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The Internet: Charting Business Opportunities On An Electronic Sea

Those who might not believe that a landbased network of computers could have anything close to a profound effect on the way companies doing business at sea operate should be advised: the Internet is affecting the way companies in just about all industries do business, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The Internet's attraction to companies is the ease of accessing information through its pathways. Information Technology (IT) is all about accessing information in a quicker, more complete way, and companies in the maritime industry have long known that better information access means a more efficient and competitive organization.

What Exactly Is The Internet? The Internet is simply a huge conglomeration of networks, all connected by similar protocols conventions of information exchange allowing them to communicate with one another. The computers can be of any type, as long as they are equipped with the software necessary for them to "speak" the correct protocols. Many corporations today are creating corporate intranets, proprietary networks created with Internet standards but not necessarily connected fully to the Internet, to serve information internally. Why? For one thing, the standardization of hardware and software that the surge in Internet popularity has wrought makes it extremely cost-effective. In some cases, these companies can kill two birds with one stone by implementing an efficient means of granting employees access to the information they need (protected by user authentication, if also connected to the larger Internet), while also establishing an Internet presence with which to serve customers and market their company.

DOD Beginnings The Internet is now recognized for its huge potential as a commmercial tool, but it began as a project funded by the U.S. government for military applications. A company called Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) developed the packet-switching technology upon which the Internet is based in 1969, funded by the Department of Defense's (DOD's) Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The technology allowed the reliable transmission of data in subdivisions called packets. BBN is still deeply involved in the Internet (one of its business units, BBN Planet, provides Internet access), as well as other high-technology pursuits, such as Active Sound and Vibration Control (see MR/EN May 1996, p. 22). The network created based on this technology was called ARPAnet, then renamed DARPAnet in 1973, the "D" standing for "Defense." The technology was designed to allow a network to function even if the majority of nodes on the network were destroyed — the idea being to create a means of exchanging information that would survive a nuclear attack.

The Most Elaborate Web Ever Spun The Internet was used by government and educational institutions for years, but did not gain the its current momentum until Tim Berners-Lee, then at the European Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN), conceived of the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web, as is rarely explained in much of the hyped-up articles seen in the popular press, is not a different part of the Internet, exactly. It is not so much a place as a subset of those Internet-connected computers, all of which, in this case, know how to speak the protocol of the Web.

Different protocols allow the transmission of different kinds of information across the Internet. The main protocol "suite" of the Internet is TCP/IP, which contains many subprotocols to allow for the reliable transmission of a variety of data types. Mr. Berners-Lee developed the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), which allows the transmission of hypertext. Hypertext is, simply put, text that can be linked within the body of a page to other pages. Those other pages can be located on the same computer or they can be on the other side of the world. The concept of hypertext had existed before the development of HTTP: a man by the name of Ted Nelson had envisioned a grand system, which he called Xanadu, of hypertext linkages rife with contextual references to other related documents, complete with processing capabilities for respecting copyrights, tracking usage and those related documents on a peraccess basis. But the World Wide Web was a simpler, leaner and more easily implemented incarnation of a hypertext system — obviously more viable for immediate purposes, as evidenced by the simple fact that it exists, and it is unclear whether Mr. Nelson will ever be successful in creating a system that delivers the promise of Xanadu.

Mr. Berners-Lee also proposed Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a subdivision of SGML (Structured Generalized Markup Language) that defines the elements of a document based on structure rather than specific formatting. Because different computer platforms have different resources available to them, a structure-based method of creating Industries, Inc.

Circle 319 on Reader Service Card documents would allow each client computer to interpret an HTML document in the way most appropriate to its resources. This made HTML largely independent of what display capabilities the user might or might not have.

The Pace Of Change Just as it is unlikely that anyone who originally developed the ARPAnet knew it would evolve into something with as much potential as the Internet, it is almost as unlikely that those who worked on the basic HTML language just a few short years ago knew it would be extended to support the kind of functionality it now has.

