% fortune -ae paul murphy

Tomorrow's internet

About the only thing we know for sure about the future of the internet is that things will change: some trends will continue, of course, but what's hot next year won't be what's hot today.

So the question is what will change, and why? Some things have to happen - sooner or later, for example, pressure will mount to kill off phishing and spam by holding those who pay for the accounts used to push this stuff onto the shared infrastructure responsible for their use. Similarly, the move to optical connectivity in newer areas and powerline or other transmission media in older areas seems unstoppable - as does the integration of telephone, video, and traditional digital communications.

As I mentioned last week twitter looks like a small step toward using the network to create a kind of shared situational awareness among those involved in some exchange - and that leads first to things like Sun's MPK20 virtual workplace, then to home communication rooms featuring screen like walls and image animation, and ultimately to the fully holographic, fully interactive, StarTrek style, holodeck.

IBM's cell takes us, I think, to the edge of feasibility for the next major step in this direction: real time sound, motion, and environmental input at one end, real time imagery, background substitution, and sound management (merging) at the display end. Right now it would probably be limited to two points in an end to end configuration, take rather more than house power at both ends, and require custom connectivity; but I think a demo could be staged - and what's possible in the lab today, will be possible in your home sometime unreasonably soon.

All of those changes, however, are obvious extensions of hardware directions already taken - what about the new stuff? the next setia@home, the next twitter, the next ebay?

Notice that success stories are all driven from software and applications - not hardware. I think that's a general thing: look five years out and hardware leads software, look one year out and its always software driving hardware evolution and adoption.

And, as an aside, when it comes to internet change porn usually leads - twitter, for example, reflects technologies pioneered in the porn business - and without doing the research I assume but don't know, that someone either has adapted, or soon will adapt, Nintendo's Wii to that business.

So what new businesses will emerge? Well, I think ebay and amazon are behaving themselves out of their markets - and holding on for now only because their existence makes it hard to finance alternatives; Twitter and youtube have become boring for users and never really evolved a long term business model anyway; google is vulnerable to a kid with a better search idea - and, sure, they can buy out the first one or two, but stopping even a hundred startups will bankrupt them - and the Yahoo- Microsoft deal - well, let me quote fake Steve Jobs on that one:

The Borg-Yahoo merger won't work. Here's why. It's like taking the two guys who finished second and third in a 100-yard dash and tying their legs together and asking for a rematch, believing that now they'll run faster.

It's cynical to suggest that a world wide "erase_me.com" service would be a natural complement to the latest Microsoft servers, but I suspect that a service focused on telling people about the records other people keep on them could be next year's venture capitalists dream response to social networking: something that gets little press, but makes real money. In that same vein, the venture capitalist community may get a little warier about giving money to sites seeking to exploit the self-affirmation needs of the affluent adolescent, but there are thousands of socially conscious agencies desperate to throw money at anyone willing to argue that their web idea will prove magically involving for illiterates and other school dropouts

More seriously there are lots of niche markets the web simply isn't serving - and a company which accumulates its eyeballs one small community group at a time could be interesting: a city.MeIandMine.org could, for example, offer advertising supported nexus services for local groups of volunteers, little leaguers, car poolers, or chocaholics with almost no initial investment.

And, in general, I suspect that's what we'll see in the short term -not highly visible progress toward holodeck technology, but the weakness of giants and the emergence of many smaller players focused on niche markets, personal information security, and some to some (rather than many to many) communications.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.