The Internet, the World Wide Web, and Open Information
Services: How to Build the Global Information
The rise of the Internet represents the most fundamental transformation in information technology since the development of personal computers. We are witnessing the emergence of an open, distributed, global information infrastructure based on the Internet, World Wide Web servers, and Mosaic. At the same time, inexpensive servers, fast networks, client-server technology, and visual software tools usable by nonprogrammers are transforming the strategic use of information by organizations. Taken together, these developments offer an opportunity to revolutionize information services and electronic commerce, generating both an enormous business opportunity and a chance to vastly improve access to information for everyone.
Over the next 5 years, the Internet software industry will construct the architectures and products that will be the core of information infrastructure for the next several decades. The promise of these technologies to enable a global information infrastructure can hardly be exaggerated. Decisions made during this critical period will have a profound effect on the information economy of the next century. But there is a serious risk that avoidable mistakes and/or entrenched economic interests will cause the opportunity to be lost or much reduced.
This paper therefore discusses the principles that should drive technology development and adoption in the Internet market, especially for the World Wide Web. Our goal is to promote the development of an open architecture Internet/Web software industry, and to support the deployment of the Internet/Web software industry, and to support the deployment of the most open, easy to use, and productive information infrastructure possible. We believe that a simple set of principles, if adhered to by vendors and buyers, can maximize the openness, interoperability, and growth of both the Internet-based infrastructure and the industry providing it.
Vermeer Technologies intends to succeed as a firm by contributing to the development of this open architecture, Web-based software industry. Vermeer is developing open, standards-based, client-server visual tools for collaborative World Wide Web service development. These visual tools will enable end-users to use the Internet to inexpensively develop and operate powerful World Wide Web information services, which currently require complex programming.
The Opportunity to Build a Global Information Infrastructure
The global Internet has rapidly evolved into the basis of an open, nonproprietary, global information infrastructure. The Internet now contains nearly 25,000 networks and 30 million users and is growing at a rate
NOTE: In January 1996 Vermeer Technologies was acquired by Microsoft Corporation.
of 10 percent per month. Within the next year, Internet connectivity will be bundled as a standard function with nearly all newly sold personal computers. The Internet architecture already provides excellent nonproprietary standards for basic connectivity, electronic mail, bulletin boards, and, perhaps most critically of all, the World Wide Web architecture for distributed information services. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the newly formed MIT-CERN World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) will continue to evolve these basic standards (e.g., by adding security) and we support these efforts completely.
At the same time, there is an explosion of commercial investment in development of Internet software such as Web servers, Web browsers, and Internet access products. In general, we support the development of the Internet software industry because there is a real need to bring state-of-the-art, commercial software technology to the Internet. In this way the Internet and the Web, originally developed by and for researchers, can and should be made fully accessible to the entire world of end-users. We feel that this is an extremely important goal, nearly as critical as developing the Internet itself: information infrastructure should be easily usable by everyone, on any computer, and should not be available only to programmers and researchers. We do not require that everyone learn typesetting and printing to write a book; we should not restrict electronic publishing to those who can write computer programs.
The independent software industry has already developed a large set of technologies that address these problems in other markets and that could be of huge benefit to an Internet-based information infrastructure. State-of-the-art commercial technologies applicable to the Internet include visual tools and WYSIWYG techniques that enable end-users to develop applications that previously required programming; client-server architectures; online help systems; platform-independent software engineering techniques; and systematic quality assurance and testing methodologies. Adobe, Quark, Powersoft, the Macintosh GUI, and even Microsoft have used these techniques to make software easier to use. If these techniques were applied to Internet software, the result could be a huge improvement in everyone's ability to use, communicate, publish, and find information. However, commercial efforts must respect the openness, interoperability, and architectural decentralization that have made the Internet successful in the first place.
The World Wide Web and the Revolution in Information Services
With the possible exception of basic electronic mail, the World Wide Web (WWW) is the most vital and revolutionary component of Internet-based information infrastructure. The WWW architecture provides a remarkable opportunity to construct an open, distributed, interoperable, and universally accessible information services industry. The Web, started about 5 years ago, now contains tens of thousands of servers and is growing at a rate of 20 percent per month. It is now being used not only to publish information over the Internet but also to provide internal information services within organizations.
In combination with TCP/IP, the Internet, and SMTP-based e-mail integration services, the Web will enable the development of a new information services sector combining the universal access and directory services of the telephone system with the benefits of desktop publishing. If we develop this industry properly, and continue to honor the openness of the Web architecture, the result will be an explosion of information access and a huge new global industry.
The importance of the Web, of its open architecture, and of enabling everyone to use it can hardly be overstated. The World Wide Web offers, for the first time, the opportunity to liberate computer users, publishers, and information providers from the grip of the conventional online services industry. This $14 billion industry, which includes such firms as America Online and Bloomberg, is strikingly similar to the mainframe computer industry. It once represented progress but has long since become technologically obsolete. It maintains its profitability only by charging extremely high royalties and by holding proprietary control over closed systems. Some current online services vendors continue to retard progress to maintain their financial viability.
There is consequently a real risk that entrenched incumbents in the online services industry will try to suppress the Web or to turn it into simply another collection of proprietary, closed, noninteroperable architectures. There is a similar risk that other companies, such as vendors of commercial Web servers,
browsers, tools, or system software, might attempt to do likewise to establish a new generation of closed, proprietary systems.
