Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: The Web at 20: What's in store over the next two decades?

This is as good a time as any to wish the Web a happy birthday. It's been a bit more than 20 years since I first wrote about what I then referred to as the "World-Wide Web." I might want to pat myself on the back for jumping on that subject pretty early, but I did spend a good chunk of that article touting something called WAIS before I ever got around to what I also styled as "the WEB."

But next month marks the 20th anniversary of the Mosaic Web browser, which gets a lot of the credit for bringing us the Web most of us now know and use every day. And that was true even before Mosaic became, by way of Spyglass, the basis for Internet Explorer 1.0, in 1995.

Many changes have been wrought in the past two decades. And I think many more are in store.

Think about 1993. By then, it wasn't unusual in the West to use PCs at work, but 90% of what we did on them was with local programs. Email was pretty much the only way we could "talk" to co-workers and friends over the network, and many of us couldn't even use that over the Internet.

Thanks to broadband and Web browsers, we now do everything over the Internet. Indeed, with the Chromebook and Chrome OS, Google is trying to prove that anything we'd want to do can be done over the Web. And you know what? Google may be right.

In 2013, our friends and office mates may be scattered around the globe, but they're only a keystroke away on social networks, VoIP or videoconferencing. Today, as long as you're not working at Yahoo, you can pretty much work anywhere in the first world, and in much of the second world for that matter. Don't believe me? Ask Mike Elgan, a Computerworld columnist and digital nomad who's been working for the past year in places as far-flung as Italy, Spain, Morocco, Kenya and Turkey.

The younger you are, the harder it is for you to imagine what it would be like to live without the Web. And in 20 more years, very few of us will be able to live without it. Trying to foresee the future is a chancy business, but I'll take a stab at it.

First, the Web is only going to become more ubiquitous. Google is onto something. You really can do almost everything with Web apps today. Tomorrow, we'll drop the "almost."

That's because of two developments. The first is the slow, but steady, growth of universal broadband. In the U.S. today, the average Internet speed is a mere 8.6Mbps, but Google Fiber has shown us that 1Gbps speeds are possible and affordable. By 2033, we'll have that kind of speed in large cities, making it possible to use tools like CAD, CAM and video editing systems over the Web -- activities that would be painfully slow with today's technology.

The other part is the rise of HTML5 and its eventual successors. Today, developers still argue over HTML5 vs. native apps. But proof is mounting that software as a service and HTML5 apps can equal native apps in performance and speed.

Put this together and you get a world where the traditional PC and PC-centric operating systems such as Windows are as dead as the telegraph.

We won't think about browsers. We'll just expect computing from our glasses, our cars' "heads-up" displays and, heck, our contact lenses.

By 2033, all the world will be on the Web, and we won't think a thing of it. Except, perhaps, when we're thinking about the bad old days when we had to actually sit in front of a computer or hold a smartphone or tablet to get to it.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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