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Volume 25, No. 4

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April / May 1999

 

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Imagineering the Future of the Internet:  Sketches from the Year 2010


by Christopher M. Wright

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." So proclaimed Popular Mechanics magazine in 1949. The history of technology forecasting is littered with the wreckage of predictions gone awry. Not even a Thomas Edison or a Bill Gates can hit the mark every time. So why should a view of the Internet's future, painted today, not provoke laughter 10 years from now? One assurance lies in a new engineering standard, already adopted, which will reshape the form and line of the Internet in the years to come. We can detect the approximate color and hue by studying the uses that people currently make of the Internet and thinking about how the usage concepts might apply in a more technologically advanced environment. With one's fingers on the right elements, it is possible to sketch a view of the Internet's future that will prove accurate, at least in broad outline.

What will ordinary users encounter on the Net in 2010? What business models are likely to thrive in that environment? This article addresses these questions and presents bold ideas for next-generation Internet services from exciting companies already at work building the future.

new and enhanced functionalities

The new standard, Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) was first devised in 1995 and endorsed by an Internet task force in 1998. Most significant players (Cisco, Microsoft) are already testing equipment and connections that conform to IPv6 on a testbed called the 6bone, a virtual network layered on top of today's IPv4-based Internet. The migration to IPv6 is expected to be gradual, something that will take place over the next 5-10 years, and the two standards will coexist during that time and beyond.

Addressing / Embedded Systems

Most observers believe that the Internet will run out of addresses in a few years if nothing is done. Because the Net was originally designed to link a few researchers and not to be a mass medium, the patchwork IPv4 addressing solutions (NAT) are problematic. IPv6 upgrades the data packet address space from 32-bits to 128-bits, exponentially increasing the number of unique IP addresses available.

A prime use of IPv6 addressing capability will be embedded systems -- placing microprocessors in every device imaginable, from refrigerators to gas pumps, and linking them to the Internet for control and information gathering purposes. Thus the Internet will become the network for millions upon millions of intelligent devices. Wind River Systems has developed graphical Web-browsing capabilities for smart phones, cable TV set-top boxes, car navigation systems and other devices.

In 1998, NCR demonstrated a microwave oven with a touch-screen front panel allowing users to bank, shop and check e-mail while nuking their couscous. The same year another manufacturer announced a smart refrigerator that monitors its own contents and automatically orders replacements. Other home uses of embedded systems will include pacemakers and vital sign monitors linked to hospitals, lawn sprinklers that check the weather forecast before turning themselves on and cars that detect failing parts and e-mail their owners. Commuters will control the heat and light at home from their cars.

In the office, every printer and copier will be able to send output to other continents. Gas pumps will stream video from CNN, vending machines will signal when it is time to replace the Orangina and manufacturers will send software upgrades to machine tools on factory floors in several countries at the push of a button. Vauxhall Motors in the U.K. has a Web site featuring traffic reports updated every 40 seconds from electronic road sensors all over England. This is just a glimpse of the services that Net-linked embedded systems will provide by the year 2010.

Autoconfiguration/Mobile Computing

People in networks currently have problems trying to connect their laptops to the Net in field offices, other cities or even just down the hall. With 'static' addressing, network administrators have to configure new addresses manually. The supposed fix, 'dynamic' addressing (DHCP), does not always work well, granting addresses one day and taking them away the next.

IPv6, on the other hand, is a true plug-n-play solution that supports mobility without the need to change settings manually. Under IPv6, a mobile device keeps its home address and is automatically assigned temporary addresses at new locations. Network routers then automatically forward data from the home address to the relocated device. Also supporting mobility is an incorporated standard ('Mobile IP') which keeps nomadic wireless devices connected as they move through various IP subnets, in the way that cell phones roam without being disconnected. The future will bring more Internet-ready hand-held devices like palmtops, cell phones, music players, tiny attachable cameras and TVs. The Nokia 9000I is a digital cell phone, fax machine and Web browser that points in the direction of the mobile office.

