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Worldwide wonder

Worldwide wonder

The 10th birthday of the Internet as a mass phenomenon is rightly being celebrated this week to mark a decade since the explosive stock market debut of Netscape, which triggered the dot.com boom and unleashed a friendly browser to navigate the Web.

To understand the extraordinary revolution that swept the world so quickly, existing users need simply to imagine what life would now be like without Email (on which corporate life depends), search engines such as Google, Web companies such as Amazon, eBay and Yahoo, the ongoing explosion of online commerce, not to mention the burgeoning world of personal journals (blogs), downloaded music and films, free newspapers, Web cameras, Internet telephony (now the hottest thing on the web) and the growing convergence of the Net and mobile phones.

Already the Internet has become a virtual library of Alexandria, a repository for practically everything one could want to inquire about - as long as the motivation is there. Francis Bacon said "Knowledge is power". These days we would say knowledge is empowerment, and for the first time whatever you want to know about is out there somewhere, and mainly for free.

In theory, the billion or so users in the world can link up with each other to share interests or join forces to counteract the global power the Web has bestowed on international corporations. There are, of course, downsides, from the hurricane of spam Emails that hurtles across the Web to the channels opened for terrorists, criminals and paedophiles. It has undoubtedly created a growing gulf between those with access to the Web's treasure trove of knowledge and the excluded digitariat who have to add a digital divide to all the others they have to endure.

But at least the new technology, as it becomes ever cheaper and more powerful, offers the prospect of bridging the divide and, by using services - such as free Internet telephony, satellites and wireless connections - could leapfrog over existing obstacles. Parts of Africa will experience a technological revolution even before the industrial revolution has reached them. Overall, the Web has proved itself to be a huge liberating and enabling force, even though it is still only in its infancy.

Although, contrary to the instincts of its early protagonists, the Web has long since been colonised by commerce, it still nurtures its founding community spirit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the startling success of the open source movement which enables enthusiasts and professionals all over the world to work together from remote locations to produce services that are freely available for anyone with a computer linked to the Internet.

The thousands of products so far released include the Linux operating system (a free alternative to Microsoft's pervasive Windows), OpenOffice (an alternative to Microsoft's Word and Excel) and Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, with well over a million entries written entirely by its readers.

Most recently, the open source movement has launched its own browser, the widely acclaimed Firefox, which is taking serious market share from Microsoft. There is an element of natural justice in this because it was Microsoft's move to incorporate its own browser into its Windows operating system - which sits in 95% of all personal computers - that snuffed out Netscape's early success in the 1990s. The new owners of Netscape decide to turn it over to the open source movement and out of the ashes came Firefox to open up a new front in the browser wars.

What will happen during the next 10 years can, literally, only be guessed at, since hardly any of the Web's world-beating products were predicted to be successes a decade ago, even by their inventors. But, since the pace of innovation is showing no signs of slowing down, we are assured of an exciting ride.


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