Last Monday morning, after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision to rein in the illegal sharing of music files on the Web, the Internet was humming with the news.
On SCOTUSblog, a Web site sponsored by a Washington law firm, Lyle Denniston, a veteran legal journalist, was posting the news and analysis while an array of legal experts offered their views of what the court had decided.
Reports on the court's decision appeared on the home pages of millions of Internet users linked to their favorite news sources by RSS reader software. Others were listening to analysis of the court's decisions on podcasts downloaded from the Web.
There is still lots on the Web to complain about - from poor security to spam and pop-up ads to balky e-mail and browser programs. Despite all that, the Web is in the midst of a revolution - evolving rapidly into an increasingly sophisticated and useful tool for living.
There are two important reasons for the gains. More than half of all at-home Internet users have high-speed connections, and there has been a rapid development of software tools to help users manage the vast sea of Internet media.
Once limited by slow downloads and inadequate Web tools, users are now able to do much more.
As a consequence, more and more people are going online to view, listen or download a wide array of media, to play games, to shop at increasingly elaborate Web sites, to read the news, contribute to blogs, share photos and, of course, to chat online, frequently with a camera turned on.
About 67 percent of all Americans now use the Web, says a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project taken in February and March. User demographics are impressive, the survey indicates. About 84 percent of all 18- to-29-year-olds now get online, as do 89 percent of college graduates and 85 percent of those earning $50,000 to $75,000.
Internet commerce is continuing to grow at a double-digit pace as do the profits and business potential of Google and other online companies. Nearly $10 billion was spent on Internet advertising last year, and sales on the Internet increased in the first quarter of this year increased to nearly $20 billion, nearly 24 percent higher than in the corresponding period of 2004, the Census Bureau reported in May.
Enthusiasm about the growing economic power of the Internet has helped Google's stock price climb from under $100 a share when the company went public last summer to nearly $300 a share last week.
In fact, some observers reflecting on the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 are viewing the skyrocketing value of Google's stock with alarm. Some experts say the future might be more challenging as Internet companies compete for the attention of users.
But others say the real fun is just beginning.
Last week, Yahoo, one of the Web's most popular home bases, announced a new service called MyWeb2.0 that allows users to collect favorite Web sites and share them with friends or co-workers.
Also last week, Apple Computer Inc. announced that a new directory would be provided on its iTunes Web site that would allow users to find and download favorite podcasts - radio shows and other audio programs posted on the Internet. Another Pew survey indicated 6 million Americans have listened to podcasts.
Not be left behind, Google announced last week that it will make available a free version of its Google Earth software program that permits users to view high-resolution digital imagery of the planet.
One possible use of the new software would be to mark the locations of local restaurants or real estate listings on a photo map of a community using a link to a database.
When it comes to music and movies, experts predict that the Supreme Court's decision will do little to inhibit illegal file-swapping. A national survey of adult Internet users taken this year seems to confirm that view. Some 57 percent of high-speed Internet users told Pew they believe there is not much the government can do to reduce illegal file-sharing.
The exchange of music and movie files isn't limited to file-sharing networks. About 19 percent of music and video downloaders (about 7 million adults) say they have downloaded files from someone else's iPod or MP3 player. About 28 percent (roughly 10 million people) say they get files by e-mail and instant messages.
But as more and more people migrate to the Internet for their entertainment, traditional media giants are following and are expected, ultimately, to dominate the new media, with sales of downloadable movies, made-for-Internet broadcast material and news.
Apple Computer is showing the way. The company has sold more than 400 million songs from it's online iTunes music store to fill the 15 million iPod personal music players it has sold worldwide.
On Thursday, the company put out a news release reporting that its iTunes customers had subscribed to more than 1 million podcasts from the new podcast directory.
And newspaper editors fretting about declining circulation can take heart from yet another Pew study released last week reporting that that fully 62 percent of Internet news consumers say they read the Web sites of local or national newspapers.
"Convenience is more important than cost in explaining why many Americans are reading the paper online instead of in print," said Pew's Lee Rainie. "Among those who say they read the Web version of the newspaper, 73 percent cite convenience compared with just 8 percent who do so because it is free."
Pew calls the online newspaper audience "mostly male, wealthy and highly educated."
New software tools are fast making it possible for people to easily organize a flow of up-to-the minute reports from wide array of sources, including traditional media, blogs and other specialized Web sites.
Improved search engines from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are making it much easier and safer to find everything from useful Web sites to academic research to wireless hot spots, a useful book or an interesting dinner date.
These same companies are offering custom home pages that include personal mail service with seemingly unlimited mail storage, local TV and movie listings, customized news, weather and sports reports and easy to manage storage for other media, including personal blogs, photos, home movies, maps and sound recordings.
Blogs, sites set up by individuals or institutions to discuss issues or share information, are proliferating like stars in the sky.
Flickr, an online photo-storage site, is another example how people can use the Web to help get their lives in order. Users can store personal photos on the Flickr site and share them with family and friends who check the site or the world if they like.
There is even a blog site that explains how to combine Flickr with Google Maps to create a map linking locations where images were captured with the images themselves.
Some of this seems more than a little silly at times, even dedicated Webbers agree. That's the point, they say, once you have a high-speed connection and a computer most of the play is free.
In a more serious vein, a number of efforts are under way to provide better guides to the most useful and reliable sites on the Web.
Google and Yahoo are offering comprehensive guides to the Web and the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org) is building a comprehensive guide to the best of the Web using an army of volunteer editors.
Google hopes to build a comprehensive Web library through a years-long project of scanning the contents of important university libraries across the nation. And Yahoo is offering an online directory for Internet-posted academic research that can be searched by university or topic.
The next big challenge, for the founders of the fast-evolving Internet is to lower the costs of high-speed access, so the less affluent can benefit from access. Amazingly, the United States lags behind many other countries in providing low-cost, high-speed Internet access.
And some worry that another Supreme Court decision last week - a ruling that freed cable television companies a requirement that forces local phone companies to provide access to other Internet service marketers - could lead to less competition and higher prices for high-speed Internet service.
The cure for that could be high-speed wireless Internet service like that now offered in some coffee shops and libraries and coffee shops. There's a new version of wireless that could offer low-cost service across cities.
The growth of the Internet
Yahoo - My Web 2.0
A new web site that helps you organize your favorite Web pages and share them with friends or coworkers at myweb.search.yahoo.com.
Allows you to share photographs with friends or the world or to study public and private images posted by others. Tags help keep this bounty organized and every image is free to anyone who would like to make a copy at www.flickr.com.
Apple announced that it intends to offer a directory to help users find some of the 20,000 audio programs available on the Internet for downloading. In addition to NBC and ABC news programs, podcast listeners can hear Rush Limbaugh (above), Al Franken and a host of others, including lots of music.
Google announced last week that it would make available a free version of its Google Earth software program that permits users to view high-resolution digital images of the planet (MB&T; Stadium, above). Users will be able to create images that include useful details.
A mostly reliable and wildly popular online encyclopedia that has been created by its faithful users at en.wikipedia.org.