Remember the movie called "The Net"? Data Communications Magazine reviewed the movie years ago (I'm guessing because of its content; the magazine wasn't known for its movie reviews). I don't recall all that the reviewer said, but one gibe stuck in my mind: Sandra Bullock must have had a T3 line following her around—even to hotel rooms—to give her the online access speed she apparently had.
Too often, major players in the IT industry act as if they believe that all people have T3 lines everywhere they go—if not now, then any day now. (Recall the noise about how the AOL/Time Warner merger meant that AOL customers could watch movies over the Internet?) Although that kind of access is a lovely idea, it's not happening yet. DSL is slowly spreading across the United States, but it's not universally available even in major metropolitan areas. Nor is its advancement dependable. Qwest plans to extend its services in the western United States during the next couple of years (see ASP News and Views below). But when NorthPoint shut down operations earlier this year, its ISP clients' customers lost their DSL availability—and not all of those customers could get it back with another carrier. Cable is more widely available than DSL because DSL availability requires that you be located close to the DSL switch. (I can get DSL at home, but my friends who live 2 miles away can't.) However, cable's disadvantage is that you have to share access with everyone else in the neighborhood and it's not available to everyone, either. Satellite broadband looks hopeful and is easier to provide in sparsely populated areas than wired broadband strategies, but it's still emerging and not yet universal.
Because the realities of broadband availability have too often conflicted with the hype about the possibilities of wide-area applications, Bill Gates's recent comment acknowledging that broadband isn't universal and won't be universal any time soon surprised and impressed me. At Microsoft's CEO summit last week, Gates acknowledged that high-speed broadband won't happen immediately. "There is no hardware limitation that will affect what you want to do, but there is one exception and that is the cost of broadband communication, primarily to the home," Gates said. It's optimistic to think 20 percent of US homes will have a fast Internet link within 4 years, he added. "That is an area where progress continues to be very slow."
I agree. During just the past 5 years, CPU speed, hard-disk capacity, and memory size have increased amazingly. But even though the "slow" 56Kbps modems now have top speeds close to the once blazingly fast one-way ISDN connections (64Kbps), networks can't always keep up with computers. Even when the network can keep up, it's the most vulnerable point of failure.
Sun's pronouncement that "the network is the computer" is still true. We don't exist in a standalone computing environment and haven't for a long time. Computers are almost useless without a network involved somewhere, and, as readers of this newsletter know, networks let us display applications on platforms where those applications wouldn't usually run. But network applications, whether they're based on terminal services, Microsoft .NET, or something else, will have to be built with the understanding that broadband is icing on the cake, not a guaranteed platform. For a while yet, online applications must remain accustomed to life in the slow lane.