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Mapping the New Internet

Jun 10, 2004 5:00 PM

By Alexandra Krasne, PCWorld

SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine a day when your doctor retrieves your information not from a paper file, but on an encrypted smart card. Or when an instant message alerts you that your laundry is done. Or–unbelievably–a day when you get not a single piece of spam.

That’s the future of the Internet described in a keynote address at the IAPP Truste Symposium here this week. John Patrick, former vice president of Internet technology at IBM and now president of the consulting organization Attitude LLC, shared his vision and told how the next steps of Internet evolution will come about.

Many of his expected changes are already arriving, but can’t surface until there are some sweeping changes to the Internet’s framework, and–more importantly–to people’s attitudes, Patrick said.

Key: Always On

Having an always-on broadband connection, as opposed to dial-up, opens new possibilities for Internet use, he says. Patrick estimates broadband users are likely to view ten times more Web pages than dial-up users. Those page views aren’t confined to desktop PCs, but also appear on handhelds and convergence devices, he notes. And through wireless access, you can log onto a hotspot and make a phone call using Internet telephony instead of your cell phone–perhaps even without a Voice over IP service provider, he added.

Patrick is a fan of VoIP, and expects it could someday replace your phone. Through a variety of emerging services, you can plug a phone into your PC and pay pennies rather than dollars a minute for long-distance calls.

“I used Net2phone to make a call when I was 9000 miles away from home,” Patrick said. “If I had used my GSM, it would’ve cost 99 cents a minute.” Some VoIp services even support video.

Patrick cited several other innovative online applications. Some college students are reaping the benefits of services like ESuds, which monitors the status of washers and dryers in dorms. When the wash is done, the student gets an instant message. If a machine breaks, it sends a message requesting repair.

Seeking What’s Natural

But these advances must feel comfortable or people won’t use them, Patrick cautions. He pointed to instant messaging as an example of a new application that is natural and easy to use. Patrick said he first heard about IM when administrative assistants used it to contact their traveling bosses, who were tying up the hotel phone lines to check e-mail.

IM is changing the way we use e-mail, Patrick added. It’s much easier to check whether someone is online, type a question, and get an immediate answer instead of sending e-mail and awaiting a response.

There’s room for improvement even with existing tools, Patrick said. For example, we’re used to Web pages but they should be organized contextually. Now we must turn to search engines to locate information on the Internet.

But as Web pages evolve and designers tag pages using XML, computers will be able to talk to each other and make searches much more efficient.

“Ever had an early morning flight that arrived and didn’t have a gate to park at?” Patrick asked the crowd. “That’s because the flight departure and arrival systems don’t talk to each other. It’s a matter of evolution [that they do].”

Easy and Trusted

The key to success is standards, Patrick said. Effective standards enhance communication. Everyone’s PC can talk to everyone else’s, he said; people can create documents without knowing HTML, and servers still communicate.

Patrick is also a believer in Linux as another way to innovate and advance. The choice is less about cost to run and maintain equipment, and more about freedom, he said.

“That’s why many governments and education systems are interested in open source,” he says. “It’s because it’s open and you can see how it works and if you don’t like how it works you can collaborate and change. It’s about freedom that’s not tied to product cycles, but to the limits of people’s innovation.”

With greater communication comes the need for better security to ward off worms, viruses, and identity theft, Patrick noted. He contends security must be addressed at several levels, encouraging individuals to pay closer attention to secure their personal and server environments with appropriate software and surfing habits. But likewise, companies need to be more diligent.

Another part of the equation: Too few businesses have an active privacy policy, he added. Companies need a privacy framework instead of a legal document, according to Patrick. Security and privacy are better served by identifying every piece of technology infrastructure and how it touches data.

Spam Wars

Patrick is pessimistic about defeating spam, however, mostly because he believes passing laws is the wrong approach.

“As soon as you define something, people find a way to morph themselves into the exception,” he said. Because e-mail relies on Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, it is both simple to operate and to abuse, he added–and that may have to change in order to truly stop spam.

He’s counting on the Internet Engineering Task Force to solve the problem through new standards, possibly with server authentication technology. If a mail system can authenticate the server that sends the mail, the user can be certain the mail is authorized. From there, users can apply block lists to senders. Patrick estimates that wide deployment of such technology is less than a year away, citing Brightmail among the companies leading the way.

“I personally get 400 e-mails a day that are garbage, and this technology dumps them in a folder,” Patrick said. “I lose 1 out of 1000 e-mails in terms of false positives.”

Changing Attitudes

Still, squashing spam and changing other ways of doing things will take time, Patrick says.

The key to making it happen is attitude, he said. It starts when leaders of organizations change old ways, adapt their vocabulary, and–for example–get rid of fax machines.

“There are paperless law firms and hospitals,” Patrick said. “It takes the will to do it. Somebody has to decide, ‘we’re going to use modern-day techniques.'”

He said the fastest-growing segment of Internet users is people over age 65, because they’ve learned their grandkids will keep in touch online. It’s a matter of motivation.