It seems that everyone is trying to work out what the internet’s future will be. Have you ever wondered or are you happy to delight in the pleasures of the latest application or broadband gadget?
So much has happened in the last 25 years that it is easy to forget how telecommunications technology has changed and how the rate of technological change is increasing.
So where will technology take the internet over the next 25 years? You might be surprised.
The building blocks
Antonio Meucci constructed telephone-like devices 160 years ago, and Alexander Bell brought the telephone age into being when he patented the telephone on March 10, 1876. Eighty-five years later, in July 1961, Leonard Kleinroch published a paper on packet switching theory, and the internet was born.
The development of telecommunications networks and digital information transfer over the internet were giant steps but the digital information needed to be stored, organised and presented in a uniform way.
It was on March 12, 1989 that Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed a system that would revolutionise this. That system is known today as the World Wide Web.
The real-world internet
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rush to get connected has resulted in 12.4 million internet subscribers and 20.3 million mobile handset subscribers. In the three months to December 31 last year, internet subscribers downloaded 861,000 terabytes of data, and mobile subscribers downloaded 27,000 TB.
And it is not only people who are connecting to the internet.
Kevin Ashton used the phrase Internet of Things in 1999 as the title of a presentation in which he linked “the new idea of radio-frequency identification in Proctor & Gamble's supply chain to the then-red-hot topic of the internet”.
Today, the IoT is the global entity that includes all of the uniquely identified objects that are connected to the internet. Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be about 26 billion devices forming the network.
On May 19, Verizon Vice President of Connected Solutions Mark Bartolomeo stated in an interview with CIO Journal that revenue in his unit was "growing over 100 per cent a year". Bartolomeo went on to describe how the IoT was impacting across his six business units: Energy, Transportation, Digital Cities, Healthcare, Financial Services, and Retail.
The internet’s future?
The net neutrality debate has entered a new phase, with the US Federal Communications Commission voting recently three to two to advance regulations that would permit internet providers to introduced a tiered charging regime where high-usage companies like Netflix and Google’s YouTube could be charged more for faster access to customers.
According to the Huffington Post, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler will address industry concerns this week when he fronts the US House of Representatives subcommittee on communications, and will cover topics including whether internet service providers should be regulated, what should be in the high-rate tier, the growing conflict between tech companies and ISPs and how wireless growth will be affected by changes to net neutrality.
Are the changes to net neutrality a money-grab by ISPs or a sign of the times that demand for data is outstripping supply, with the charges serving as a congestion tax?
On March 11, PBS Newshour summarised the 15 predictions identified by nearly 1500 internet experts about the future of the web to 2025 for Pew Research Center’s Internet Project in collaboration with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Project.
The 15 predictions are:
- Information sharing over the internet will be so effortlessly interwoven into daily life that it will become invisible, flowing like electricity, often through machine intermediaries.
- The spread of the internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies.
- The IoT, artificial intelligence and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behaviour.
- Augmented reality and wearable devices will be implemented to monitor and give quick feedback on daily life, especially in regard to personal health.
- Political awareness and action will be facilitated and more peaceful change -- and more public uprisings like the Arab Spring -- will emerge.
- The spread of the 'Ubernet' will diminish the meaning of borders, and new 'nations' of those with shared interests may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation states to control.
- The internet will become 'the internets' as access, systems and principles are renegotiated.
- An internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on buildings and teachers.
- Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
- Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale’. Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks and crime, and offenders will have new capacity to make life miserable for others.
- Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power -- and at times succeed -- as they invoke security and cultural norms.
- People will continue -- sometimes grudgingly -- to make trade-offs favouring convenience and perceived immediate gains over privacy; and privacy will be something only the upscale will enjoy.
- Humans and their current organisations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
- Most people are not yet noticing the profound changes today’s communications networks are already bringing about; these networks will be even more disruptive in the future.
- Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
In 2009, the Internet Society considered the future of the internet and proposed four possible scenarios describing how it would evolve over the next 10 years. The names of the scenarios read like a history of the interaction between nations and include Common Pool, Boutique Networks, Moats and Drawbridges, and Porous Garden.
The real-world internet
So what will be the next big step in the internet’s evolution? Will it be its seamless integration into everyday life, as predicted by the Pew and Elon study? What about the optimum evolutionary scenario proposed by the Internet Society? Or, the internet retaining the freedom to evolve without unnecessary regulation or net neutrality winning the battle to guarantee that all traffic remains equal?
The next big step will be the 'real-world internet' -- where reality replaces fantasy.
