Not Your Father’s Internet

February 21, 2001

Originally published 2000 (shorter version) in The Economist. Published on February 22, 2001.

If anything is moving at “Internet speed” at the start of the new millennium, it is the Internet itself. No technology has established itself so rapidly in the marketplace.

On average, it took the telephone around 40 years to reach a quarter of the population in developed countries. Today, only five years after most consumers learned of the Internet’s existence, it has already raced past that milestone in many nations. In the U.S., 40% of the population now uses the Internet, while in Iceland, Singapore, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries, more than 50% does so.

We may be a long way from bridging the digital divide, but progress is amazing: In 2001 more than 400 million people worldwide will surf the Web’s four billion pages and, according to IDC, spend half a trillion dollars on goods and services in the process. The Internet is already revolutionizing the way we live, work, learn, shop and play.

Yet for all its wonders, the technology is today roughly where the automobile was when Henry Ford launched his Model T. Both the Internet and the PCs we use to access it represent a big advance on the age of the mainframe–computing’s horse and buggy era–but digital technology still has a long way to go.

In many respects, today’s Internet actually mirrors the old mainframe model, with the browser playing the role of “dumb terminal.” All the information you want is located in centralized databases, and served up a page at a time (from a single Web site at a time) to individual users. Web pages are simply an HTML “picture” of the data you need, not the underlying data itself. You can look but you can’t touch-editing, annotating or otherwise customizing the data is hard to do because it wasn’t designed to make that possible. If you want to pull together data from multiple Web sites, you often end up scribbling it down on a notepad.

That’s a long way from the “intercreative space” envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee, whose pioneering work lead to the creation of the Web. The structure of today’s Internet also makes exchanging data–whether a transaction between businesses or personal information between devices–incredibly complex.

Because the Internet can in theory be accessed any time, any place and from any intelligent device, it looks tailor-made to act as a global exchange mechanism for any kind of data. But because the underlying data on today’s Web sites isn’t fully accessible by other sites, applications or devices, the reality is a Web of isolated islands of data that can’t collaborate with each other in any useful way. And each new way to access the Internet–tablet PCs, Web-enabled TVs and cellphones, smart pagers–adds another layer of complexity. Internet users end up living in several separate worlds: the worlds of applications on PCs, of various kinds of intelligent devices, and of Web sites themselves.

To transform itself into more than a medium that simply presents static information, the next generation Internet needs to solve these problems. Instead of being made up of isolated islands where the user often provides the only integration, it must enable constellations of computers, intelligent devices and Web-based services to collaborate seamlessly. It must help businesses offer products and services in ways that let their customers customize them according to their needs. It must offer individuals complete control over how, when and what information is delivered to them, and allow them to protect their privacy and security by controlling who has access to their personal information.

At the core of that transformation is Extensible Markup Language, or XML. An open industry standard defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (with extensive input from Microsoft and other high-tech companies), XML offers a way to separate a Web page’s underlying data from the presentational view of that data. It works in a similar way to HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which uses “tags” to defines how data is displayed on today’s Web pages. XML uses tags to provide a common way of defining precisely what the underlying data actually is.

The effect of this technological lingua franca on the future of the Internet will be far-reaching. XML “unlocks” data so that it can be organized, programmed, edited and exchanged with other sites, applications and devices. In effect, it turns every Web page into a programmable mini-database (so you can actually analyze those stock price statistics you find on the Web without having to cut-and-paste them into a spreadsheet first).

XML enables different Web sites to share all kinds of data without having to use the same computer language or software application. Individual Web sites can collaborate to provide a variety of Web-based services that can interact intelligently with each other. And information can move from one device to another without the need for today’s separate applications, with their widely varying interfaces, functionality and (in)compatibility.

The next generation Internet will be a computing and communications platform in the same way that the PC is. Programs “written to” the Internet (just as they are written to the PC platform) will run across multiple Web sites, drawing on information and services from each of them, and combining and delivering them in customized form to any device you like.

The distinction between the Internet and your PC or other devices will break down–advanced software (like that at the heart of Microsoft’s .NET initiative) will automatically determine whether the information, applications or services you need are available locally or remotely, then bring them together to best serve your needs.

As the barriers between online information, services and devices break down, how you interact with them will also be revolutionized. Today, you use separate software applications for every computing task you want to perform, whether it’s browsing the Web, writing and editing, e-mail and instant messaging, your calendar and contacts.

The next generation Internet will enable a more integrated approach. You’ll use a single, unified interface that moves transparently between the Internet and the PC or device you are using, allowing you to browse, write, edit, schedule, communicate or analyze data. I see it as a “universal canvas” for the Internet Age.

You’ll also interact with your computer in many more ways. Today, the amount of email I receive that has handwriting or voice annotation is negligible. In future, the majority of messages will come in some form other than typed text. Today, you always know whether you’re on the Internet or on your PC’s hard drive.

Tomorrow, you won’t care and you may not even know. Everything on the Internet, your local intranet, your PC and other devices will be available as potential “building blocks” for a new generation of Web-based services. Your business and personal information will be securely stored on the Internet, automatically synchronized and instantly available to you and the Web-based services you need–no matter where you are, what you are doing, or what device you are using.

Everything that can think will link–transparently and automatically. So if you are traveling and need medical attention, your personal physician service will be able to locate the best local doctor, make an appointment that fits into your schedule, share the appropriate medical records and arrange payment. All you’ll need to do is give your permission.

Think of it as a “personal Web,” intelligently acting on you and your family’s behalf. Think of it as the ultimate business tool, boosting your firm’s productivity, cutting costs, streamlining transactions, vastly increasing the range of services it can offer, and taking a big step closer to friction-free capitalism.

Just as the system of musical notation made the orchestration of instruments possible, the power of XML and advanced software is making the orchestration of online and offline data and services a reality–and revolutionizing computing and communications during the first decade of the 21st century.

The next generation Internet will look a lot like today’s Internet–but under the hood the two will have as much in common as today’s automobiles have with Ford’s flivver.