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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
An internet to go, please
The latest battles over net access speed show just how little progress we have made in the last few years, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson.

RJ45 cable
So where do I plug this in to get broadband?
Wanadoo, the internet service provider formerly known as Freeserve, has been told to change its ads by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).

It seems that they cannot call their 512Kbps service "full speed broadband" because customers might be confused into thinking it was the fastest broadband available and buy it, even though BT, Telewest, NTL and others offer one or two megabit services that are a lot faster.

The broadband market is in a bit of a mess when it comes to defining its terms.

Wanadoo, in their submission to the ASA, claimed that "the inconsistency of terms and definitions used in the broadband market confused consumers".

But you cannot blame Wanadoo for trying to distinguish their service from the slower broadband offerings that are currently flooding the market.

After all Ofcom, the people who regulate the industry, count almost any always-on connection as broadband when they are doing their statistics on take-up, even if it is as slow as 150kbps, and the access providers have taken full advantage of this.

Unwanted impact

This confusion is nothing new. Two years ago I was moaning about the abuse of the term broadband by the industry, partly on the pedantic grounds that it does not just mean fast and always-on, but also because it had become a meaningless marketing phrase.

Bill Thompson
I am constantly surprised by just how much technical knowledge you need to get, and stay, online in 2004

The situation is a lot worse now. The fault lies with companies selling always on net connections over cable modems or ADSL lines and a government that is so keen to see broadband numbers grow that it accepts any definitions of the term offered by the industry.

One of the unwanted consequences of this may well be that dial-up users are put off switching to broadband because they simply do not know what they are buying.

This is a real shame, because using the net is becoming more and more important in our daily lives.

Few companies now feel able to operate without e-mail, net access and a website, even a token one, and over half of our homes have internet access.

The real problem, however, is that the internet is still far too visible in people's lives.

FastToast protocol

Ten years ago, when the web was just starting to take off and net users were few and far between, it took a lot of technical skill to get online.

Slices of toast
Going online should be as easy as making toast
At the time we did not mind because it was all new, but I cannot help being depressed at how little progress has been made in freeing the net from its geek roots.

After all, when I buy a new toaster I do not have to worry about compatibility with my existing kitchen appliances or whether it has support for the new FastToast protocol. I buy it, I plug it in, it makes toast.

There is a danger here that I will start sounding too much like a grumpy old netizen, using expressions like "when the net was young", "in my day" and even "young people today don't know what it was like".

But I am constantly surprised by just how much technical knowledge you need to get, and stay, online in 2004.

I spent this morning fighting with the DHCP server on my girlfriend's cable modem to persuade it to give me a new IP address for my 802.11b wireless connection so that I could share her connection.

I understand the acronyms, know which commands to type and can wield a screwdriver if I have to.

But I cannot help thinking that this technology has been around long enough for us to have made it a lot simpler for users who just want to surf the web, chat and send e-mail.

It is not just the technicalities of making the connection work, either.

Going mainstream

Microsoft has just released its second service pack for Windows XP, and we are all being encouraged to download and install it.

Escape key on a keyboard
The jargon used in computing can leave many looking for a way out
Few of the millions of XP users will know what the update does, or why it was deemed necessary.

Fewer still will be aware that it may cause problems with programs they already have installed, or that the changed security settings might affect their net use.

Hardly any will know what to do about any problems they encounter.

You may think that this happens because the technology is moving so fast that it is just impossible to make it simpler, but that just is not true.

The core network protocols have not altered much in the last decade, the basics of getting online are the same as they were in 1994, and the design of our modern computers remains the same as the EDSAC and Atlas in 1949.

What is missing is any real sense that it is necessary to turn internet-connected computers into mainstream consumer products.

When we see how many people will rush out to buy the latest model PC or the newest version of Microsoft Office, perhaps we have to admit that we, the users, have not done enough to make the developers, manufacturers and network providers realise that what matters is not the computer but what you can do with it.


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



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