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The Future of the Internet

In a decade, the Net will dig deeper into our lives.

April 10, 2006 Issue of Red Herring

Fast-forward 10 years, a decade out from the final deconstruction of the old order marked by headlines about France’s Alcatel sweeping up its last remnant, Lucent Technologies, AT&T’s old equipment division. The year is 2016. You’ve just come out of surgery and are being pushed down the hospital corridor on a gurney toward the recovery room. The nurses know you are on the way because a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag on your plastic patient identification bracelet automatically generated an alert to the nursing station.

The doctor doing rounds checks the Internet to monitor your vital signs. As always, the implants in your body are beaming real-time information about your brain waves and blood pressure to a protected web site 24/7. Your daughter, who is on a different continent, is already whispering words of encouragement into your ear—thanks to an embedded speech processor equipped with 802.11 wireless technology, TCP/IP communications protocol, and specialized software that allows sound from the Internet to flow directly into your cochlea. Using your VOIP-enabled mobile telephone, you tell her not to worry.

“One expects there to be much more organic connection between people and technology,” says Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, who is widely known as one of the “fathers” of the Internet for his role in co-designing the TCP/IP protocol and the Internet’s architecture.

Crossing the Line

If Mr. Cerf and about two dozen other pundits Red Herring interviewed about the future of the Internet are right, in 10 years’ time the barriers between our bodies and the Internet will blur as will those between the real world and virtual reality.

Automakers, for instance, might conceivably post their parts catalogs in the virtual world of Second Life, a pixilated 3D online blend of MySpace, eBay, and renaissance fair crossed with a Star Trek convention. Second Life participants—who own the rights to whatever intellectual property they create online—will make money both by using the catalog to design their own cars in cyberspace and by selling their online designs back to the manufacturers, says Danish economist and tech entrepreneur Nikolaj Nyholm.

Today’s devices will disappear. Electronics will instead be embedded in our environment, woven into our clothing, and written directly to our retinas from eyeglasses and contact lenses, predicts inventor, entrepreneur, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. “Devices will no longer be spokes on the Internet—they will be the nodes themselves,” he says.

We will know exactly when our children will be dropped off because the school bus will be connected to the Internet, says Internet doyenne Esther Dyson. Our cars might one day arrange for repairs at dealerships before we realize there’s a problem.

Everything from the family fridge to the office coffee pot—as well as heating, cooling, and security systems—will be managed through the Internet, possibly using souped-up mobile phones doubling as universal remote controls, says Google’s Mr. Cerf. By 2016, he predicts the online population of 1 billion will treble, and a huge portion will be mobile. And by then, the Internet will become so pervasive that connecting to it will no longer be a conscious act.

Bandwidth access of 100 megabits per second or more will become the norm. “It is probably a safe bet that everyone will be able to have a full-motion, high-definition real-time link to anyone,” says Bram Cohen, creator of the popular peer-to-peer program BitTorrent. Once that happens, “the concept of who is online and who is offline will melt away,” says Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo’s director of media and desktop search.

Taken for Granted

In sum, the Internet “will just become like plumbing, which you won’t notice unless it backs up,” says Brewster Kahle, inventor of the Wide Area Information Server, the Internet’s first publishing system, and co-founder of the Internet Archive, the largest publicly accessible, privately funded digital archive in the world.

While the technical underpinnings of the Internet are likely to undergo drastic change, the nature of those changes will be wrought by policy decisions made by governments with a heightened interest in overseeing the Internet. When a network is this critical to just about everything, it’s reasonable to expect that governments will seek tighter control of what remains today a decentralized and somewhat anarchic system. The trick will be to preserve the creativity that spawns innovation—and profit—in this more vital and inevitably more regulated Internet.

No matter what, people will continue to make money from Internet innovation in a variety of ways. Targeted advertising will continue to be an important revenue generator, as will intellectual property distribution, predicts Mr. Cerf. Tools for content production will evolve to allow for widespread and uniform tagging of content, significantly improving our ability to use sensor data, financial information, medical data, text, imagery, video, and audio. And the semantic web being promoted by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee will help us better match computer understanding with human understanding of the world around us, though it will likely be far from perfect.

