I originally wrote this post back in 2007. Certain links have been updated so that they point to the Internet Archive.
In just ten short years, the Internet has evolved considerably.
Over the past decade, Google has risen to power as the most dominant search engine, the dot-com bubble was born and ultimately burst, Microsoft Internet Explorer usurped Netscape, and Macromedia — wait, they’re part of Adobe now — Flash has become commonplace around the Web. Here in the United States, most of us moved from k56flex and X2 (competing standards for near-56k modem connectivity, if you don’t remember) to cable and DSL. In this article, I’ll touch on the progress we’ve made, as well as some of what could lie ahead.
Accessing the Internet
In 1997, the “mobile Web” that we enjoy today was in its infancy. A number of services, including the now-defunct and largely forgotten AirMedia Live, offered users wireless delivery of news and information within set subscription categories. In the case of AirMedia Live, users placed a small receiver on their desk, and connected to the Internet (via modem) when they wanted to view an entire story.
Other providers, such as Ricochet, allowed us a quick glimpse of our wireless future. Ricochet’s wireless mesh network provided Internet connections at a speed of up to 128 kb/s when the fastest cellular connection would have been less than a mere 10 kb/s.
Today, following the advent of wireless fidelity, mobile access cards, and even mobile Web browsers, it’s easy to stay connected. In 2017, perhaps we will witness a resurgence of mesh networks in the form of municipal wireless fidelity (wi-fi), which could provide everybody with inexpensive or free Internet access.
If that’s not the case, then we can expect the definition of broadband to change altogether. Verizon FiOS, a fiber-optic Internet service, already offers connection speeds of up to 30 megabits per second. Additionally, a new high-speed cable standard would support downstream speeds of up to 160 megabits per second.
Wafer Thin Computing
Services like Amazon S3 are already providing developers with the option to store and retrieve data as objects from any computer with an Internet connection. Imagine replacing your file system with an object cache that could be accessed from nearly anywhere in the world, on any computer.
The way we publish content will change, too. Perhaps media files will simply exist as pointers (not unlike symbolic links) to other caches maintained by their publishers. Instead of a massive hard disk drive, your computer might contain a relatively small solid state disk, which would provide it with only the information required to establish an Internet connection. Your iPod wouldn’t even need to store your favorite Pink Floyd album; instead, it would be streamed from your network cache.
Although it might sound like a decent idea, especially with the amount of bandwidth behind it, a configuration such as this would open the door to further ethical questions. For example, who would your data belong to, exactly? Would you have any privacy at all?
But storage isn’t the only thing that’s still evolving. Applications are, too. Imagine a world where you license software on a monthly basis, and you will have a good idea of where we might be headed. While you won’t need to patch your software anymore, the publisher will have a lot more control over what you can do with it, and at what cost. A decade from now, Valve’s Steam might very well be seen as the Ricochet of Web-based application publishing.
Something to Talk About
I’m frequently told that everything old is new again. It’s definitely true for telecommunications, which enjoys a special kind of irony. The technology that once empowered us to access the Internet is slowly becoming dependent on it. I am, of course, talking about the gradual emergence of Voice over Internet Protocol.
Is it possible that, in 2017, the mobile phones that we carry today will have evolved into Internet conduits, complete with software that enables them to act as soft phones? Instead of providing the actual voice service, perhaps Verizon might offer only a network connection, and the user would then choose from a number of services not unlike today’s Skype. While such progressions might seem inevitable, it’s also important to remember that our telecommunications providers are notoriously adverse to change.
In 1997, GPS-based navigation systems were optional on some cars, such as the cost-no-object Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which began offering it as a feature in late 1995. An earlier version, which did not use the Global Positioning System, was offered in Japan as early as 1993.
Today, navigation systems are offered as options by many manufacturers, on almost every type of car imaginable. Most of these, however, use information stored on physical media to display and calculate your route.
A decade from now, it’s likely that your navigation system will require some kind of network connection, enabling it to update map information dynamically. Volkswagen recently collaborated with Google to produce a navigation system that features Google Earth integration, which allows for the display of a 3D, photorealistic view of your location, as well as the terrain around it. Mercedes-Benz is working on another system that will allow their vehicles to communicate with a network of other cars, providing a dynamically generated, real-time overview of road conditions.
You might find this information, as well as overlaid traffic and weather conditions, displayed on your navigation system in 2017. Further, don’t be surprised if either some or all of it is retrieved from a Web service.
If you’re a Web developer, you might already be groaning. However, in ten years, the Web will be a completely different animal. Sure, you will occasionally run across 20-year-old static table-based layouts, but they will be markedly different from the beautiful, scalable layouts that might finally become commonplace in 2017.
With any luck, the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format will find its place on the Web, allowing design elements to scale without the distortion found in today’s GIF, JPEG, and PNG formats. Perhaps SVG, with its support for interactive scripting, will also compete directly with Flash. If you have a browser that supports SVG, such as modern versions of Mozilla Firefox, visit this page for an example of how SVG could potentially replace it altogether.
Of course, in 2017, Mozilla Firefox might also look entirely different. The AJAX development technique is poised to change the way browsers are built, requiring that changes be made to a number of fundamental elements, including the manner in which page-to-page navigation is handled. In 2007, most AJAX Web applications break browser navigation in a way that is highly noticeable to the end user.
While I’m on the topic of Mozilla, they already offer a framework for application development that runs on top of a portable core. Knowing that Google and Mozilla have formed a close relationship over the past few years, I can’t help but wonder how this technology might eventually be used, and by whom.
In the past ten years, we’ve gone from Geocities to MySpace, although few people would consider that progress. Nonetheless, our ambitions have driven the Internet far in just a decade’s time.
On the Web, the new ubiquity of the blog has made news distribution viral, and perhaps unstoppable. AJAX has altered the way we seek information, and might ultimately be remembered as a stepping stone to a far more comprehensive platform.
We’ve even witnessed the first war in which people — not just politicians and reporters, but ordinary citizens — from every side have been heard on a platform that has given them equal footing, for better or worse.
Now, let’s see what the next ten years bring.
Ian Lamont, the senior online projects editor for Computerworld.com and writer of I, Lamont, wrote me with a link to his essay, Meeting the Second Wave. It provides an examination of how the Internet will likely impact mass media over the next 10 or 15 years. If you enjoyed reading this article, then you should definitely check out Ian’s essay as well.
Article Image Credit: “Bringing Knowledge to Health” by Paul Bica. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.