot of attention.

But the most fun of all was in March, exactly 10 years ago, when a bunch of us from Cambridge went down to London's Institute of Contemporary Arts and did what I believe was the world's first webcast.

We built a small cybercafe in the ICA's Nash Room, and used it to host a live online event in parallel with the real-world launch of Imagologies, a book about internet-based learning.

Bunch of kit

In the days when streaming video - or even streaming anything - relied on a special high-speed part of the internet called the Mbone, we reported on the real-world debate as it happened by transcribing it on to a set of webpages.

We recorded and posted audio files, took questions by e-mail and even built a "virtual ICA" in a MOO (a text-based online environment), so that people from outside London could attend online.

Bill Thompson
If my e-mail does not get through then I really notice it, because my friendships and work depend on it
It was great, and I like to think that by doing it we helped other people begin to see the web's potential.

One of the things that struck me, thinking about the ICA event as its anniversary approached, was just how smoothly everything went. With no real preparation and no real understanding of what we were trying to do, we simply turned up with a bunch of kit in the back of a van, plugged it all in and got on with it.

So I could not help but contrast the experience with the increasingly tense hour I spent at home in Cambridge yesterday failing to have a three-way conversation with the technical director of opendemocracy.net, who was in their office in London, and their chief programmer, who happens to be in Barcelona.

We began with the old-fashioned public telephone network, but neither wit nor insult could persuade the system to allow a three-way conversation.

So we decamped to the safer shores of online chat, and all logged in to MSN Messenger. All seemed to be going smoothly until, two minutes into our conversation, both of my colleagues were unceremoniously kicked off the service. Neither could then log in again, leaving me alone in cyberspace.

Brave new problems

After a quick phone call I then downloaded and installed Skype, the latest and apparently the hottest of the new generation of voice over internet phone services.

Old-fashioned telephone
Would it be better to revert to old-fashioned technology?
At least my broadband link was working, so it took no time to download and - as advertised - just a minute to install and set up. I quickly located Howard, rang his virtual number, and was connected.

It might just have been that the internet weather was stormy that day, but the quality of the resulting connection was so awful that I could not make out anything he was saying, and when we tried to open up a three-way conversation the connection dropped every few seconds.

It was not exactly the brave new technological world I had been promised.

By now the time allocated for the meeting had been completely swallowed up in trying to establish a working communications channel and we decided to try a radical approach and meet over coffee in London on Monday.

It works for me, and the bandwidth you get being in the same room as someone else is usually reliable.

I should not really have been surprised that the technology let us down. After all, I get regular phone calls from my dad about problems he is having installing programs or getting his Windows laptop to do what he wants.

And only last week Lili's cool shiny iBook hung up so spectacularly that I had to remove the battery in order to get it to reset.

Necessity of life

The big difference between yesterday's debacle and that spring day in 1994 is that when we turned up at the ICA to plug in our equipment little really depended on it.

We are increasingly dependent on computer networks
I would have been embarrassed if we had nothing to show for our efforts, but it was after all just a bit of fun.

Things are a lot more serious now.

If my e-mail does not get through then I really notice it, because my friendships and work depend on it.

The web is now so important to online betting companies that various criminal gangs try to extort money from them by threatening to take them offline during the run up to big races or sporting events.

And we are seeing an increasing number of government services, utility companies and other necessities of life moving online.

It was fun when it did not really matter if your connection worked or not, but things have got a lot more serious since those heady days.

I wonder if we know what we are doing, or whether our dependence on the internet will get us into big trouble one of these days.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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