People will be able to talk to the Internet when searching for information or interacting with various devices—and it will respond, though not necessarily in English, which will cease to be the dominant language on the web, says John Patrick, a founding member of the World Wide Web consortium and former vice president of Internet technology at IBM.

As so-called sensor networks evolve, there will be vastly more machines than people online. As it is, there are almost 10 billion embedded micro-controllers shipped every year. “This is the next networking frontier—following inexorably down from desktops, laptops, and palmtops, including cell phones,” says Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com. This is what will make up much of the machine-to-machine traffic, he says.

Services, Services, Services

RFID tags will be in wider use. So will geo-location services, which can be used to locate friends, places, and events of interest. Better real-time language translations will be available, at least for text translations.

Mash-ups won’t be limited to web sites—we’ll see the introduction of ‘mashed’ real-time web applications. The Internet will further revolutionize publishing, film, and television. “You will suddenly have a few hundred thousand producers out to kill each other, competing on the Internet,” predicts Charles Zhang, founder and CEO of Beijing-based portal Sohu.com. “You will have instant rankings of the most popular videos,” adds Mr. Zhang, who reckons China will lead the way in this new form.

Independent management consultant and author John Hagel III sees opportunities in network infrastructure management and customer relationship businesses that put together individualized bundles of products and services and act as trusted advisors.

Search will remain big. Big players will continue to dominate online, says Paul Saffo, director of the Palo Alto, California-based Institute of the Future. “The lesson is, if you want to become big you do so by empowering and enabling lots and lots of small players.” The same way that Google, Amazon, and eBay did, he adds.

So just how big will Internet business be? “My whole thesis is that information technologies are growing exponentially. Things that we can measure like price performance, capacity, and bandwidth are doubling every year so that’s actually a factor of a thousand in 10 years,” says Mr. Kurzweil. “So if the Internet is already very influential—if there is already a trillion dollars of e-commerce, already a very democratizing technology, then multiplying its size and scope by a factor of a thousand will be a very significant change.”

A Clean Slate

But this assumes that the current Internet, which was never designed to be a critical part of an economy’s infrastructure, will be able to sustain a tripling of the number of people connected and the addition of billions—perhaps even hundreds of billions—of devices.

Concerns about how to prepare for such a future took center stage at a March 8 meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The meeting drew researchers, telecom executives, academics, government officials, and economists from the United States, Europe and Asia.

“The Internet is at a turning point and the changes are big enough in nature to warrant the high-level attention of policy makers,” says conference organizer Andrew Wyckoff, head of the OECD’s information, computers, and communications policy division.

Indeed, willful service disruptions, viruses, and the web’s fragility and lack of robustness have all become issues of enormous importance as the Internet becomes central to the global economy and people’s lives. Even spam has graduated from irritant to serious threat.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Senior Research Scientist Dave Clark, who has been actively influencing the development of the Internet since the 1970s, believes the Internet needs a total overhaul, not just more patches.

Mr. Cerf wonders about that himself. “Plainly the Internet continues to play an extraordinary role in the daily life of its billion users, so in a sense it cannot be considered hopelessly broken,” he says. “But it is arguable that it can be significantly improved.”

Growing Up

The Internet did not really become a mass-market communications tool until after 1983, when the U.S. government’s original ARPANET—short for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network—changed communications protocols and hooked up with a computer network linking academic computer science departments nationwide, helping usher in the web we know today. It was built on the telephone network and satellite and radio systems of the day, and adapted amazingly well to new technology. But “a new version of the Internet is certainly imaginable,” says Mr. Cerf.

Those who argue that the current Internet does not need fixing “tend to be people who sell a lot of antivirus software,” says John Wroclawski, director of the computer network division at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute.

