Sham + Scam = Shame

The Net came up from the sinister and murky
background of the Cold War, but managed to keep a decent profile at that time. Then came
the World Wide Web, which magically transformed what was essentially a long-distance
information carrier into a conglomerate entity which catered to various walks of life,
like entertainment, education, research, business, and ubiquitous email. It promised to
enhance your communication, make it easy for you to get information at a mere click of a
mouse, and even help you make money by hawking your wares online, for millions to see.

But one important thing it really
achieved-through spin-off concepts like the intranet-was to enable the user community,
reeling under the blows of open proprietary (forgive the odd oxymoron) systems, to break
free. It was more than just a Utopian world-like some new-age God, it proved that it was
equal to all, and that all were equal to it-of course, people with 128 Kbps ISDN links are
always more equal than users with 14.4 Kbps modems, but that apart, the Net proved that it
did not exactly give too much of a damn about what you actually used to connect to it. At
long last, a dumb Unix terminal, with poor little text-based Lynx, was nearly equal to a
200 MHz Pentium Pro equipped with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer (IE)-ok, ok, we
are stretching the point a bit, but you get the general idea, don”t you? though you could
not get any fancy graphics with the former option.

And then, all hell broke loose. The
mandarins of IT, to their exquisite horror, realized that the only thing worse than not
getting your prayers answered was getting them answered. Of course, they wanted systems to
be open, but not that open. But Lord Internet had spoken, and there was not too much they
could do about it, right?

But the champions of the desktop era, the
dreaded Wintel combine, comprising the wily Windows-enabled Microsoft and the infinitely
monopoly-hungry microprocessor giant Intel decided that even Lord Internet could be
thwarted. After all, they were the ones who stood to lose the most in case the Net
remained non-proprietary-suddenly, it no longer mattered weather or not you had a Pentium
Pro running Win95 and IE, right?

Therefore, the two companies decided that
the best thing to do was to ensure that the Net became proprietary. Understandably, that
was how they had made their big bucks in the desktop era-Intel gets a chip that runs
faster, and Microsoft designs a fatware hog-OS which justifies the existence of the chip,
and all hardware and software vendors had a sweet time selling ”updated” versions of their
PCs and software packages.

The first to move stealthily into the murky
depths of the Net was understandably Microsoft, which designed the official Star Trek site
<http://www.startrek.com/> to be accessible only if you are running IE on
Windows-use any other OS or a different browser, and sorry, you can”t say ”Beam me up,
Scotty”. Even First Officer Spock, known for his macabre infatuation with logic, would
have disapproved of this (do we hear Dr McCoy loudly protesting to Captain Kirk in the
background?)

With Microsoft on the nasty, can it be long
before its dear long-and-never-lost friend Intel catches up? Recently the chip juggernaut
was seen in very bad light indeed when it tried to persuade some web publishers to provide
so-called ”optimized content” (ah, what words they use these days!) which essentially
means that you get enhanced performance on Intel”s latest chips, but get slow delivery on
other chips. Pray, are those who use non-Intel chips, or refrain from joining the mad
upgrade rush children of a lesser God?

Intel and Microsoft are not the only ones
to blame, but they are the most prominent, and, most importantly, they are the ones who
have started it all. The point now is not how bad Intel and Microsoft are, the issue is
how can one stem the rot. Obviously, one cannot install MS IE to access the Star Trek
site, and use Netscape Navigator to access Citibank. Customers need to be allowed the
right to decide. As Sun”s Scott McNealy said in a different context some time ago, do you
want freedom of choice or freedom from choice?

Today, it is high time that we got up a
good committee to handle such issues. True, we have the IETF (Internet Engineering Task
Force), the W3C (WWW Consortium), and other Internet governance bodies, but of what use
are they if they cannot ensure the presence of an open Internet? It is, therefore,
imperative that somebody takes the mandate of setting up a single governing entity which
encompasses all the functions of the Net, from doling out domain names to engineering the
bandwidth acceleration of the Internet”s backbone. True, it is a tough task, but can we
allow the likes of Microsoft and Intel to run rough-shod over us on the Internet, the way
they have done on the desktop?

Is Lord Internet listening?

BALAJI N,
in Bangalore.

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