By Dr. Myron L. Cramer
Prepared for TravelNet '97, Atlanta, Georgia
February 12, 1997
In projecting the future of the Internet, it is important to understand the things that make this communications medium so distinctive and appealing. It would be a mistake to attempt to project its future without a good understanding of where it is today and how the forces that have been shaping its growth the last several years are likely to drive it in the future.
One of the Internet's features that is often overlooked is that it's architecture is "peer-to-peer." This means that everyone on the internet can communicate and function as an equal with anyone else. This does not mean that everyone has the same bandwidth or routing structure, but that any IP address can host server functions such as the Web from their own computer and offer these to anyone else on the Internet. Personal Web servers are currently available and are planned to be integrated directly into future operating systems.
The design of the internet is never completed; an evolving set of standards and specifications provide a vitality that embraces new creative uses of the medium. The internet includes provisions for new services and new capabilities that were never imagined by the original architects. This is the characteristic that allows for the continual evolution and change of the medium, without the need for everyone to upgrade their systems.
The Internet doesn't care what kind of computer you choose to use. On the Internet a Macintosh Classic can offer or use the same services as the latest supercomputer from Silicon Graphics (although certainly not as well). Thus its fate is not determined by latest offerings from Redmond.
The Internet includes sharing as an integral part of its nature. Hosts share the communications media with their individual packets intermingled on their way to their respective targets. The services offered are also shared, including access to messages, files, and information itself. This access extends to the ideas and the creative processes of the users.
It is important to recognize that everything about the Internet is changing and always has been. In many ways, the Internet is about change, not only in communications, but in society. The Internet is the most significant communications development in the history of mankind.
The rapid design and installation of state of the art communication technologies on the internet grabs everyone's attention. Technologies such as hypertext, browsers, multimedia, wideband communications and switching, advanced modems are easy to see and appreciate.
Not only is today's Internet different from previous years, the users of this system are also different from every perspective. Originally, they comprised government researchers designing a survivable communications system for the military. Then came academia who embraced it for research. Now it has become available to the populace in general and is available in many libraries and schools.
Each group using the Internet has put it to use in new ways and has in the process forever changed the Internet as well as their own lives. Many of these changes build upon and interact with other changes with the result that these synergisms make tracing where things are going difficult.
The Internet is about change!
The latest trend on the Internet has been its use in electronic commerce. Businesses have been trying to find an effective model of how to use the internet. The latest thing has been to use Web pages as a place to post spiffy advertising, like magazines or other print media. The new multimedia such as RealAudio or QuickTime have some of the broadcast capabilities of radio or TV. Although the Internet is capable of providing these services, they are not a good model of how to use the Internet. The economic is completely different as well as the paradigm. As a result it is very ineffective to think of the Internet as just another publication or broadcast media, since this will result in wasting the inherent power of the Internet and having it trying to be something different from what it is. It can not be as convenient to handle as print media or as easy to use as watching television. when electronic scanners came out years ago in grocery stores, their real strength was not so much that they expedited and improved the accuracy of the check-out process, even though they did do this. The real benefit came when fundamental process improvements were made to the stores management and operation that allowed the use of real-time point-of-sale data to drive inventory management, purchasing and pricing decisions. Likewise, the effective use of the Internet in commerce will require fundamental changes in business processes in order to achieve a business benefit.
The internet is inherently collaborative; this is its unique strength. Its peer-to-peer design allows users to interact, including customers, merchants, and financial institutions. Where there are ways to use this collaboration, there will be benefits. An obvious one is in accepting orders over the internet. This is something not as easily done with magazines and television. Not as obvious are ways to survey customer feedback to plan or design custom new products or services, or to support business decisions such as pricing or launching of new products or services.
Now that I have given this foundation to an analysis of the Internet, predicting its future may be more systematic, although still not easy. One thing we can be certain about is that the Internet will change, probably much more in the future than it has so far to date.
Where is it going?
Since the Internet is about information, I will describe the types of changes from an information perspective.
It is fairly safe to predict that access to information will continue to increase. The Internet itself will continue to be more available in more places such as libraries, schools, coffee houses, shopping malls, airports, and even on all those AT&T payphones with the CRTs and keyboards. New Internet technologies for wireless communications will soon free the user from the tether of his phone line. Not only will the Internet become more accessible, so will the information content carried on it. Public sources will include increasing segments of societies around the world. Not only will the quantity of information increase, so will its quality, as sources feel the pressures of competing for attention and business with each other.
With the availability of increasing Internet bandwidth as well as with the increasing accessibility of the Internet, it will become easier to move larger amounts of data from source to destination. This will result in changes in how businesses operate and will cause increasing routine dependency on massive amounts of information.
Security on the Internet is a recognized issue affecting the use of this media in Internet Commerce. The current situation will certainly improve as quality products are designed and put into operation. The products will address security issues including better ways of authenticating users with something more reliable than user names or passwords. Digital signatures, stamping systems and other methods will enable non-repudiable contracts. Stronger more usable encryption systems will provide better confidentiality and integrity to data and systems. Increasing capacity of internet services will improve their availability and reliability, even when deliberately attacked. As the government steps up to its responsibilities to protect CyberSpace, the risks from computer crimes will become more predictable and manageable.
I believe that the most significant changes are likely to happen with the management of information (not to be confused with the management of information systems). Given that more information is available to collect, and that it can be rapidly transported anywhere, the problem now becomes how to avoid being swamped with unnecessary data, or how to design business practices and processes to make effective uses of this information. The problems become determining how much information is enough, or how to convert data into information and then into situational awareness, and then into operational decisions. This is a non-linear problem, because of the internal cross-dependencies among the factors.
My conclusion for industry is that the Internet will have a significant and far reaching impact, if not today, then certainly tomorrow. In examining the capabilities of this medium and its potential impact for your business, it may be more useful to look at not the evolving communications, computer, or software technologies that continue to be developed, but rather at your own business processes and how they use or can use information. If you can devise a vision of a better way to do your business by making better use of information, then it is very likely that the Internet can play a role in fulfilling this vision. If the technologies aren't available off-the-shelf, they probably will in the near future. The Internet will become what you want it to be.