By Harry McCracken | Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 11:59 am
I know it’s possible to live without access to the Internet. (Hey, I lived the first fifteen years or so of my life before I heard the dulcet tone of a dial-up modem connection for the first time.) But a funny thing has happened as broadband, cellular networks, and Wi-Fi have put the Internet within my reach the vast majority of the time: I’ve gotten really bad at doing without the Net.
Case in point: Earlier this month, I flew from San Francisco to Alicante, Spain, for an event called the IFA Global Press Conference. The trek involved three plane flights and took close to 24 hours. And aside from a couple layovers, during which I fiddled my iPhone and futzed with iffy airport Wi-Fi, I was disconnected the whole time.
The experience made me antsy, in part because I was cut off from a bunch of the tools I use to do my job, including Google Docs, Gmail, and WordPress. I felt incapacitated and isolated, even though I had brought both a laptop and an iPad with me. I started mourning the fact that Virgin America, my favorite airline–it has Wi-Fi on all its flights–unaccountably doesn’t offer service to Alicante, Spain.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I kind of liked being deprived of Internet access on most flights: I’d buy a stack of magazines to read, snooze, and otherwise relax rather than work, work, work. But somewhere along the way, my brain rewired itself. It wants the Net, as surely as a cigarette addict’s brain wants nicotine.
(Incidentally, I ended spending a chunk of the trip writing a TIME.com column–this one–in Word. For years, Word was my most-used piece of technology, but lately it’s become That Word Processor I Use When I Can’t Get Online.)
Airplanes aren’t the only places where the Internet doesn’t go, though–I know of dead spots in San Francisco where, as far as I can tell, there’s no publicly-available Wi-Fi and no adequate coverage from any major wireless carrier. And speaking of Wi-Fi, as useful as it is, it’s often rotten–at many hotels, it’s so sluggish, sporadic, and otherwise erratic that it may not be better than no Internet access at all. (If you hold out hope that you might be able to get online, you waste hours trying to do so; if you know you can’t, you don’t bother to try.)
I may be an extreme case: I make my living writing a blog, and you can’t blog if you can’t get online. But I’m not that much of an outlier. A lot of us look forward to the day when Internet access is truly pervasive in a way it still isn’t. And tech companies are already introducing products–like Google’s Chrome OS--that are built for a world of truly dependable, universal Internet access even though it’s not here yet.
Thinking about this, I looked back at the history of consumer Internet access (and before that, access to proprietary online services). There have been five eras so far:
The early years (late 1970s-early 1990s): If you were online at at all–which was not a given, since plenty of computer users weren’t–you paid an hourly rate to dial into a proprietary online service such as CompuServe, GEnie, or an upstart called AOL. (Sometimes a stiff hourly rate: It could cost more than $30 an hour to use CompuServe once you’d paid for network access.) You might also have dialed into free bulletin-board systems, some of which were only available when their proprietors weren’t using their computers for something else.
The middle years (mid-1990s-turn of the century):You were on dial-up. You still encountered the occasional busy signal. And unless you had two phone lines, using the Internet meant you couldn’t receive phone calls on your home number. But at least you paid a flat rate for all-you-could-eat access to the entire World Wide Web.
The recent years (turn of the century to a few years ago): You had broadband, eliminating the need to dial out and hog a phone line.
Right now: You’ve got broadband–faster, more reliable broadband than you had a few years ago–and a smartphone that puts most of the Internet in your pocket, as long as you’ve got coverage.
The next era will come when it’s truly unusual to be without Internet access. We’ll know it’s here when not being able to get online when you’re out, about, or in the air is just as unusual as it is for wired broadband at home to conk out today. It’ll be a time when smartphones just work, when Wi-Fi is bulletproof, and every domestic and international flight is Internet-ready.
I think that day will come, and while I don’t know when it’ll arrive, I’m going to be awfully disappointed if 2020 rolls around and it’s not here.
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