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Long road to a networked world

A myriad of obstacles stand in the way of creating a unified global network, industry experts say.

TYSONS CORNER, Virginia--We're a long way from a networked nirvana.

Given the current bandwidth problems, necessary equipment upgrades, and controversy surrounding who will pay for a full-service network, the hopes and possibilities that pervade the industry may run smack into reality. While most believe that one day one global network will provide seamless transport of multimedia data and the line between the public network and the plethora of private networks will be erased, that day looks to be far off.

That's the theme of this week's Networked Economy Conference, which revealed the overwhelming lack of agreement among industry experts on how to enrich the networked computer experience. The only thing everyone agreed on is that there will have to be a shake out in the coming years to facilitate progress and continue the Web explosion since few seem ready to come together for the greater good.

Eric Schmidt, the CEO-elect of Novell and current Sun Microsystems technology guru, spoke of "global agents" seeking out custom information for users. Marc Andreessen, senior vice president of technology for Netscape Communications offered a now familiar demonstration of the company's new Constellation software program that Web-ifies the user experience. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison pontificated on the benefits of network computers. The software products and features may look and sound appealing, but they will only put more demands on networks, both public and private.

"There's a fine line between vision and hallucination." reminded Don Tapscott, chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, during one session at the conference.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the networking industry, where burgeoning vendors can't keep up with the demands being placed on their customer' networks, even as they continue to release faster, more advanced products at a startling pace.

"It's undeniable, people just want one data network," said John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems.

This vision presupposes a level of cooperation between the telecommunications carriers that seems unlikely any time soon judging from the variety of agendas proposed here by representatives of Internet service providers and long distance companies. It also requires a level of interoperability between internetworking players that today's administrators can only dream about.

Desh Deshpande, founder and executive vice president of marketing and customer service for Cascade Communications, said "Five years from now, if you have a private network, it will be for fun."

But to get to this point, the networking industry will have to add intelligence and reliability to networking gear and the accompanying software at a fast pace. Some, like 3Com, claim to already have such far-flung functionality but the communications protocols necessary to create true virtual private networks are still in their embryonic stage.

In the meantime, corporations will still have a patchwork of local area networks, wide area connections, and value-added services from providers. Telecommunications carriers will continue see profit as king. And the administrators and users will still be sprinkled with stories and dreams.