THE personal-computer era is about twenty years old, dating from some point between the founding of Microsoft, in 1975, and the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer, in 1981. People have continually marveled at how fast everything is changing. But never before have the fundamentals of the business changed as quickly or as dramatically as they have in the past year and a half, because of the sudden popularity of the Internet.
Less than two years ago an auditorium's worth of high-powered computing executives watched in fascination as one of their colleagues demonstrated something called the World Wide Web. (A report on the meeting appeared in the July, 1994, issue of this magazine. For those joining us late: The Internet is the supernetwork that links computer networks around the world. "The Web" is a graphically oriented system that makes it easy for someone using one computer connected to the Internet to inspect and collect information from another computer connected to the Internet, no matter where those computers might be. Such transactions have been possible for years, but the Web allows users to perform them merely by clicking on little symbols, which are connected to files or other computers in a series of hypertext links.) Now children in elementary school have their own Web pages, and beer and car companies put their Web-site addresses in their advertisements.
The popularity of the Web has enriched certain companies, particularly Netscape, which makes the most popular "Web browsing" software, and Sun Microsystems, the leading supplier of the "server" computers on which the Internet runs. It has also raised questions about the future of the industry's dominant firm, Microsoft -- a debate that has important implications for all computer users.
The debate concerns whether the growth of the Internet will strengthen or dilute Microsoft's ability to set standards for the software industry. For more than a decade Microsoft's great achievement has been to have its operating systems -- first MS-DOS and then Windows -- accepted as the nearly universal standard for IBM-style computers. This guaranteed an ever-increasing cash flow, since the sale of nearly every computer meant the sale of a Microsoft operating system. It also made Microsoft's word-processing programs, spreadsheets, and other software more attractive than their competitors from, say, Borland International or Lotus Development Corporation, since customers knew they would always be compatible with Microsoft operating systems. Last summer, as the company prepared to release its ballyhooed Windows 95 software, which comes with a built-in Internet connection, those most fearful of Microsoft's influence worried that the company was about to project its standard-making power onto the Internet as a whole. Within a few years, they said, the Microsoft Network might crush CompuServe, America Online, and other commercial networks, and some Microsoft-created browser might supplant Netscape as the industry standard.
Shortly after the release of Windows 95 the members of another camp made their surprising, and opposite, case. They said that far from strengthening Microsoft, the rise of the Internet might impose a limit on the company's expansion and influence. According to this line of reasoning, the question was not whether Microsoft's software was better or worse than anyone else's but whether most kinds of software people now buy were about to become less important.
THIS argument involves the programming language Java, which was developed by Sun Microsystems and which suddenly became famous at the end of last year. The idea behind Java, to oversimplify, is that it could make a computer work like a telephone. The nation's telephone network is an enormously complex software-and-hardware combination, but the average user does not need to think about its complexities for a minute (except for the horror of selecting among long-distance plans). You buy whatever phone you want; you plug it in; it works. When the companies offer some new service -- call forwarding, voice mail -- you don't have to buy extra memory chips for your phone or get an upgrade for your telephone software, as you would in the computer world. You keep using your old phone.
And so it could be in the world of computers, according to the Java theory. Java is a way to let your computer borrow and use programs that exist on the central network -- like the switching and call-forwarding programs on the telephone network -- even though you have never bought or installed them. If you were working on a financial problem, you might locate an Internet site that had data you wanted. Using the Java protocol, that site would instantaneously ship you the most up-to-date version of the particular spreadsheet or statistical routines you needed to analyze the data. When these "applets," or small program components, had solved your problem, they would disappear from your machine. Presumably, in some way not yet specified, you would pay a small fee somewhere, as you do for use of the different services available by telephone. You wouldn't need to worry whether you had found the right files for the latest release of your favorite program. Your computer wouldn't need to be a huge battleship, with more raw power than ran the Apollo project and with hard drives capable of storing gigabytes of complex programs. It would simply need to be able to connect to the Internet and receive and run programs sent by Java (which is compatible with nearly any kind of computer and nearly any operating system). Conceivably Java could lead to the production of stripped-down "Internet terminals," costing $500 or so, which could turn up where pay phones do today. Rather than take portable computers with them, people could send messages from an Internet terminal in one airport as they departed and collect them from another after they arrived.
This vision of telephone-like computers, busily touted by Sun representatives since late last year, might never come true. In the short term it faces the ugly reality that existing Internet phone connections are just too slow and overtaxed to handle the high-capacity traffic a Javaed world would require. When I visited Sun's headquarters last fall and watched a Java demonstration by Eric Schmidt, the chief technology officer, an embarrassing slowdown kept the demo from loading at all. Even Sun's internal lines, it seemed, were congested, because end-of-quarter financial data were being passed around.
Last December, Microsoft seemed to acknowledge the importance of Java when it said that it would license the technology for use with its software. Immediately another of the religious wars that always surround Microsoft's actions broke out in the computer world. Some people said this was a sign that Microsoft, ever realistic, had abandoned hope of bending the Internet to its own standards. Others said that Microsoft, ever resourceful, would figure out a way to put its own proprietary stamp on Java -- much as the company had done a decade before when it made the Macintosh-like graphic interface part of its own Windows.
This argument will play out over the next few years, while we wait for phone lines to become fast enough to give Java a serious trial. In the meantime, the idea behind Java -- that the Internet, which we cannot see or really imagine, will take over functions now performed on the computer -- applies to the part of computing that has always been the most interesting and will become increasingly valuable. This is the ability to find information that we actually want.
SOME computer functions are so deeply ingrained in modern life that they are no longer interesting: word processing, E-mail and data transfer, spreadsheets and financial analysis. The programs that handle these functions are mature and complete enough to be merely tools. At the other extreme are tasks that will never be successfully computerized. I am convinced that I will never see a computer that can take a recording of normal conversation and convert it into text, or one that can translate a document from Japanese to English without numerous howlers. In between are the interesting challenges -- the tasks that are hard but not impossible for computers and potentially very valuable for users.