I have argued that electronic publishing of CD-ROM multimedia materials, in the MPC compatible format, is going to develop very rapidly in the immediate future; however, this is not the only important technological development taking place in electronic publishing. A second quite separate, and complementary, electronic communication and publishing technology is also now coming to prominence, in the form of what is called the Internet.
The Internet is a world wide network of interconnected computer systems. It originated in a family of separate networks primarily connecting researchers in North American universities and other higher educational and research institutions. However, it has grown to become a genuinely global network. It now includes many commercial organisations, but also schools of all levels, and many private individuals. At this stage, it practically accessible, with modest costs, to any individual or organisation, anywhere in the world, possessing a suitable computer and a standard telephone line.
The Internet is firstly a communication system. It supports the exchange of electronic mail between any users connected to it. Electronic mail, or e-mail, has the advantage over conventional printed mail of being much faster, and usually somewhat cheaper. It also scores over FAX communication in being cheaper (it uses less telephone time, and generally works at off-peak rates), and offers much greater flexibility in the kinds of information which can be transmitted. In its simplest form, e-mail is limited to textual messages, but in the same way as a CD-ROM disk can hold arbitrary kinds of information - text, graphics, sound etc. - arbitrary kinds of information can also be transferred from one user to another via the Internet, provided only that the systems at either end have suitable, mutually compatible access mechanisms (such as those included in any MPC system).
Of course, e-mail, through the Internet or any other network, suffers from its own Catch-22 situation. It is only useful if the person you wish to communicate with also has Internet access!
But connections to the Internet have recently begun to grow at a very fast rate, and it is likely that the Internet has now established itself as the de facto standard network for global electronic communication and publication. For example, as of January 1994, the Internet proper comprised 2,217,000 distinct, permanently interconnected, computers, worldwide - each of which typically supports a large number of individual users. This represented a growth of 67% in 1993 alone. The Internet is also connected to many other information networks, both public and private, so that the total number of individuals who can now send and receive e-mail through the Internet cannot even be accurately estimated.
Internet access is already practically universal in certain contexts - for example, among academic researchers in scientific and technological disciplines. Internet e-mail is thus already potentially of some significant value to teachers (and, indeed, pupils) in Irish schools, precisely because it provides a very direct and personal channel of communication into virtually all Irish (and, indeed, European) third level colleges.
As a small example of this, consider the annual Career Awareness Workshop offered by the School of Electronic Engineering in DCU, for young women in Irish post-primary schools interesting in pursuing a career in Electronic Engineering. All of the organizers of this workshop are accessible by Internet e-mail. Indeed, this is probably the fastest, most reliable way of contacting them. And all would be more than happy to correspond with pupils or careers teachers to discuss any aspect of the workshop and its operation. I anticipate that, as Internet access grows in schools, then such channels of communication will multiply and diversify, to the ultimate benefit of all educational sectors.
Of course, one might argue that traditional postal services provide adequate facilities for such communication; but in my own experience, it is surprising how much difference it makes to be using a communication medium where messages can be reliably exchanged with any location around the world, with a delay generally never exceeding 24 hours. Furthermore, after an initial familiarisation period, e-mail actually proves to be much easier and convenient to use than conventional post.
Quite aside from e-mail, the Internet offers other additional services which are potentially of great benefit to teachers and pupils. E-mail is essentially person-to-person, but the Internet also supports computer based "conferences" or "discussion groups" , where an arbitrarily large group of people, all around the world, can share and exchange messages. This is done in several different ways, but the most popular is based on a system called USENET News. USENET News is organised into a large number (now exceeding 8000) of distinct "newsgroups" , where a particular newsgroup is dedicated to discussion of some particular topic. The topics currently cover an amazingly diverse variety of technical, scientific, social and recreational fields, and further new newsgroups are regularly being established. To give a flavour of some of the topics, here is a small selection of some current newsgroups:
Any person with access to the Internet can join or "register" on one or more of the USENET News newsgroups. They can either simply listen in to the contributions from others, or post comments, questions, suggestions, of their own, which will then be seen by all other participants in the particular group. Thus, through the Internet, one can gain access to a global community of people interested in discussing any particular topic.
USENET newsgroup discussion is therefore a novel form of electronic "publishing" in its own right - allowing all the immediacy and interaction of a traditional "town hall" meeting, but without requiring the participants to physically meet either at the same place or even the same time.
While electronic mail and conferencing are the two most immediately beneficial and easily accessible, features of the Internet, there are also further facilities which are likely to expand greatly in importance as general Internet usage grows. As well as the informal, on-going communications supported by e-mail and USENET News, the Internet also allows any arbitrary kind of electronic information (text, sound, video etc.) to be retrieved through the network. Thus, authors of conventional textual matter, or illustrated books, or even multimedia materials, can now "publish" simply by making these materials available over the Internet. There is already a vast quantity of such materials available, covering a wide variety of topics and interests. Much of this has been put in the public domain and is free of charge; but, where appropriate, the Internet also allows commercial materials to be distributed, most commonly via the so-called Shareware mechanism. Under this arrangement, the materials (or perhaps some subset of them) are retrieved from the network and may be evaluated for some specified period. A charge must then be returned to the original author only if the recipient decides to retain, and continue to use, the materials.
Because the Internet now allows authors to publish their works with absolutely minimal set up costs (there is no "minimum print run" on the Internet; there is no "print" run at all!), I anticipate an explosive growth of publications of all sorts. Not all of this will be of high quality of course. But given the ease with which the Internet will connect authors and users of published materials, allowing almost instantaneous access and critical feedback, I suspect that the Internet will rapidly become the publishing medium of choice for many many purposes.
Internet and MPC CD-ROM may seem very similar in ways; but, for the time being at least, they are complementary rather than competing electronic publishing technologies. There is a certain degree of overlap. Many materials which have been published on the Internet are also available in CD-ROM form. But, in general, Internet publishing is less sophisticated, and less well standardized than MPC CD-ROM; furthermore, it is significantly more expensive in handling very large quantities of information (such as are particularly involved in audio or video materials). Internet publishing has the advantages of being very immediate, and cheap to start up in. I expect that both MPC CD-ROM and Internet will continue to enjoy vigorous growth in their own, distinct, niches in the expanding world of electronic publishing. The good news for users, of course, is that virtually the same equipment can provide access to both.