We've had 20 years of the web. What's next?

13th Mar 2009 | 10:00

We've had 20 years of the web. What's next?

Two decades on, things are about to change

It's 20 years since Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote the proposal for the system that would become known as the World Wide Web. It's not such a definitive anniversary; after all, the web also has heritage in Berners-Lee's previous project ENQUIRE from 1980, and the proposal was finally published nearly two years on in late 1990.

He used a NeXT Computer to act as the world's first web server in that year and, in 1991, made the web publicly available. He could never have imagined the effect his "web of nodes" serving "hypertext documents" has had.

But, 20 years on, it also gives us the opportunity to ask 'what's next' for the web? Berners-Lee's idea for the WWW also contained ideas for the semantic web, an idea that continues to evolve to this day. The idea behind it is that computers will be able to understand the information on the web, enabling them to comprehend what we need to do.

So, much of the dull work we do in searching for and processing information from the web could be done without us, meaning we can simply enjoy the benefit of the information itself.

It's useful to remember just how the web has changed our lives. The Post Office recently surveyed 5- to 16-year-olds as a promotional act for its broadband service. 62 per cent of them claimed to have a social networking profile, and one in three identified the computer as the one item they could not live without.

Internet psychologist Graham Jones says that writing and reading skills are actually improving as an effect of the net. "It's all too easy to forget that the main way of interacting online is through typing. We have to write emails or entries into social networking sites. Even if you are on YouTube and want to make a comment you have to type it. Never before in history have we written as much as we do nowadays."

Tristan Nitot, President of Mozilla Europe, says that the real future of the web is still to be invented. "We need to make sure that the web is participatory and will include everyone."

Will everything continue to be free? Probably. "In our recent studies [of those aged 10-24], accessing the web is an important activity in their daily lives, especially when they indicate that they will not pay for content when they can get it for free on the web," says Gartner principal research analyst Fernando Elizalde.

It'll be on more devices

One thing's for sure, we'll increasingly use more varied devices to access the information available from the web. Dr. Guy Bunker, a Distinguished Engineer at Symantec, told us that the way we use the web will also change as the number of internet-connected devices explodes over the next 3-5 years: "The proliferation of internet-enabled PAN (personal area network) enabled devices will continue apace, they will synchronise and update in real time."

And, then there's the cloud, which many believe will be at the centre of everything. "Complex business processes will be delivered as a service by integrating different cloud services, offering new opportunities," believes Dr. Bunker.

Jimmy Ang, a Research Fellow at City University London's School of Informatics agrees. "I believe computers will be embedded into everyday objects and more situated within the social context of use." Ang also believes that the way we search will change, too, something many of the large firms are working on. "Searching will become more intuitive as we should be able to interact with the web with natural language. Also, translation tools will become more developed so we can communicate with people around the world with our mother tongues."

Will we still use browsers?

"The web will further evolve to connect people in a common knowledge," says Dan Ma, Senior Project Manager at Positive Technology. "It will be less about 'browsing' the web and more about actively becoming part of it. We will become increasingly reliant on web-based widgets, mobile applications and appliances being part of our daily lives, possibly relegating the browser as we know it."

Jimmy Ang thinks that browsers will certainly have to change as a result of the myriad ways we'll access online services. "I believe browsers will become more integrated into the system in general; there might not be an independent web browser application. Networked information will be integrated directly into the computer systems and other software and hardware."

Tristan Nitot thinks it's too difficult to predict how people will browse in the future. "When I look at browsers from 15 years ago, they look really similar to what we have now. Yet, on the other hand, the community at Mozilla Labs have come up with exciting things like Ubiquity, which offers a very different way to interact with your browser. It's too early to say that it's going to be mainstream, but it's definitely something to watch."

All about mobile

Mobile has a huge part to play in the future of the web. Bunker thinks the future will be exciting: "Network connection speeds, storage and processing power will continue to rise with smart phones having in-built virtual keyboards, projectors and fold-out flexible screens to replace the laptop of today." Ang adds that there's an ongoing debate at how the web should deal with mobile access.

"Generally there are two opinions in this issue, a) we should design one web for all b) mobile phones need specific web design. For the next 10 years option b seems to be more likely. Perhaps in the distant future, we need only one web which will adapt automatically into specific devices."

Nitot believes that we'll want our browsers to work together, something Mozilla is working on with Weave. "One thing is for sure: you'll want your mobile browser to be an extension of your desktop browser: you'll want to access sites on your mobile that you've seen earlier on your laptop. You'll want to share bookmarks between the two."

Through this, Nitot believes that we shouldn't need or have a specific mobile web. "Of course, this means that we should not have 'two webs', one for mobile and one for desktop computers: instead, people want to access the same data regardless of the device - mobile or not."

Fundamental change?

So will the web still exist? Stuart Okin, Managing Director at Comsec Consultin, believes that, eventually, it won't exist as it does now. "Imagine a world where your presence is known and avatars are able to always pick the information you need and present it to you – quite often before you request it. Our children will not see the difference between the physical world and the internet – as all of this will be merged for them. In essence, for them there is no web!"

And it could be that the web will be spoken instead. IBM researchers have predicted that a spoken web will change the way we live, work and play over the next five years. "We know this can happen because the technology's available, but we also know it can happen because it must [in developing countries]." IBM also believes the spoken web "will enable people without reliable computing infrastructures, who are handicapped, or who are unable to read or write, with all the benefits and conveniences the web has to offer."


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