Just when you thought you had a grip on where the Internet is heading, everything's about to change. AOL chairman and CEO Steve Case said today that we are on the brink of a second Internet revolution that will make the first one "look quaint by comparison."
The second revolution will be characterized by the convergence of media, entertainment and information, as well as a melding of household appliances like televisions, personal computers and telephones, which will be linked together and share content and functionality, he said.
"This is the beginning of a world we all dreamed about creating 10 years ago," Case said, speaking at the opening day of the giant Internet World trade show here today. "We've talked about this for years, but it's finally starting to happen."
The AOL chief showed prototypes of new Internet appliances developed by AOL and Gateway 2000 Inc. that he said will also help make the converged vision a reality by providing consumers with tools for faster, easier access to the Internet.
The products, which will use the Linux operating system and a lightweight version of Netscape's Gecko browser, include a lightweight "countertop" appliance for the kitchen, a desktop appliance designed to serve as a low-cost alternative to the PC and a wireless Web pad.
Holding the Web pad aloft, Case said it is light enough to be installed anywhere in the home and has a pivoting screen that would allow it to be hung from the underside of a shelf in the kitchen. The first appliances will be available at the end of this year, he said.
The AOL chief also announced the release of the new version of the company's long-awaited browser, Netscape 6, which he said will provide users with greater performance and convenience when they go online.
Netscape's Navigator browser was a key issue in the U.S. government's antitrust case against Microsoft Corp., but Case made no mention of the verdict passed earlier this week that Microsoft's attempts to crush Navigator amounted to a violation of antitrust law.
Case wore a jacket emblazoned with the Netscape logo, which he said was given to him last year by Jim Barksdale, then CEO of Netscape Communications, on the day the two companies agreed to merge. "I wear it with great pride," he said.
One attendee sounded impressed by the Internet appliances on show here.
"I'm in the Internet business, but my wife is a general consumer and this is exactly the kind of thing that will win her over," said Mark Foster, vice president of marketing with edupoint.com, a provider of online educational courses.
"Key to all this is simplicity for the consumer," Foster added. "It's got to be as seamless for them as (Case) portrayed it to be here today."
Another show-goer was more skeptical.
"I have yet to believe that consumers are asking for this stuff," said Bijan Dorostkar, who does business development for chip design company RTG.
Case sounded a note of caution, saying the industry must be careful to include all citizens in the Internet, and not just the affluent. About three-quarters of homes in the US with incomes of $75,000 and above are connected to the Web, Case said, compared with only 10 per cent of the poorest households.
"I don't think there is a more urgent task than dealing with difficult societal issues, including the digital divide," Case said. "It's no use just talking about it, we have to do it," he added.