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January 1998, almost 30 million host computers were connected to the Internet (Zakon, 1998), and more than 58 million users in the United States and Canada were estimated to be online (Nielsen Media Research, 1997). Numerous companies now sell Internet products worth billions of dollars. Cisco Systems, a leader in network routing technology, for example, reported sales of $8.5 billion in 1998. Netscape Communications Corporation, which commercialized the Mosaic browser, had sales exceeding $530 million in 1997.5 Microsoft Corporation also entered the market for Web browsers and now competes head-to-head with Netscape. A multitude of other companies offer hardware and software for Internet based systems.
The Internet has also paved the way for a host of services. Companies like Yahoo! and InfoSeek provide portals to the Internet and have attracted considerable attention from Wall Street investors. Other companies, like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, have established online stores. Amazon had online sales of almost $150 million for books in 1997.6 Electronic commerce, more broadly, is taking hold in many types of organizations, from PC manufacturers to retailers to travel agencies. Although estimates of the value of these services vary widely, they all reflect a growing sector of the economy that is wholly dependent on the Internet. Internet retailing could reach $7 billion by the year 2000, and online sales of travel services are expected to approach $8 billion around the turn of the century. Forrester Research estimates that businesses will buy and sell $327 billion worth of goods over the Internet by the year 2002 (Blane, 1997).
The Web has been likened to the world's largest library—with the books piled in the middle of the floor. Search engines, which are programs that follow the Web's hypertext links and index the material they discover, have improved the organization somewhat but are difficult to use, frequently deluging the user with irrelevant information. Although developments in computing and networking over the last 40 years have realized some of the potential described by visionaries such as Licklider and Engelbart, the field continues to offer many opportunities for innovation.
Lessons from History
The development of the Internet demonstrates that federal support for research, applied at the right place and right time, can be extremely effective. DARPA's support gave visibility to the work of individual researchers on packet switching and resulted in the development of the first large-scale packet-switched network. Continued support for experimentation led to the development of networking protocols and applications, such as e-mail, that were used on the ARPANET and, subsequently, the Internet.