At the behest of my friend Aneel, I am writing this post about what the Internet will be like in 20 years (sorry Aneel—I know you asked me a really long time ago!). Niels Bohr once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Prognosticating about the state of the Internet in 2030 is probably a foolish exercise, but I am going to try anyway.
In the last couple of months, I’ve been watching all the episodes of the X-Files again, starting from Season 1, which is set in 1992. In the less than two decades that have passed since the beginning of the X-Files, the way an investigator might do their work has changed so dramatically. The Internet makes no appearance in Season 1. Mulder frequently conducts his research in actual libraries, surrounded by piles of books. I am now in the midst of Season 4, which is set in 1996, and the Internet, albeit with a dialup modem soundtrack, keeps popping up in several episodes as a way for Mulder and Scully to look up something quickly in a specialized database. The mobile phone, which is so central to many people’s lives today, also started to make an appearance only somewhere in Season 3. Seeing how differently these TV characters lived less than 20 years ago has only made me wonder how transformational the next 20 years will be.
So, without further ado, here are some ways in which I think the Internet in 2030 will differ from the present-day Internet:
- The Internet will be more international. The Internet has already been the catalyst for some fairly extraordinary changes in developing countries all around the world. Yet, English dominates the fabric of the Internet. English accounts for a plurality, if not the majority, of content on the Internet. In twenty years, this situation will have changed considerably. Earlier this year, ICANN approved non-Latin characters in domain names and URLs. Many of the next 3 billion who will come online in the coming decades will not speak English, and will expect to see content in a plethora of languages and character sets. The repercussions of this trend are too many to list here, but just about everything from Internet content production and consumption to Internet security will be affected.
- The Internet will be more peer-to-peer. The complex network we know as the Internet today is organized primarily in a hub-and-spoke style. A few fat pipes in densely populated advanced economies carry a majority of the traffic on the Internet, and feed some capacity to secondary markets. As network connectivity and cloud computing become more widespread, more Internet traffic will be routed around ‘the edges’ rather than ‘the center’. A big reason for this is efficiency. After all, if the number of connected devices is increasing, why must traffic in and out of them be routed all the way to a hub if there are faster ways of getting that traffic to its intended destination? Which conveniently brings me to my third point.
- The Internet will be an Internet of Things. Despite lingering skepticism, some say the Internet of Things is already here in the sense that more Internet traffic is consumed by machines than by humans. If that’s not already the case, it will soon be. There is a tsunami of data consumed over mobile phones currently underway. In addition to that wave, the next billion devices and objects to come online will change our lives beyond belief. Much has already been written about the Internet of Things by others far more qualified than me. The bottom line, however, is that cellular phone networks provide a backbone for just about everything to go online, including your car, your TV, your clothes, your shoes and even the medical device that you’ll receive as an implant in 2030.
- The Internet will be more implicit. Most human activities on the Internet today need not intersect significantly with people’s offline existence—hence all the current backlash against kids and young people spending too much time on the Internet at the expense of ‘In Real Life’ activities. In the Internet of twenty years hence, this wall of separation between online and offline will crumble and make. The Internet will permeate our offline life much more deeply; rather than being an explicit destination we seek out, it’ll become a lot more ambient and implicit in our lives. We’ve already made a good amount of progress towards a portable Internet identity, via initiatives like OpenID and Facebook Connect. Internet carriers are beginning to own the last mile of connectivity to your home and to you by means of content. How long before your behavior on the Internet becomes linked to your ability to apply for a loan, or your car insurance rates or even whether you’re put on the federal No-Fly List? Perhaps not the most encouraging state of affairs, but I think it’ll come to pass.
- The Internet will become the internet. Please indulge the language geek in me for a moment. The Internet will become the internet, because it’ll be so ubiquitous and integrated into life that it won’t be a destination whose notability needs to be marked with a capital I. I can’t exactly hold a candle to the brilliance and genius of Prof. Donald Knuth, but this point is my version of his ‘email vs e-mail’ point. The internet will stop being a big deal, so I hope we’ll just drop the capitalization by 2030.
Whatever the internet will look like in twenty years, we can be sure it’ll continue to disrupt value chains and fundamentally change life as we know it today all around the world while creating lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs. What do you think the internet will look like in 2030? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.