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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Internet at 20

It all began 20 years ago with a frustrated 29-year-old programmer who had a passion for order.

On March 13th, 2009 the World Wide Web turned 20. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented this world-changing layer on top of the Internet on that day in 1989.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this young technology has had already and it’s even more exciting to think about where it’s going in the future.

Advantages of the Internet
The main advantage of any new technology is that it amplifies human potential. In the 20th century, electricity, the telephone, the automobile and the airplane all made the world more accessible to more people, transforming our economy and society in the process.

The Internet has the same revolutionary impact–individuals and businesses can overcome geographical, cultural and logistical barriers and improve the way they live and work. Because it amplifies our potential in so many ways, it’s possible that the long-term impact of the Internet could equal that of electricity, the automobile and the telephone all rolled together. But How?

The Internet makes the world smaller. The ability to communicate and exchange information instantaneously and across vast distances has enabled more individuals and businesses to participate in the economy, regardless of their location. Large companies can connect with employees, suppliers, and partners around the globe, and small businesses can find their customers anywhere in the world. Businesses can hire knowledge workers almost regardless of where they are, greatly expanding employment opportunities and providing information technology services to the world. The Internet, along with other computer technologies, is literally enabling some developing countries to “leapfrog” the industrial revolution and jump straight to the Internet Age.

The Internet brings people closer together. Before the Internet, it was possible to keep in touch with relatives and friends across the country or around the world; but it was also expensive. Today, communicating with a friend in Japan is as easy and cheap as communicating with a friend across town, and families regularly use the Internet to keep in touch with far-flung relatives. Millions of people with shared interests–no matter how obscure–exchange information and build communities through Web sites, email and instant-messaging software. Using innovative accessibility aids, people with disabilities can use the Internet to help overcome barriers that prevent them from leading more productive and fulfilling lives.

The Internet makes the world simpler
For businesses, the Internet breaks down logistical barriers, offering greater flexibility and power in the way they do business. It shrinks time and distance, simplifies complex business processes, and enables more effective communication and collaboration–a giant corporation can now be as nimble as a tiny startup, while a family firm located in a remote rural village now has the world as its marketplace. Combined with advanced productivity software, the Internet enables individual knowledge workers to use their time more efficiently, and to focus on more productive tasks. And it gives consumers the ability to shop smarter, to find the best products at the right prices.

In fact, it empowers them in ways that once were available only to large companies, enabling them to join with others to buy products at lower prices, and bid competitively around the world.

What’s Next?
The Internet has already revolutionized the way we live and work, but it is still in its infancy. In the coming years, a combination of cheap and powerful computing devices, fast and convenient Internet access, and software innovations could make the Internet as common and powerful a resource as electricity is today.

Today, most people access the Internet through their home or office PC, but as microprocessors become cheaper and more powerful, Internet access will also be available from a wider range of smart devices, from tablet-sized PCs to smart cellular phones–even familiar household appliances. People will be able to share information seamlessly across devices and interact with them in a more natural way, using speech, handwriting and gestures. Eventually, they will be able to interact with a computer almost as easily as they do with each other.

And all this computing power will be interconnected, as high-speed Internet access becomes available in more areas and in many different ways, both wired and wireless. Advances in communications technologies, along with increasing public demand for Internet access, will eventually ensure that Internet connectivity will be commonplace at home, at work or on the move.

Communication between devices on the Internet will be greatly enhanced by new Internet standards such as XML, which offers a way to separate a Web page’s underlying data from the presentational view of that data. Whereas HTML uses “tags” to define how data is displayed on Web pages, XML uses tags to provide a common way of defining precisely what the underlying data actually is. XML “unlocks” data so that it can be organized, programmed and edited.

This makes it easier for that data to be shared across a wider range of PCs, servers, handheld devices, and “smart” phones and appliances. While today’s Internet consists of isolated “islands” of data that are difficult to edit, share and integrate, tomorrow’s Internet will break down those barriers and enable people to access and share the information they need–regardless of whether they’re accessing the Internet from their PC or any other device.

All these advances will soon create a ubiquitous Internet–personal and business information, email, and instant messaging, rich digital media and Web content will be available any time, any place and from any device.

Opportunities and Challenges
Whenever a new technology emerges with the potential to change the way people live and work, it sparks lively debate about its impact on our world and concern over how widely it should be adopted.

Some people will view the technology with tremendous optimism, while others will view it as threatening and disruptive.

When the telephone was first introduced, many critics thought it would disrupt society, dissolve communities, erode privacy, and encourage selfish, destructive behavior.

Others thought the telephone was a liberating and democratizing force that would create new business opportunities and bring society closer together.

The Internet brings many of these arguments back to life. Some optimists view the Internet as humanity’s greatest invention–an invention on the scale of the printing press.

They believe the Internet will bring about unprecedented economic and political empowerment, richer communication between people, a cultural renaissance, and a new era of economic prosperity and world peace.

At the other extreme, pessimists think the Internet will result in economic and cultural exploitation, the death of privacy, and a decline in values and social standards.

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