Web frippery sucking up bandwidth

How will we ever have enough bandwidth to make the internet all it should be?. Never forget Parkinson's Law: 'Data expand[s] to exceed all available bandwidth' - and please don't tell me that this is a misquote: I know, already.

I and a friend of mine (newly-converted to web browsing and the internet) were chatting the other day and, what with one thing and another, talk turned to how slow he thought his 56K (actually more like 32K due to Telecom's dodgy exchange technology) connection was.

I launched into my tired old spiel about how in "my" day, we used to dream of having a 14.4K link, and tell that to the young people of today ... But about halfway through my outburst of mouldering nostalgia, I realised he was right - his link really did seem quite slow.

So I took a look at the sites he was typically trying to view: both (the Xtra home page and a DVD shop in the US) were top-heavy with advertisements. Simply by turning off pictures in his web browser I was able to "accelerate" his connection by a factor of nearly four: but the really amazing thing was that turning off pictures did not seem to affect the content value of the sites at all.

This led me to two trains of thought: in the first, I wondered why Internet Explorer (used for 83% of all web browsing on the internet, apparently) does not have a "pictures on/off" button on its toolbar - this would make it easy to turn pictures off while you navigated to the page you wanted, then turn them back on again with an implicit refresh to repaint the screen, bypassing all the dross, advertisements and other drivel along the way.

My (possibly cynical) answer is that the developers don't add this incredibly obvious piece of interface simply because they don't want users to be able to do it. The basis for this would presumably be that advertising makes up the bulk of the funding of the internet, and making it easy for people to avoid it could have real impact on the long-term viability of much of the net's infrastructure ... or, put even more cynically, perhaps someone like the AMA (American Marketing Association) paid them not to add such a button. (Note that Netscape does have a button like this, but it's not a convenient toggle).

But this train of thought eventually switches to a siding to offload its cargo, allowing the Express to thunder through: luxuriating in its plush pullman carriage is the question - How will we ever have enough bandwidth to make the internet all it should be?. Never forget Parkinson's Law: "Data expand[s] to exceed all available bandwidth" - and please don't tell me that this is a misquote: I know, already.

The web is a perfect example of Parkinson's Law in action. In general terms, the actual data rate available to the end user has risen by a factor of three or four over the last five years, yet if anything, most web pages now load quite markedly slower than they used to. Large, animated images, advertisements, questionable design and unnecessary cosmetic frippery, none of which actually enhances the true informational content of a site, are all clogging up our pipes - it's the internet equivalent of cholesterol. Give us faster connections and all that happens is that the content providers give us bigger globs of data to suck down.

In time, I imagine that technologies like ADSL/HDSL and the advent of G2.5/G3 cell technology will improve the bandwidth available to the average consumer - at which point the images, ads and other dross will just get larger still ... But to be realistic, we aren't even anywhere near that stage yet; Telecom's glacial installation rate and high costs for ADSL make it a solution beyond the means of most home users, and CWAP ... er, sorry, I mean WAP, is a distinctly unproven technology that may or may not actually catch the imagination of a nation apparently obsessed with cellphone text messaging. Combine with this Telecom's colossal short-sightedness in putting so little actual fibre in the Southern Cross cable and it should be plain that we have an infrastructure impasse looming here.

Like most people who've been intimately involved with the internet for a long time, I cherish the idealised notion that it will become pervasive - that we will end up taking it for granted in much the same way that we do the television or telephone. The internet has the potential to be the greatest vehicle for social change since the printing press, and is probably the only real shot we have of achieving any kind of genuine global democracy, with true public involvement and oversight in the day-to-day running of the world. In this vision, the internet is much more than a tawdry shopping mall - it becomes the primary instrument of human knowledge.

At the moment, though, I believe we're at the "intrusive" stage of the internet's development - it's there, but it's not right yet, and using it is still too awkward to be a natural action. Until we can get the equivalent of gigabit ethernet into every home, the internet is going to remain a great dream crippled by brain-dead marketing, bandwidth limitations and inconsistent access: still, in my utopian view of the future, we'll get there eventually - I just hope I'm still alive to see it.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail software Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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