RealTime IT News

Internet's Future Debated

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Will the Internet be here in 20 years? That was the provocative topic a panel of industry heavyweights tackled at the AlwaysOn conference here. A follow-on panel discussed where news is headed on the Web.

In short, the panel agreed that something called the Internet will be around in 20 years, but it's likely to be very different than how we think of it today.

"From a technology and plumbing point of view it will change," said Nick McKeown, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford. "Evolution tends to lead to structural change."

Among those changes, McKeown expects security to vastly improve. He noted the popularity of virtual private networks  and Intranets among corporations because the public Internet is too insecure.

"Imagine air traffic controllers on the public Internet," he said. "None of that would fly." He expects more private and specialized intranets in the near and long-term future.

Sun's  chief architect Andy Bechtolsheim said traditional telecom and phone companies have been too closed in their thinking, trying to protect their markets. As a result, he notes Apple  was able to swoop in and disrupt the industry with its iPhone and perhaps force the phone providers to respond with overdue innovation.

Video will certainly be a mainstay of the next incarnation of the Internet and improvements can't come too soon for Bechtolsheim. He bemoaned having to wait two minutes for a one-minute movie preview to load.

"People understand real time," he said. "In YouTube you get a postage stamp image, but at least you click and something happens." He predicted radical changes with the onset in years to come of ten-gigabit connections that will let you copy a full DVD movie in five minutes.

"That's very scary to Hollywood; consumers would never go to a store to rent or buy a movie," he said.

Bechtolsheim believes part of what's holding back progress is an overpricing of telecommunications equipment. "It's obvious to me that the biggest expense was putting fiber in the ground," he said. Other panelists agreed there is plenty of excess fiber capacity ready to be "lit."

"Video is all about who is going to make money," said Bechtolsheim.

The New News

A later session on the "New News" featured a lively discussion on the future of online news and traditional media such as newspapers.

Stanford journalism professor Ann Grimes said the newspaper industry is in the midst of a multi-year transition to a new business model and likely faces many years of depressed earnings while it figures out what that new model might be.

"But the good news is that reports of the death of the newspaper is greatly exaggerated," she said. "On average, 51 million Americans buy a newspaper, and the number of daily newspapers is holding steady at about 1,500."

Chris Tolles, the CEO of Topix said the Web offers features it's hard for traditional media like newspapers to match. "The biggest thing is the Internet is participatory, many to many, it's not one person talking to a lot of people. It's hard for newspapers to [do that]. But the good news is more people are reading news than ever before in history."

One emerging model are so-called personalized newspapers. Dan Cohen, CEO of PageFlakes said his Web service lets users be their own editor. "We're taking the best blogs and videos and mashing them together as a new newspaper," he said. "The citizen editors are taking long tail content and becoming publishers."

Grimes said she felt the rise of the blogosphere is partly a backlash against traditional media, but she doesn't think the new online alternatives are without fault. "We should be worried about the quality of the content and whether it's trustworthy and verifiable," she said. Grimes thinks we're at a tipping point where there's likely to be a winnowing out of blogs with random, unchecked content."

But Tolles thinks the more provocative bloggers and online media will continue their appeal, fact-checked or not. He warned that newspapers have been guilty of "dumbing" down their content for years in the interest of objectivity.

"I want to read something that pisses me off or says 'This guy is the devil.' I think you'll see more of this online in things like the immigration debate. It's what people are actually thinking.

"The truth can be really ugly."