Coupled with advances in voice recognition and thin displays, mobile computing will allow people to keep their calendars, consult their address books and read continuously updated multimedia "newspapers" on the fly, adding yet another dimension to a Net that will be all around us in 2010.

Selectable Quality of Service (QoS) / Bandwidth on Demand

Data transmissions on the Net often move at a snail's pace or disappear into the 'connectivity cloud' -- never to return. Selectable QoS is one answer to the increasing congestion on the Net -- service agreements that guarantee end-to-end session characteristics in exchange for variable pricing. People will voluntarily pay extra to reserve bandwidth when and where premium service is needed, for example to allow real time videoconferencing, telesurgery or multiplayer entertainment.

Commercial QoS offerings appeared in late-1998 but were unable to assign priority to data at the packet level. IPv6 supplies flow control labels that assign priority to individual packets, prompting the network to handle the packets in the manner requested. QoS services include simple priority, real time transmission, start/stop times and acceptable packet loss rates. Coupled with IPv6 native security features, QoS will facilitate the creation of corporate Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Companies will be able to specify data paths, authenticate data sources and encrypt data at the packet level, allowing them to conduct business over the Net through 'steel pipes' secure enough to obviate the need for firewalls in some instances.

Multicasting/Internet Television

Ordinarily, a Web server must crank out a new set of data packets for every user who requests them, clogging routers and backbones with large identical data sets. Under multicasting, the job of replicating packets is distributed and data transmission is localized. A server sends a data stream to strategically placed 'mrouters,' which replicate the packets and send them on to their final destinations. After the initial transmission to the 'mrouters,' data streams for live events and other group downloads stay off the backbone, thus relieving network congestion.  It is commonly said that viewers 'tune in' to multicast channels. Multicasting is already being tested on the MBone, but IPv6 will bring the service to its full potential, adding live video (i.e., television) to the growing list of what the Internet will be doing for users on an everyday basis in 2010.

Business Models

Online Communities: The Net is good at aggregating small groups of people who fly under the radar of mass marketers. With its search engines and global reach, the Net enables dispersed but like-minded individuals to find each other and build communities. A site might coalesce around common interests (womenconnect.com for female professionals) or shared values -- Didax is a Christian site featuring forums, chats and targeted books and music. Virtual communities can also revolve around specialized niche products or a desire to aggregate group purchasing power to get a better deal on major transactions. Sonnet Financial is online buyers' group, pooling orders for foreign currency and obtaining the most favorable interbank rate in international markets.

Business-to-Business (BTB): Retailing has gotten all of the attention so far, but the really big money is in business-to-business Web commerce. Network products provider Cisco has led the way, now deriving 60% of its revenue -- measured in billions -- from Web sales. The OASIS Marketplace lets electric utility companies buy power from each other, racking up $25 billion in transactions in 1998 and saving money by automating negotiations down from days to seconds. GE saves 15-20% through online procurement and takes a cut on every transaction created by opening its online supplier system to outside buyers. Buyers save money on FreeMarkets Online, an auction site for heavy industrial components like air conditioner compressors.

By automating the supply chain on the Internet, companies can save money, solve problems and increase customer satisfaction despite becoming more impersonal. Danish auto parts supplier Ostergaard noticed that its auto mechanic customers all began work at 8 a.m., diagnosing car problems and thumbing through a forest of paper catalogs to look for replacement parts. Then they all tried to place orders at the same time, jamming a telephone switchboard at 9 a.m. with hundreds of calls, many of which ended up on hold. So Ostergaard replaced the catalogs with an online sales system. A later improvement allowed buyers to check online whether parts were actually in stock. The last step was to link to suppliers' systems, enabling the immediate transmission of orders for out-of-stock parts. Ostergaard can now guarantee 24-hour delivery on any part ordered, capturing more transactions and increasing customer satisfaction in the process.