Mr. Wroclawski, working with a team of graduate students as well as some of the Internet’s pioneers, is trying to rethink the Internet from scratch. The idea is to keep an open mind to what works, including preserving the best of what we have today. To that end, they are participating in the Global Environment for Networking Innovations (GENI), a new National Science Foundation project to build an advanced test-bed network for piloting new protocols and applications on the Internet.

A second NSF initiative, the Future Internet Design (FIND), is one of many projects aimed at generating new approaches that can be tested over GENI’s advanced test-bed network.

“We don’t presently have a roadmap of where we are trying to go with the Internet,” says MIT’s Mr. Clark. Instead of worrying about backward compatibility and migration issues, the focus has shifted to “where we would like to be in 10 to 15 years,” he explains. “If the story is compelling enough, people will figure out how to get there.”

There are different schools of thought about GENI’s ultimate impact on the Internet’s technical underpinnings. Some, like Nick McKeown, a Stanford University professor involved in three different “clean slate” initiatives, believe that after testing new technologies over the GENI platform, a consensus will emerge on one approach and entrepreneurs will innovate around that—and commercialize their products with the help of venture capitalists.

Others think entrepreneurs will end up commercializing different approaches addressing different problems. In this scenario, specific applications will have their own dedicated networks that will coexist indefinitely running over GENI, which, as a platform, will become the new Internet.

Water or Wine

However, “The biggest challenge to efforts such as GENI will be confronting the reality that there will be no technical solutions to the top problems of the Internet that do not also solve the underlying issues of economics, ownership, and trust,” says K.C. Claffy, founder and director of the Cooperative Association of Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) at the University of California, San Diego’s Supercomputer Center.

In short, it will be difficult to choose a technology direction without becoming embroiled in policy decisions that impact business models.

The future direction of the Internet could end up being one in which the telecom carriers apply their own business model to the Net—one that CAIDA senior analyst for economics and policy Tom Vest calls “telcotopia”—which would basically mean a return to the public switched telephone network (PSTN), where no network service is possible outside of an explicit partnership with the regional or national PSTN owner. In another scenario, the Internet could become a government-run utility, whereby network control ceases to be a strategic business advantage. Finally, the “let a hundred flowers bloom” approach could be adopted, in which many different infrastructure control arrangements and business models compete and coexist.

The outcome of that debate is likely to determine the technology path of the Internet. The telcos, for example, are unhappy with just being the pipes because they can’t earn their traditional profit margins. “Society has decided IP is like water—this has strong implications for a [telecom] industry structuring itself to sell wine,” says CAIDA’s Ms. Claffy.

So, telcos are pushing to start putting functions in the core of the network because they believe they can make a lot more money with services than they can just providing access.

Getting Smarter

To date, the network’s core has been dumb—meaning its only job is to blindly carry data from one user to another. All the innovation—think Mr. Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web or Niklas Zennström and Skype—happened at the edges. But there are several proposals, all likely to be tested on GENI, that would move some of the innovation to the Internet’s core.

One idea is to replace today’s routers, the boxes that direct Internet traffic, with much simpler dynamic circuit switches, which would allow the introduction of new optical technology, says Mr. McKeown, director of a new Stanford Clean Slate program, which will use outside donations to seed small projects that could end up changing the Internet’s architecture in 10 to 15 years.

The upside of this approach could make service providers’ networks more efficient, lower their costs, and make the model more sustainable. The downside, as USC’s Mr. Wroclawski sees it, is that “any move to change the current overall Internet structure might be tremendously threatening to innovation in the future.”

When it comes to telcos, it is competition, not just innovation, that their detractors see at risk. Unlike in Europe and some parts of Asia, the U.S. has restricted competition in broadband access to the consumer—the portion of the network referred to as the last mile, or the local loop. The policy virtually guarantees insufficient capacity and artificially high prices, says Bill Woodcock, director of Packet Clearing House, a San Francisco-based nonprofit research institute that analyzes Internet traffic, routing economics, and global network development.

