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The Internet: What lies ahead?

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN

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(CNN) -- "The Internet will be the CB radio of the '90s."

It's easy to laugh now. A recent Wired magazine article on the Internet's "10 years that changed the world" credits the statement to an ABC TV executive in 1989. But even 10 years ago, it's likely that many people shared that view.

Ten years ago, companies like Netscape had to explain what "browser" means; Yahoo! was more of a murmur than a shout; Amazon.com was mainly about books; and the two founders of Google were just your average Stanford students.

In the blip of time since then, the Internet has revolutionized everyday life for millions of people around the world. Looking back over the last 10 years, the obvious question is: Where will the Internet take us in the future?

One of the best places to start trying to answer that question is with a man widely known as one of the "fathers of the Internet." Between 1968 and 1982, Vinton Cerf played a key role in developing the networking technology for wider use, beginning with his time at the University of California, Los Angeles, and later with the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project. He was the senior member of a team working on ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet.

During a recent e-mail exchange -- appropriate enough -- Cerf wrote that he believes the Internet will continue to enhance people's communication through sound, video and collaboration. Interestingly, he also noted "with some confidence" that 90 percent of all applications on the Internet have yet to be invented.

"Users will also begin using their mobile devices to control and manage other Internet-enabled appliances (kitchen equipment, entertainment equipments, etc.)," wrote Cerf, now a senior vice president at MCI and chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

"Your mobile might become the moral equivalent of a remote control device that works anywhere in the world. You might activate a high-res display and vector video/audio/imagery/maps content by a few button pushes on a mobile keyboard," he added.

In the more distant future, Cerf envisions an interplanetary Internet that would connect the shuttle, ground stations and other spacecraft and missions.

'Expect the unexpected'

Meantime, back on earth, a survey from the nonprofit Pew Internet and American Life Project from early last year looked at how the Internet will affect our lives in 10 years time.

"Nobody knows for sure what lies ahead -- and the history of the Internet has taught us to expect the unexpected," said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project and lead author of the report.

The study looked at a wide range of topics, and it finds some concerns coupled with the celebration.

Top on the list of worries is a cyberattack. Many Internet analysts agree that terrorists or computer criminals are simply waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

"I think a cyberevent is overdue," said Mike Jacobs, retired information assurance director at the National Security Agency. "I am amazed that there hasn't been a major attack on our infrastructure through cyber. Absolutely amazed. Because it's not that difficult to do. Imagine if you will, if someone could come in from a cyberattack standpoint and shut down the power grid in a large metropolitan area and keep it down."

According to the Pew study, some 66 percent of respondents feel the same way as Jacobs; they believe at least one devastating attack will occur in the next 10 years.

Howard Schmidt, who has worked on security issues at companies like eBay and Microsoft, and is a former U.S. cybersecurity czar, echoed Jacobs' sentiments. But he's also optimistic.

"We will have self-healing, self-repairing and self-configuring computer systems that effectively "sandbox" programs so one can perform the function they want at the moment (or multitask) without exposing nonused functions," wrote Schmidt in an e-mail.

And how's this for a real-world prophecy:

"Everything, including coffee pots, home lighting, alarm systems, autos and heart pacemakers, will have a secure IP [Internet protocol] address and be able to be controlled by the owner," wrote Schmidt. "RFID [radio frequency identification tags] will know when you use up the last bag of corn, add it to your e-shopping list, and transmit it to the grocery store for you the next time you go shopping or if you elect to do home delivery."

'Digital hubs' and online voting

The Pew respondents also expect more changes and advancements in the news and publishing industry.

Blogs (online journals) and podcasts (personalized audio Web casts) are apparently just the beginning of a grassroots movement. Most people in the Pew study also see improved access to online entertainment when it comes to music, movies and more. And the home computer or digital hub will become the centerpiece of a living room, streaming in content from over the Internet.

In the "it-depends-who-you-are" category, Pew respondents say the boundary between work and leisure will further diminish. Maybe the best example is the BlackBerry e-mail/phone/Web device. On the upside, it allows you to get e-mail everywhere you go. On the downside, it allows you to get e-mail everywhere you go.

Also everywhere: more surveillance. The Pew report says the ubiquitous nature of the online world will allow governments to keep better tabs on people. In a post-9/11 world, some would argue this is a necessary tool, while other groups worry about the erosion of people's privacy.

Not even our online pundits could predict who will be president in 2014, but less than a third of the Pew respondents felt that online voting would be secure and widespread by that time. There are simply too many vulnerabilities and problems inherent with the idea. But the possibility remains enticing to many experts.

"Many of the problems we are talking about with polling places for example, and training polling place workers, and the problems voters have when they go to vote, like making mistakes -- a lot of those problems we think could be substantially helped as we move to electronic voting, either in the precincts or in remote sites, or even voting from home," said Mike Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech- MIT Voting Technology Project in 2004.

"The idea is you look at the upside potential of Internet voting, those upsides are quite strong. Of course, there are substantial concerns. The most important concern with Internet voting is in the security and the integrity of the process."

So many variables, such rapid change. There is simply no way to know exactly where it will all take us. Perhaps one expert who contributed to the Pew study put it best:

"The next decade should see the development of a more thoughtful Internet. We've had the blood rush to the head, we've had the hangover from that blood rush; this next decade is the rethink."

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