At 40 years old, what's next for the Internet?

Experts predict an expanding online 3D world and much more collaboration

As the Internet hits 40 this week, it's not difficult to look back and see the changes it's brought to the world.

E-mail. Instant messaging. Buying and selling stocks online. Watching surgeries performed in real-time. All are now widespread activities thanks to the Internet.

The changes have been nothing less than astounding.

Businesses stay in touch with customers using Twitter and Facebook. CEOs are blogging about their companies and their daily activities. And move over presidential candidates and sports stars, now astronauts are Twittering from outer space.

Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock , one of the computer scientists at UCLA who on Sept. 2, 1969, created a network connection between two computers for the first time, said that while the Internet is turning 40, it's definitely not hitting middle age. In fact, far from it.

"The Internet has just reached its teenage years," Kleinrock said in an interview with Computerworld this week. "It's just beginning to flex its muscles. The fact that it's just gotten into its dark side - with spam and viruses and fraud -- means that it's like an [unruly] teenager. That too will pass as it matures."

So if the Internet is just at the ground floor, what's next?

"We're clearly not through the evolutionary stage," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "Clearly, it's going to be taking the world and the human race in a quite different direction. We just don't know what the direction is yet. It may save us. It may doom us. But it's certainly going to change us."

Marc Weber, founding curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum, agreed with Kleinrock that the Internet is still in its infancy. As it grows, the Internet is continually swallowing up other media.

"It's a mass medium that absorbs other mass media," he said. "We make telephone calls over the Web. We have the equivalent of postal mail in the form of email. You can watch TV over the Web. It's absorbing, in a sense, other media. Stuff that used to be separate keeps on getting added. What happens when you can do everything from your browser? Who knows what that will do to daily life."

Weber also noted that the Internet's increasing mobility will probably guide its growth through the next several decades.

"Think about when you're traveling," said Weber. The mobile Internet "will show you things about where you are. Information will become topical. Obviously, it'll be important for shopping, [for] connecting with people near you, [and getting] information related to where you are. Point your mobile phone at a billboard and you'll see more information. The mobile device is also going to become a mobile form of payment."

He added that he also is expecting to see more online collaboration, much like the Wikipedia process of gathering information. The online encyclopedia features articles written collaboratively by volunteers from around the globe.

More sites and applications, even those focused on news and blogging, could take advantage of the mobile Internet to become far more collaborative, according to Weber.

"Wikipedia works really well. That particular area has proven very powerful," he noted. "Blogging is great but you just have a whole bunch of scattered blogs with no central place and no interaction. [Think of ] the power of really collaborative media with everybody adding their little dab of paint to the same painting. Make journalism a big synergy of effort."

For Sean Koehl, technology evangelist for Intel Labs, the future of the Internet has a much more three-dimensional look.

"What's going to happen when you bring the visual experiences you can get in a modern game to the Internet?" asked Koehl. "It really has been mostly text-based since its inception. There's been some graphics on Web pages and animation, but bringing life-like 3D environments onto the Web really is only beginning. We're really excited about transitioning from a 2D Web to a 3D Web."

It's all about making your online life more like your real life, according to Koehl.

For instance, he foresees a time when online shoppers will scan their bodies to create life-like online models. That way they can go into 3D dressing rooms in an online store and actually see how the clothes would look on their body.

He also said people could use these 3D images of themselves in conjunction with a realistic 3D set up of a family house or favorite restaurant to set up online family reunions.

"Some of it is already happening ... though the technical capabilities are a little bit basic right now," said Koehl. "You need to be able to share a distributed environment. In the next three to five years, the capabilities of the basic worlds are going to be a lot better. You'll start to have a 3D world that will start to look pretty realistic."

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Sharon Gaudin

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