One of the first extensions of the basic HTML text document was one that allowed the incorporation of images into HTML. This extension was proposed by Marc Andreesen, who was then working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which developed the first World Wide Web "browser" software, called Mosaic. When that functionality was added to Mosaic, people began to see the true potential of the Web.

Mr. Andreesen subsequently cofounded Netscape Communications with Jim Clark, formerly of Silicon Graphics. Netscape has been the source of many new extensions to HTML since then — so many that the normal standards development process has been forsaken for HTML, because no standards organization could keep up with the rapid development of the language without acting as a restraining influence on its progress. Netscape Communications' browser, Navigator, while clearly owing a debt to NCSA's Mosaic, has since far surpassed Mosaic as the most popular browser, largely because Netscape has continually innovated to expand the abilities of the software as it has expanded the abilities of the HTML language itself.

Maritime Industry Applications What does all this have to do with the maritime industry? At least as much as it has to do with every other industry.

Web "pages," as the individual HTML documents are called, can embed the functions of file transfer and e-mail directly into the page: a user has only to click on a hypertext link (also called a "hotlink) to access the functions once they are built into the page. With a bit more effort and the help of some custom programming, the pages can even be designed to perform tasks like database searching. Consider the potential in that capability for those companies who want to give customers direct access to what inventory they have in stock: a potential client can simply access the database through the Internet and know immediately whether the part he or she needs is in stock — and if it isn't, possibly order it.

Many companies which have served the maritime industry for years, some for decades, have already realized the potential of the World Wide Web for marketing their products and services. Each company's site tends to offer features that reflect that company's specific business and character. The marine companies that have begun to establish an Internet presence include: • Wartsila Diesel's Web site offers a short presentation of the company, with company news updates and information on the company's research and development activities. It also offers information on its line of products and services, including descriptions of its marine diesel engines, grouped by kW range.

• Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) has a site that offers an overview of NNS, a brief history, as well as information about employment opportunities and a photo gallery of distinctive ships delivered by the yard.

• Norshipco's site gives detailed information about its repair facilities, including the geographical distance of those facilities from prime points in the U.S.

• C-Map's Web site offers reference charts of certain areas, and has incorporated a library of electronic charting reports for the latest developments in the electronic charting world.

• As is the case with a great many Web sites, Radio Holland's was "under construction" at press time; but plans include incorporating product information about its offerings in GMDSS communications, integrated bridges, as well as engine room and cargo control and monitoring equipment.

• Also under construction at press time, Leica Navigation and Positioning Division's Web site offers specifications and even pictures of its lines of equipment, broken down by product category and sub-category. For example, under the Marine Navigation menu, users can choose from DGPS systems, hydrographic survey products, commercial marine and pleasure boat products.

This is only a tiny subset of the companies currently taking advantage of the Web's potential for disseminating information. One advantage of electronic publishing over traditional printing is that the cost of revisions and updates is negligible — not at all like the printed product and service information all companies must have, which cannot be revised once printed, and which are worth no more than the paper they are printed on once they become outdated. Also postage, which can be a significant expense, does not apply. Electronic documents are not static like paper, but dynamic. And they can be as dynamic as you need them to be: with a little programming, HTML documents can be created to actually "rewrite" themselves as time goes on. For example, it is now possible to create a document with an everchanging table reflecting current stock prices for maritime companies, or even with an embedded weather map that reflects the movement of weather systems in a given area. The potential, especially with the developments in Web-based programming (notable among which is the creation of Sun Microsystems' multi-platform programming language, Java) is growing ever closer to limitless. Of course, not all — perhaps not even most — of your prospective customers will have Internet access. That may be true today, but there are definite indications that computers are heading toward becoming the universal appliance of the near future, combining the uses of television and telephone with the accepted uses of a PC. A reasonable argument can be made that getting your company involved in the Internet may not be a vital part of its strategy today; but an even more reasonable argument can be made that those who ignore the Internet today will be playing catch-up with their competitors tomorrow.

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