To make matters worse, some U.S. local exchange carriers in recent months began lobbying for a different model in which any traffic generated by any network endpoint—such as Google—has to compensate the carrier for the use of its broadband facilities. “This is an attempt to return to a 19th century model of telecommunication with complex inter-carrier termination and compensation mechanisms,” says Mr. Cerf.

No Interference

If telecom carriers want to provide value-added services in addition to broadband access, they should be free to do so, he says. But, he and others argue, they should not be free to interfere with the provision of broadband services by others.

Telcos are dependent on companies like Yahoo and Google to provide content that telecom customers want. Some folks, Mr. Woodcock being one, see them using protection-racket tactics to corner business, offering to degrade the service quality of competitors for the right price—helping Google against Yahoo (or the other way around, as the case may be) or Skype, Vonage, and others, he says.

“In my opinion, legal protections are needed to preserve both consumer choice in the use of the Internet and to ensure continued innovation of new services without having to obtain permission or negotiate commercial arrangements with the access providers,” Mr. Cerf says.

In fact, some believe that Google now has more than enough cash and heft to provoke a power shift, even though it lacks the Washington, D.C. connections and savvy of telco lobbyists.

New technology solutions could also act in favor of companies like Google and Yahoo. Canadian researchers are already testing a system in which the user owns, rather than leases, the last mile of connectivity. The user then connects to a neighborhood co-location point, where he will be free to interconnect with a phone company—or use an alternative provider such as a Google or a Yahoo.

Engineers have already tested the system successfully. Trials with consumers could start as early as this summer, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of advanced networks at CANARIE, a Canadian industry and government consortium that is developing next-generation Internet technologies. Mr. St. Arnaud argues that, just as governments do not define where you can buy your computer or how much memory it can have, users should be able to configure their own network, decide how much bandwidth they want, and choose from a menu of providers.

Mr. Arnaud believes that CANARIE’s approach can make money, and possibly end the practice of governments propping up phone companies at the expense of consumers. “While the business case for the carriers may be disappearing, a host of new business and investment opportunities is being created with far greater economic wealth creation,” Mr. Arnaud writes in his blog. “Our biggest concern is that governments will be distracted by the complaints of the old industry such as carriers and penalize the new economy industries of the Internet.”

Big Brother

Nearly everyone interviewed by Red Herring for this article predicts that government involvement in Internet issues will continue for the next 10 years, as will the debate over such involvement. The Chinese government’s attempt to limit searches on Google is only the beginning.

Indeed, the U.S. government’s claim that it does not control the Internet Committee for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) proved hollow when the U.S. Department of Commerce recently told ICANN to delay the allocation of the .xxx and .cat domain names, asserts Packet Clearing House’s Mr. Woodcock.

The White House’s move gave “a lot of unexpected leverage at a particularly dangerous time” to a Chinese government attempt, through the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to place control of critical internet resources like IP addresses in the hands of national governments, says Mr. Woodcock. If national governments directly oversee available Internet protocol addresses, they can control and therefore limit the entry of all new Internet service providers.

America’s perceived control of the Internet is likely to change, but not for the reasons people think, says Israeli tech entrepreneur and investor Yossi Vardi. He predicts that many U.S. corporations will continue to lobby Washington to tighten their grip on the food chain—including pieces like music, movies, software, and telecoms—and the natural result of that will see the center of Internet gravity shift to countries where the grass roots is more powerful and operates more freely.

Others, such as Ms. Dyson, founding chairperson of ICANN, hope that ICANN will retain the authority it has today but will continue to be seen as illegitimate, which is “a desirable state of affairs,” she says, “because it means it can do very little.”

The moment any Internet governing body is seen as legitimate and gains power, governments will use it only to further censorship and other nefarious aims, she argues. It would be better, she says, if ICANN stays in place, and everyone watches it like a hawk.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill on Democracy, a free Internet is the worst form of Internet, with the exception of all the others.