It may be decades before the real-world internet arrives, but it will be worth the wait -- something for engineers and scientists to work towards; the ultimate challenge. And consumers may not even realise that they really do want the real-world internet.
For engineers and scientists, the internet has presented one challenge after another. But over its lifetime, two challenges have stood out. The first has been the search for new techniques to increase transmission speeds, capacity and reliability; the second has been how to compress all forms of media so that there is less to transmit, while still maintaining an acceptable approximation of the original.
But as demand for greater transmission capacity increases and compression technology advances, we inadvertently move the internet further away from the real world.
Some would argue that does not matter -- if you want to be a part of the real world, get up and go outside. But should we allow the internet to be a world where fantasy replaces reality; where movies, pictures and music are nothing but a shallow representation of the original?
Are you old enough to remember quadraphonic eight-track audio? Did you ever wonder why the lower-quality stereo format won out? What about VHS versus Beta? In part, industry has guided consumers towards lower-quality systems that utilise higher compression formats so that more can be provided at a lower production cost.
As technological advances continue and the internet grows, there will come a time when it is possible to move away from low-quality, high-compression to high-quality, low-compression -- and eventually the real-world internet will be with us.
On March 12, Neil Young launched PonoMusic. What is innovative and exciting about PonoMusic is the use of low-compression, high-quality music formats such as the 192 KHz/24 bit FLAC ultra-high resolution file format which is vastly superior to compact disc and MP3.
The PonoPlayer, designed to support PonoMusic formats, has 128 GB of internal memory which will hold about 800 of the ultra-high resolution music recordings. This means that each song is about 160 MB.
Flavorwire reported that celebrities on the PonoMusic promotional video included Elvis Costello and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, with Flea corroborating that “listening to a CD is like twanging on a rubber-band compared to the full scale of music”, and Elvis Costello saying MP3s are like “Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa".
PonoMusic is not a live-streaming music service, as lack of internet bandwidth, reliable connectivity and high internet congestion mean that it's only possible to stream highly compressed music today. However PonoMusic’s FAQ response to the question of streaming is “Not today, but hopefully some day".
Meanwhile, shops are now full of 4K televisions promising improved resolution and 3D viewing with amazing clarity. But recent proposals for 4K television streaming formats highlight the fantasy world of highly-compressed video that consumers must endure.
As the industry attempts to sell consumers the benefits of highly-compressed video used in HD and 4K television streaming services, it is timely to remind ourselves of the true capabilities of the human eyes and how the industry uses techniques -- including the tristimulus system and chromaticity diagrams -- to reduce the number of real-world colours used in television, movies and, more recently, streamed video.
A typical 4K television has an 8.3 megapixel screen and displays four colour bytes per pixel, 50 times per second. To stream a 4K television movie without compression, it would be about 1660 MBps (13.28 Gbps). Netflix has commenced 4K streaming and utilises the heavily compressed H.265/HEVC video format at a rate of about 15.6 Mbps.
Real-world internet applications
Previously, I have used the example of a group of 10 people carrying out a video conference utilising their 4K television fitted with 4K cameras. If every person were streaming a compressed 4K television format to the other nine at the same, time there would be a need for 140.4 Mbps download and 15.6 Mbps upload.
Now consider what would be required if the 10 people were using an uncompressed video format. The bandwidth needed would jump to 119.52 Gbps download and 13.28 Gbps upload.
And what would the figures be when 8K televisions become the norm in a few years? Or if the people have more than one camera streaming at the same time? What about future 3D multi-display capability?
The Star Trek holodeck provided an environment that made people in the holodeck think theywere in a real world created by a computer and projected within a simulated reality.
Now think of a multi-location holodeck where the internet is being used to project each person into participating holodecks in real time. The future of immersive reality is not so hard to imagine; and yes, there will be a need for huge bandwidth, especially for multi-location immersive reality systems that utilise raw data without compression.
Teleworking, health, education, social interaction and a myriad of other activities carried out over the internet will be infinitely superior and provide a real-world experience when the need for compression is consigned to history.
The internet has been built using digital technology and if we’re to see, hear and interact with the information transmitted across it then there remains the need to convert the digital information into analog, losing some quality in the process.
Will it be possible at some point in the future for the internet to incorporate both digital and raw analog video, pictures and music, and for this combination to be provided to consumers cost-effectively?
We will not gain everything the internet has to offer until it is able to seamlessly integrate with the real world in every way, including being able to provide true real-world representations in real time, without the need for compression.
Real world internet -- reality or fantasy? What do you think the internet’s future will be?