An Ever-widening Web is reaching out to pull us in

April 16, 2006|By LARRY WILLIAMS | LARRY WILLIAMS,IDEAS EDITOR

Just when you think you have the Internet figured out, it evolves again, presenting fresh promises and complexity. That's what's happening in 2006 with an array of interesting developments. Among them:

An explosion of TV news entertainment and live sports offered free on the Web. Last month, millions of viewers hooked up with CBS SportsLine's free online broadcast of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Some 18,000 computer servers were used to bring the games to the computers of basketball fans around the world. On March 16, the first day of the March Madness playoffs, Web content was provided for more than 102 billion Internet requests, with a peak rate of 2.3 million requests per second, according to executives at Akamai Technologies Inc., a Massachusetts company whose business of streamlining the flow of the basketball games and other content through the increasingly complex Internet is booming.

Direct your browser to the right Web sites and you can find hundreds of channels of radio and television programming available on the Web. Attach your computer to your home TV and you have the potential of a low-cost custom cable system.

Web users are already beginning to download a broad array of television programming from network archives, and soon will gain access to free programming for those willing to watch some ads.

Instant messaging is fast evolving from a toy used for teenage chat to an increasingly popular means of corporate communication that is zipping past spam-clogged e-mail in boxes to facilitate the rapid flow of information, among workers and with customers.

IM is growing in several directions. The biggest IM networks - AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay - are working to make their systems more compatible while offering tools to create specialized corporate IM webs. The big four are feeling competition from Google Talk and Apple's iChat, whose users can talk to one another and users of other open-source IM systems.

Most IM systems now include voice and video calling for users with properly equipped personal computers. More and more companies are using IM to teach employees, to mobilize home-based workers to serve customers and to strengthen communications among widely dispersed workers through individual communication and large group conferences.

IM is an increasingly popular means of communication for families or groups of adult friends. The technology also is playing an important role in helping the deaf communicate with the world.

To some enthusiastic advocates, IM is as much an advance over e-mail as e-mail was over the U.S. Postal Service.

The largest Internet Web brands - Yahoo.com, Google.com, MSN.com, AOL.com and eBay.com - are racing against one another to provide an ever-expanding range of free services for clients willing to register with their sites.

Beyond e-mail and customized home pages, they are offering everything from Widget engine programs that display and constantly update useful information on the user's computer screen, to easy-to-assemble Web sites that allow users to combine images, text, headlines, interactive maps and other features.

Google alone offers easy-to-set-up blog sites, photo storage and editing software, translation services and more than two dozen other customized features free to its customers.

Yahoo won't be left behind. It is testing a slick, new e-mail management system that can be used to gather messages received at the three or four e-mail addresses many Web users find themselves managing. Yahoo also offers a popular Personals dating service, online data storage and a sophisticated and comprehensive financial site that can be used to manage investments and personal finance.

Beyond the giants, other free Web services are growing explosively, again by offering a range of free services. The fastest-growing, recent surveys show, include Blogger.com, which offers homes for bloggers; MySpace.com, which hosts personal information sites; Wikipedia.org, a massive open-reference encyclopedia; and Citysearch.com, which offers directories of city services.

Finally, improved Internet access on high-end cell phones is putting more of the action in users' hands. Now cell phone users can blog, watch TV shows, IM, manage their personal finances and exchange home movies without turning on their computers.

Stay tuned.

larry.williams@baltsun.com

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