While 1998 might not emerge as the Year of the Internet, all evidence points to it becoming a much bigger deal in our lives over the next 12 months.

We're probably still a few years away from the "Web lifestyle" described by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, in which the Internet becomes central to almost everything we do.Gates and other futurists envision a world in which we use the Internet dozens of times a day to order movie and sports tickets, shop for nearly any item imaginable, check children's homework and grades, take a college class, plot a vacation trip on a map, reserve a motel room, conduct all sorts of research, get a table at a restaurant, read the news, play games, watch movie clips and listen to audio clips before buying videos or CDs, order business supplies, and so forth.

All of those things are possible today, of course, but not a large percentage of the population is using the Internet in daily life.

Here's why that will start to change in 1998:

- All the big hardware, consumer electronics and software companies are developing inexpensive Web-enabled "Internet appliances" that will bring the Internet to the masses. These appliances will be very easy to use, in addition to being cheap. They will include such things as TV set-top boxes, Web-enabled TVs, Web-enabled screen telephones (wired and wireless), Web-enabled video game consoles, Web-enabled personal digital assistants, and others. This means you'll be able to access the Internet from your telephone, your television set, your automobile - nearly everywhere.

- The big cable-television companies have ordered millions of set-top devices that turn television sets into powerful computers and Internet-access devices. The set-top boxes will cost a few hundred dollars and will be simple to use.

- As the cost of Internet hardware is dropping drastically, so is the cost of high-speed access to the Internet. The cable companies will offer high-speed access through the cable network. Phone companies are about to roll out DSL technologies on a broad scale. DSL uses existing copper wire in homes and businesses but offers high speed and high capacity at relatively low cost. Wireless connections are also being perfected and will become widespread over the next few years.

- Online financial-services infrastructure, including such features as digital signatures and heavy-duty security, is mostly in place to allow a mushrooming of electronic commerce and secure financial transactions.

- A psychological breakthrough is occurring in people's minds so they are much less reluctant to use the Internet for sensitive financial transactions and other communications.

All of this means the Internet is about to explode. International Data Corporation, a research firm, estimates that the Web population will reach 100 million in 1998, with electronic commerce totaling $20 billion, up from almost nothing just months ago.

By 2005, IDC projects 1 billion people will be online, and electronic commerce will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars.

In addition to the cheap Web appliances, regular computer prices continue to drop quickly, and new developments will make them easier to use and maintain.

While it is relatively easy for research analysts to project Internet growth in terms of the number of connections and hardware and software sales, the impact of all of this on society and our lifestyles is much more murky - but more fun to speculate about.

Futurists and prominent historians place the development of the Internet as among history's great revolutions, as important in its impact as the printing press, television and the assembly line.

Will the emergence of this vast international communications network connecting nearly everyone, every place, all the time, change the way we live? In every other era, the deployment of powerful new technology has wrought major disruptions and changes in society.

A journalist writing in Upside magazine forecasts a return to the bucolic lifestyle of our great-grandparents, with most people having the luxury to live where they desire while still being connected to the rest of the world.

Another author predicts the demise of public education and major disruptions in higher education as courses become available any time, anywhere.

Plenty of experts are suggesting that whole categories of jobs will be eliminated in the information revolution, and that salespeople, brokers and middlemen, in particular, will have to figure out how to offer "added value" or find other employment.

As information and knowledge become more available to the masses, some futurists expect to see the overthrow of anything large, bureaucratic and top-down in management style. That could portend changes in government, especially in the relationships among governmental levels. It could mean new styles of business organization.

As these cheap Internet devices and fast connections become ubiquitous, it will be fascinating to monitor the impact on society. 1998 will be a year to watch.