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Future history of the Internet

Written by Ian Peter

In this closing segment, we are going to look at the future of the Internet, but through the eyes of what we have learnt about its past.

Now predicting the future is a dangerous thing to do! As we have seen, the history of the Internet is filled with the wrecks of prophets who thought they knew what would happen. But we are armed with a lot more information. By knowing the past, we can more happily predict the future. So, with a bit of risk, here goes.

Earlier on we talked about digital convergence, and that's definitely on the future agenda still. So one day, in the not too distant future, we will have worked out easy ways to send instant messages from mobile phones to computers and back again. Messaging, and particularly instant messaging, something of a new genre for the Internet - are here to stay, and are only going to get better.

The other thing which will grow is what they call voice over ip - or internet phones. Already we are seeing these being adopted both by large corporations in internal networks and by hobbyists in networks such as SKYPE - this isn't going to go away either, because at this point of time it offers very significant savings as compared with old fashioned telephony costs. It will take a while because telecommunications companies aren't exactly nimble, but one day the convergence of Internet and telephone futures will arrive.

Talking of mobile phones, wireless and mobility are again trends we can expect to see more of in tomorrow's Internet. We are already seeing the growth of wireless hotspots for mobile travellers in airports, hotels and other places, and of course we are seeing a growing range of mobile devices. We have talked about "anywhere, anytime" access for a long while - we can certainly expect to see that grow.

Another thing we can expect to see is a lot of new developments in what is called the 'peer to peer' space. If you know what Napster was, you can see what peer to peer is. Peer to peer is unlike a traditional network with a central computer through which all traffic passes - peer to peer allows almost direct communication on the network with any other computer, for tasks such as trading music and files. Napster spread like wildfire across the Internet, and since then we have seen many other similar developments. Applications like this will continue.

But there are a couple of broader issues out there as well. One of these is multilingual domain names, which we learnt about in a previous section. As 80% of the people on this planet don't speak English as their first language, there is a natural desire to be able to use their own language on the Internet. Now that's difficult at present, because the core of the Internet finds all those difficult foreign characters hard to handle. But it's unlikely this issue will go away. It may involve some significant changes to the Internet, but most people believe that will happen.

Some of the things people would like to control are illegal software, music piracy, and pornography. They're bound to continue, as are worms, viruses and spam. Now worms and viruses simply exploit weaknesses in the Internet to be able to proliferate freely.

Remembering again that the Internet was built for another purpose altogether, and has been patched up like a quilt over the intervening years, its inevitable that some work will be done to give the Internet greater security and stop the spread of fraud. Similarly, those spam messages that use fraud (they pretend to be someone else sending the message) can be fixed. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before we have a more trustworthy and secure Internet.

Another thing that will become apparent as this all happens is the necessity for access for all people in all countries, at affordable rates. Once a medium goes so far with penetration of usage, it starts to become an economic necessity - and at the same time, a human right to have access. That's starting to happen with the Internet, and growth won't go away for a long time.

All this means that our future Internet, rather than having 600 million users, may have close to 6 billion. So we are about 10% of the way there, and there is a lot of growth to come.

What does that say for the protocols and for governance? Well, the only thing that is for sure is that things will continue to change. We can expect to see a larger role for the United Nations - we can expect some major protocol changes - but, to the end user, all of this should be able to happen without much fuss or concern.

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