The Net at 40: What's Next?

Experts say the future of the Internet is still limitless -- and hard to predict.

When the Internet hit 40 years old -- which, by many accounts, it did earlier this month -- listing the epochal changes it has brought to the world was an easy task.

It delivers e-mail, instant messaging, e-commerce and entertainment applications to billions of people.

Businesses stay in touch with customers using the Twitter and Facebook online social networks. CEOs of major corporations blog about their companies and their activities. Astronauts have even used Twitter during space shuttle missions.

On Sept. 2, 1969, a team of computer scientists created the first network connection, a link between two computers at the University of California, Los Angeles. But according to team member Leonard Kleinrock, although the Internet is turning 40, it's still far from its middle age.

"The Internet has just reached its teenage years," said Kleinrock, now a distinguished professor of computer science at UCLA. "It's just beginning to flex its muscles. The fact that it's just gotten into its dark side -- with spam and viruses and fraud -- means it's like an [unruly] teenager. That will pass as it matures."

The next phase of the Internet will likely bring more significant changes to daily life -- though it's still unclear exactly what those may be.

"We're clearly not through the evolutionary stage," said Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at Enderle Group. "It's going to be taking the world and the human race in a quite different direction. We just don't know what the direction is yet. It may save us. It may doom us. But it's certainly going to change us."

Marc Weber, founding curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., suggested that the Internet's increasing mobility will drive its growth in the coming decades.

The mobile Internet "will show you things about where you are," he said. "Point your mobile phone at a billboard, and you'll see more information." Consumers will increasingly use the Internet to immediately pay for goods, he added.

Sean Koehl, technology evangelist in Intel Corp.'s Intel Labs research unit, expects that the Internet will someday take on a much more three-dimensional look.

"[The Internet] really has been mostly text-based since its inception," he said. "There's been some graphics on Web pages and animation, but bringing lifelike 3-D environments onto the Web really is only beginning.

"Some of it is already happening ... though the technical capabilities are a little bit basic right now," Koehl added.

The beginnings of the Internet aroused much apprehension among the developers who gathered to watch the test of the first network -- which included a new, state-of-the-art Honeywell DDP 516 computer about the size of a telephone booth, a Scientific Data Systems computer and a 50-foot cable connecting the two. The team on hand included engineers from UCLA, top technology companies like GTE, Honeywell and Scientific Data Systems, and government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"Everybody was ready to point the finger at the other guy if it didn't work," Kleinrock joked. "We were worried that the [Honeywell] machine, which had just been sent across the country, might not operate properly when we threw the switch. We were confident the technology was secure. I had simulated the concept of a large data network many, many times -- all the connections, hop-by-hop transmissions, breaking messages into pieces. The mathematics proved it all, and then I simulated it. It was thousands of hours of simulation."

As with many complex and historically significant inventions, there's some debate over the true date of the Internet's birth. Some say it was that September day in '69. Others peg it at Oct. 29 of the same year, when Kleinrock sent a message from UCLA to a node at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. Still others argue that the Internet was born when other key events took place.

Kleinrock, who received a 2007 National Medal of Science, said both 1969 dates are significant. "If Sept. 2 was the day the Internet took its first breath," he said, "we like to say Oct. 29 was the day the infant Internet said its first words."

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition. It's an edited version of an article that first appeared on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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