MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet

A Technology in the Making

Of course, the question remains of why the Internet actually needs this convergence. Isn't the Net, as it stands in the middle of the '90s, sufficient for the purposes it was originally designed to fulfill? The answer is a definite "yes." But that question assumes that you care about what the Net's original purposes were, or that those purposes even remotely matter to today's Internet users. The fact is that the Net was designed to be a fairly limited interconnection of computers that would help researchers and military personnel transfer files to one another quickly and efficiently; even e-mail was a kind of accident born out of using the Internet.

Nobody really foresaw the exponential growth of the Net, or if they did, they probably expected that growth to slow well before it reached its current level. The evidence for this fact lies in the history of the Internet's addressing technology. In the Internet's beginning, the addressing system was constructed to enable a total of 64 addresses. Since that time, the addressing system has been expanded, but the Internet is running out of IP (Internet Protocol) addresses so quickly that developers are working furiously to create a new system that will enable everyone on the planet to have one or more Internet addresses.

This unexpected growth points to the fact that the Internet's original purposes are largely irrelevant to what you can do with it today. Who would have guessed that millions of users would fight out issues in Internet newsgroups, or that the newsgroups themselves would become the focus of outrage and outrageous arguments in the U.S. Congress? Who could have predicted that you'd be able to fire up a World Wide Web browser and order CDs, pizzas, computer equipment, and even condoms? Who would have foreseen the Internet as a value-added tool for entertainment companies, or as a technology for offering frog-dissection simulations? Indeed, who in their right mind would have even begun to suggest that you could hear e-mail addresses and Web URLs while cruising the highway listening to your radio?

The MBONE has nothing to do with the Net's original intentions. Back then, nobody could have predicted the possibility of real-time multimedia over a global network of networks, because neither the network nor multimedia were in place. From that perspective, the need did not yet exist for the convergence of networking and multimedia technologies that comprises the MBONE, but the need for it, or at least the desire, eventually set in. If you ask some Internet users today, they may tell you that the network still doesn't need this convergence. Some users feel that the Internet's tools are already sufficiently advanced for their purposes, or that the Net is already too busy and that multicasting will simply destroy it.

Whether or not a technology is strictly necessary isn't always the issue. It could be argued, after all, that television wasn't necessary, and many critics will insist that it still isn't. The way that television has changed North American society, everything from its culture to its economy, cannot be argued, however, so at least it has been significant. The difference between necessary and significant has a great deal to do with whether or not you're talking about foresight or hindsight. Necessity is something you predict; significance is something you see only with after the-fact analysis.

At this stage in the MBONE's history, we remain firmly in the area of foresight. We simply have no idea how significant these new technologies will prove to be. As far as necessity is concerned, we wouldn't be writing this book if we didn't believe that the MBONE was much more than a toy. In fact, we predict that multicasting, and the multimedia capabilities that go with multicasting, will become at least as important to the Net's future as the World Wide Web is today.

Why "at least?" Because the Web, for all its current glory, is a relatively slow means of disseminating essentially printed information. The Web is evolving with the introduction of technologies (such as Sun's HotJava, which enables built-in programs) and the incorporation of a variety of document types into the browsers; but not much exists on the Web that couldn't be done, often better, on paper. Although paper documents cannot provide easy-to-use hypertext links, too many Web documents contain hypertext whose primary purpose is to disguise that the site itself doesn't offer much. The authors of these documents seem to think that if they provide enough links, users will feel that the authors have given them something.

The MBONE promises to do for Internet information what the telephone did for letter-writing, what the motion picture did for reading, and what television did for nearly all paper publications -- change it completely, whether for the better or for the worse. Video (through television) and audio (through radio) are such dominant forms of information dissemination today that any technologies that make use of them automatically vault to the center of media and popular attention. Make those technologies interactive, and the MBONE will be at its best. Although interactive technologies are currently not as popular as passive media such as TV and radio, the growing interest in multimedia CD-ROMs and computer games suggests that this fact may be changing.

So far, this book has insisted that the MBONE has enormous potential. For the remainder of this chapter, let's examine that potential in greater detail. Specifically, let's look at how the MBONE will affect business, entertainment, and education. As you're reading, keep in mind that very little of this potential has been realized yet, but also remember that the MBONE has reached a stage of development which makes it possible to say that these projections are not just pie in the sky.

Still, keeping the current limitations of the MBONE in mind is extremely important. If you're waiting breathlessly for the capability to see numerous live concerts happening simultaneously via videoconferences and live radio broadcasts, you're going to be disappointed, at least for now. The MBONE simply isn't designed to do all that. On the other hand, advances in multimedia and data compression promise that the Internet itself will focus more attention on multimedia, and you can definitely expect more downloadable information in a variety of media formats in the near future. The result -- being able to experience multimedia and even real-time communication online -- will at least be similar.

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