Such a return to the world of centralized, proprietary systems would be a disaster, but it need not take place. If developed properly by the emerging Internet software industry, the Web offers huge advantages relative to conventional, centralized online services and would generate gigantic revenues because the Web enables many applications unreachable by the current industry. Web-based services are enabling the free publication of huge quantities of information, real-time access to individual and workgroup data, the rise of large-scale internal corporate information services, the use of online services for educational and library applications, and the growth of information services and electronic commerce as a strategic component of all business processes.
Conventional services cannot do any of these things. They cannot make use of local, distributed, and/or real-time information stored on personal systems or workgroup servers; their capacity is severely limited; they are not interoperable with each other; they cannot be used for internal information services; they cannot be managed by those who create their content; they cannot integrate with database systems and legacy applications used in operating businesses; they are expensive and uneconomical for many services, including most free services; they cannot be linked with each other; and they cannot be viewed using a single, common graphical program such as Mosiac. In contrast, the World Wide Web offers the potential for millions of electronic publications, information services, authors, and publishers to evolve in a layered, open, interoperable industry with support from navigation and directory services.
The Current Situation and Some Principles for Future Development
The Internet, the Web, and Mosaic have already laid an excellent foundation for the development of standardized, open, distributed information services. However, two major problems remain. The first is that this foundation will come under attack from vendors interested in slowing progress or exerting control via closed systems. The second problem is that the Internet, and especially the Web, remain much too hard to use.
The first problemattacks on the openness of the Webmust be dealth with simply by industry vigilance. Internet software vendors should adhere to, and customers should insist on, several basic principles in this industry. These include complete support for current and future nonproprietary IETF and W3C standards; open architectures and vendor-independent APIs; cross-platform and multiplatform products; and complete independence of each product from the other products and services provided by the same vendor. Thus buyers should resist attempts by vendors to link viewers, servers, tools, operating systems, specific information services, and/or Internet access provision with each other. Every product and architecture should be open and forced to compete independently.
The second problemthe fact that Web services are still overly difficult to create and userequires further work. At present, tools are extremely hard to use, do not provide WYSIWYG capability, do not manage the complexity of hypertext-based services well, and do nothing to eliminate the need for custom programming. Most interesting user interactions with Web serverssending or requesting electronic mail, performing text searches, accessing databases, creating or filling out formsrequire custom programming on the Web server.
The importance of this problem is frequently underestimated because of the computer science origins of the Internet community. However, a few simple facts can illustrate this point. First, information services and/or Web servers can remain hard to develop only when there are few of them. There are still at most 100,000 Web servers in use, most of them deployed in the last 6 months. But this year, 2 million to 4 million Intel-based servers will be shipped, and the server market is growing at a rate of 100 percent per year. If in the long run 10 percent of all servers and 5 percent of all personal computers run Web servers, then the Web server installed base will soon be in the millions. If the average Web server holds content from 5 people, then it will be necessary or at least desirable to enable 5 million to 10 million people to develop Web services. There are not enough programmers to do that.
Even more importantly, the people who understand what the services should look like are the professionals close to the application, not the programmers currently required to code it. Furthermore, the development and maintenance of information services should be a seamlessly collaborative client-server activity.
It should be possible to develop, debug, and edit services over the Internet, using PC-based graphical tools, in collaboration with other remotely located or mobile developers.
We have seen situations like this before. Before development of spreadsheets, accountants performed spreadsheet computations by asking MIS to write a COBOL program. With the advent of PC-based spreadsheets, professionals could perform such computations themselves far more effectively and could share them with coworkers. Desktop publishing, presentation graphics, and visual application development tools such as PowerBuilder had similar effects. We believe that modern graphical tools will do the same for the construction of Web-based online information services.
Vermeer Technologies and its Mission
Vermeer Technologies Inc. is a venture-capital funded independent software firm founded in 1994 by Charles Ferguson and Randy Forgaard. Vermeer Technologies intends to become an industry leader in Internet software by contributing to the construction of an open, standards-based information infrastructure available to everyone. In particular, we plan to make it easy for anyone to develop a Web-based information service, either for internal use within their organization or for publication on the Internet.
Accordingly, Vermeer is developing open, standards-based, client-server visual tools for collaborative World Wide Web service development. These visual tools will enable end-users and professionals (collaborating across the Internet) to inexpensively develop and operate powerful World Wide Web information services, without the need for programming. (These services currently require complex custom programming.) Nonprogrammers will be able to develop services for the first time, and professional developers will gain highly leveraged productivity tools. Our architecture also supports many usage models ranging from individual self-publishing to collaborative remote authoring for large commercial Web hosting services. Our architecture is platform independent and will be available on all major client and server computer platforms, on all operating systems, and for all standard-conforming commercial Web servers. Our vendor-independent, open APIs will enable us to construct partnerships with other industry leaders in complementary areas such as text indexing, electronic payment systems, high-performance Web servers, and other functionalities to be developed in the future.
Vermeer intends to rigorously support IETF and W3C standards and is a member of the World Wide Web Consortium. Vermeer's architecture relies on and supports all current standards and is designed to accommodate future standards as they are finalized. Vermeer is an entirely independent firm and has no entrenched interests derived from existing or proprietary products or businesses. Vermeer is therefore completely free to focus on the construction of the most open, easy to use, interoperable products possible.