Customer Relations: Companies are also using the Web to automate other interactions with customers. Here once again Cisco leads the way. Cisco's award-winning customer service site on the Web helps 50,000 customers with 24/7 global availability of product documentation and order tracking tools. One tool lets personnel in different departments collaborate on an order before Cisco ever sees it. Self-help FAQ lists and troubleshooting tools solve most of the problems customers have, leaving a call center to handle the rest. By providing self-service, proactive notifications and immediate access to critical information, Cisco increases customer satisfaction and reduces 800-number charges, labor costs and software distribution expenses. Other companies are reducing their reliance on telephone technical support through the use of e-mail, accessible knowledge bases, business chat (instant messaging) and intelligent agents. Brightware claims that its intelligent agents can automate 80% of all customer sales and service interactions by asking the right questions and serving up appropriate information. Brightware is also developing fully automated chatter-bots, expert systems that will "converse" freely with customers. Some sites go beyond customer service to build customer community or capitalize on customer knowledge. Snapple, Saturn and SportsLine let customers chat with each other online. Netscape users and RomTech game players beta-test new versions, identifying the bugs and suggesting improvements. Lego lets children write and post software on the Net to increase the functionality of its robotic toys. Honda asked its viewers to design the perfect car. Cisco also seeks customer assistance in designing next-gen products, speeding up the design process, uncovering glitches and better ensuring that the final result is something people want.

Virtual Organizations: One type of virtual organization is a federation of specialized independent firms flying under a single brand, working in concert to deliver products or services to consumers who may never know that more than one company is involved. Like a pro football team, the lineup may change from season to season, but the jerseys remain the same.

The idea is not new. "Sears roofing" has long been offered through independent contractors. The arrangement benefits consumers who can easily find a source they feel they can trust to stand behind its work. The investment site E*Trade provides full-service brokerage by teaming with Reuters for news, BancBoston Robertson Stephens for recommendations and First Call for earnings estimates. Electronics distributor Marshall Industries parses data from 150 manufacturers, presents it through the Marshall site, verifies credit with Wells Fargo and ships via UPS.

Digital Products/Digital Delivery: The Web's versatility is illustrated by its ability to distribute all manner of digitized information -- text, video, CD-quality sound, images, animation and software. Egghead dropped all of its retail outlets and sells software only over the Web.  GartnerGroup delivers high-end industry reports, some costing thousands of dollars, via the Web. Mapquest creates street maps for insertion into company Web sites with hyperlinks to points of interest and business data. Viewpoint offers 3-D models for games, video production and forensic work, as well as standard motions for character animation.  PhotoDisc sells stock photos to publishers over the Web that can be searched by subject, color and other attributes. ESPN holds subscriber-only live netcasts featuring diagrams by former big league coaches, trivia contests and chances to win sports-related trips. Hollywood studios are working on the digital distribution of first-run movies to theaters over the Web. The Net is creating value in numerous ways, making it not only a versatile medium but also an engine of prosperity.

Virtuoso Firms Display Their Artistry

Dab a little IPv6 on the palette, mix with other improvements like bigger bandwidth and XML mark-up language, throw in some usage concepts from above, and here is what happens when cutting edge firms take brush in hand and step up to the canvas:

Medical Consumer Media (MCM) / 'Smart Clothing': Winner of the AMA's Best Web Site award in 1997, MCM of Reston, Virginia, (www.medcm.com) created the first educational pharmaceutical Web site (for GlaxoWellcome) and virtual reality experiences for Merck and others. Looking ahead to the new addressing and selectable QoS functionalities of IPv6, MCM sees a market for Web-connected 'data suits' or 'smart clothing' that will help rehabilitate stroke victims and others whose mobility has been compromised from accident or disease. The suits will contain thousands of embedded microprocessors emitting signals via wireless connection to network computers, resulting in spectacular 3-D visualizations based on minute calibrations of muscle and finger movements. A dozen sensors might be enough to create stick figure representations on one local computer, but it will take IPv6 addressing and the distributed computing power of the Net to achieve the fine gradations MCM envisions. Stroke victims lose their muscle dexterity. Data suits will detect minute improvements in muscle control and provide immediate feedback to physical therapy patients as to how they are progressing versus a baseline established in a previous session. Smart clothing will eventually move patients' extremities in accordance with pre-arranged signals, providing electro-mechanical support as current state-of-the-art prosthetic devices are beginning to do. MCM sees applications for data suits beyond medicine, from 3-D games to tennis instruction.

