The developments on and around the Internet are bearing a strong resemblance to the development of computers and their interfaces. In the very beginning, computers were hardly user-friendly, they were commandline-driven and had no form of on-line help whatsoever. Slowly this changed when the first help functions were added. One of the most important changes has been the introduction of the Graphical User Interface (GUI), which enabled a much more abstract view on the operation of a computer. The popularity of computers, particularly that of home computers or PCs, is largely due to the introduction and further developments of the GUI.
The Internet developments have followed this pattern in many ways. At first there were not many people using it, and most of them were highly educated users who were well capable of working on it without much support or nice interfaces. With the introduction of the Internet's own "graphical user interface" - the World Wide Web in combination with its graphical browsers - this changed drastically. From that moment, even novice users are able to use the various Internet services without having to know how each individual service should be used.
After the introduction of GUIs on computers followed a massive production of all kinds of
applications and programs, most of which exploited GUI capabilities as much as possible. The
same is bound to happen on the Internet too. The major difference between these applications and the applications that have been written for PCs and the like, is that the former will have to be more flexible and robust. To put it more boldly: they will have to be more intelligent to be able to function properly in the dynamic and uncertain environment the Internet is known to be.
At this moment, agents are offering this functionality in a very simple form. The chosen form is usually that of a forms-based interface, or that of a so-called wizard. These latter wizards, which are basically small background processes, may be considered as simple predecessors of real agents, as they are very straight-forward (they are usually driven by a set of if-then rules) and are neither very intelligent nor are they autonomous.
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