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Greg's future of the Internet
5 March 2014
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In February and March 2014 I participated in a Coursera course about the history of the Internet. One of the assignments was a 1000 word essay on what the Internet might be like in 20 years' time:

Write an essay that imagines how the Internet will be different 20 years from now. Justify your answer by connecting your ideas to the history of the Internet that we have learned in this class and through outside materials. Your answer can focus on how technology will change or how people will change or how governments and policy will change or even how society might change.

In 1000 words I'd have to leave lots out, so this page says roughly what I'd like to say. Apart from this page, I also have a page on signs of the times, occurrences confirming (or potentially contradicting) my predictions.

The Internet in 2034

To understand the future, look at the past

What is the Internet? I've already ranted about the fact that Microsoft seems to confuse it with the World-Wide Web. But there are various viewpoints. Clearly the essay topic implies an end-user viewpoint.

So what does the past of the Internet look like?

And basically, those were the technical and political milestones. The rest is evolution, not revolution. Round 1989 I started using the Internet as well. I had been living inside the Tandem corporate network for 7 years, and I felt comfortable with the environment. The big difference from Tandem was the lack of even the slight regulation that we had at Tandem, and the larger number of people on the network. But at the time the main use of the net was to move files around and for email and news. At Tandem we had globally visible file names that served the function of URLs, and we frequently made information visible on the net under specific file names.

The current status

The biggest change in the Internet was the introduction of graphics as a basic component. Until the advent of the World Wide Web, most Internet services were text-based. Hyperlinking had been around for some time, but it took the Web to make it useful. And since then, over 20 years ago, nothing fundamental has changed. People are still consolidating this basic functionality.

In more detail, since 1995—nearly 20 years—the biggest change has been the increase in network speed and capacity. In 1995, most users were connected by dial-up links that typically managed download speeds of 28.8 kb/s. Nowadays in Western countries, at least in the cities, speeds of 20 Mb/s and higher are generally available. In the process, there has not been a significant change in the cost of such a connection.

Most of the current Internet services are not new:

Probably the biggest change since 1994 is the number of users: in 1994 almost nobody even knew about the Internet. Nowadays 77% of the population of the developed world uses the Internet. In the Scandinavian countries penetration is over 90%, in Australia, the USA and most of Western Europe it is well over 80%, as this page shows. In most countries broadband (here defined as a download speed of 256 kb/s or higher) penetration is less than 50%.

The future

In 2034, society will be centred around the Internet. People who don't use the Internet for significant parts of their daily life will be looked at like people today look at those who don't read newspapers or watch TV.

On a technical level, broadband penetration will increase. By 2034 the average Western household will have a connection with speeds of 100 Mb/s or greater. Speeds of up to 1 Gb/s will be available in some areas, but they will not be utilized to any significant degree: there's very little that an average household could do with such a speed. Other issues, such as network latency, will be more important.

These speeds are enough to allow a number of changes outside the immediate technical domain of the Internet:

A couple of items are difficult to guess:

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