BoxerJam/'Leisure Currency' : BoxerJam of Charlottesville, Virginia, offers real time multiplayer games on AOL, Sony Station and its own Web site (www.BoxerJam.com). Its Strike A Match word game won an AOL Members' Choice Award in 1997 and is played by millions. BoxerJam is excited by the concept of nomadic devices because it takes online entertainment out of the living room and makes it available no matter where people happen to be idled or waiting -- in the car, the doctor's office, etc. In addition, selectable QoS will make data transmissions over the Net more reliable. Paying for QoS will enable BoxerJam to offer new games with Jeopardy-size prizes over the Net to people currently unwilling to pay entry fees because of high data disruption rates.

Rewarding people for playing also underlies BoxerJam's idea for a leisure currency earned by playing more games, bringing in new players and buying products from BoxerJam sponsors. Players could spend the currency in an envisioned BoxerJam store, earning $10 off a J.Crew sweatshirt, for example. The currency will function like the Green Stamps of yesteryear. IPv6 authentication headers will enhance security, alleviating concerns that the currency will be fraudulently generated or stolen. BoxerJam will team with affinity partners in larger promotions that will let players earn more currency by watching certain TV shows or otherwise choosing an affiliated entertainment or merchant over a competitor.

Chaos NewMedia/Virtual Companies for the Disabled: Chaos NewMedia of Charlottesville, Virginia, (www.chaosltd.com) creates commercial Web sites that draw their strength from building online communities. It created a site for Wedding RSVP where a couple and their guests can interact with information about an upcoming marriage. Chaos envisions the disabled forming virtual companies to deliver digital products over the Net, including magazines, software and multicast news channels.

The disabled tend to be isolated and underemployed. The Internet has already helped them touch the world and participate in community through chat rooms, e-mail and shopping. They can leverage IPv6 and other improvements to the Net to sell from home through virtual companies made up of employees spread from California to Maine. Such companies will use collaborative authoring tools to create digital products, virtual private networks to keep track of company affairs and selectable QoS to circulate drafts and convene real time conferences. In this vision, programmers in California might get together with marketers in Michigan and finance folks from Florida. Thus, the Net can help geographically dispersed disabled individuals pool their talents and create knowledge-based enterprises -- the ultimate in cottage industries -- and build community in the process.

The Gallery Tour Winds to a Close

The face of the Internet is changing. Connectivity is broadening with the addition of embedded systems, mobile computing, Internet TV and IP telephony. Usage is broadening as the Net simulates many attributes of earlier media like newspapers and radio, adds elements of its own like interactivity and digital delivery, and creates value in heretofore unimagined ways. Connect the dots and what emerges is a picture of a continuously improving medium of unrivaled versatility, a multi-faceted tool possessing unprecedented power for group communications, a universal network from which is unfolding a rich and never-ending tapestry of new uses and applications. By 2010, the face of the Internet will look like something from the hand of Pablo Picasso -- a cubist montage liberated from the narrow perspective of the desktop and drawn from many different vantage points instead. People in 2010 will encounter an omnipresent, partly invisible Net through a whole host of intelligent devices, not just through their PCs. People will get their e-mail through voice commands in their cars and otherwise live their lives in a world suffused with an Internet gone ambient. Thus will the Internet in 2010 be setting the frame for ubiquitous computing, the next wave to come after mainframes, PCs and networks.


Christopher M. Wright is a technology investment analyst in Washington, DC. He has worked on assignments for MCI and Booz, Allen & Hamilton. He can be reached at cwdirect@wizard.net

Copyright 1999 Christopher M. Wright

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