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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Welcome to the internet 2014
As the UK marks 10 years of e-commerce, technology analyst Bill Thompson looks forward to what the coming decade has in store for us.

Biometric keyboard
Many of the technologies of tomorrow are here today
It is always complicated when you try to find an internet-related anniversary to commemorate.

For example, 29 October marks the 35th anniversary of the transmission of data on the Arpanet, the research network that was the forerunner of today's internet.

Back in 1969 the second network node, at the Stanford Research Institute, was commissioned and data could pass to and from UCLA, where the first node had been running for a month with nobody to talk to.

But 35 does not normally get a celebration. We prefer factors of 10 in our calendars.

The world's first permanent cybercafe, Cyberia in London's Whitfield Street, opened its doors and keyboards to the public 10 years ago and was duly celebrated.

But how do you commemorate something as vague as the emergence of e-business in the UK?

London bash

First, there is the problem of definition. Does e-mailing my credit card number to a second-hand bookstore in 1993 count, or do we only include secure web-based transactions?

Second, few of us were paying much attention to the needs of future historians back then. I doubt there is a hand-written log saying "received first website order" from any of the businesses around at the time.

Bill Thompson
If we are very lucky then the internet, computers and all the rest of the technologies will not be on view at all
So we should be grateful that NOP World and e-consultancy are willing to stand up and claim that it all got started 10 years ago in 1994, and that early October is the right time to celebrate it.

The exact date may have more to do with local politics, after the party conferences but before Parliament reassembles, so a good time to get a minister along for the bash.

But the 100 or so net pioneers who gathered at a smart London hotel for the reception were not going to quibble over the champagne and canapes.

As it happens the minister could not make it, so net stalwart and Labour MP Derek Wyatt stepped into the breach with his usual mix of deadpan humour and self-deprecation.

And after looking back and remembering old times, he ended his talk by imagining what the online world will look like in another 10 years.

Rather than steal his ideas, I spent the journey home thinking about the question myself. Derek had prefaced his remarks by admitting that we cannot see the future, but when it comes to technology I think he is wrong.

Power on tap

As the author William Gibson puts it, "the future has already arrived, it's just unevenly distributed".

When it comes to technology, the stuff that will be in shops and homes in five years' time has already been invented. And the stuff we will be using in 10 years' time should be vaguely visible in the labs.

If we are very lucky then the internet, computers and all the rest of the technologies will not be on view at all.

Water tap
Is this the future of the internet?
They will be embedded in our lives, physically as part of every object we handle or use, and every machine we build, and socially in the ways we use them.

Access to the network will just be there, just as electricity and water are there. We will barely notice it, although we will notice the things we do with it.

And access to processing power will be there, whenever it is needed, but it will not be found only in plastic boxes on our desks, however well-designed they may be.

Both the network and the processing power will also have crept out of the industrialised West and into the rest of the world.

There is a good chance that by 2014 we will finally have an internet for the next five billion people, the ones who have probably not even seen a computer never mind surfed the web.

It will be a regulated, managed and controlled net, not the simple data conduit that we have today, and many of us will miss the old ways of working. But the benefits for the many will outweigh the conservatism of the net old-timers.

Wired world

The mere fact that everyone is online will change the way the world works, of course. But the way we use the processing power available will shift too.

A lot of it will go on making things talk to each other. I have my laptop, my mobile phone/PDA, my digital music player and all sorts of other technology in my briefcase at the moment, and if I was willing to make the investment I could have a 3G card and be online even as I type this on a train journey.

But these devices do not talk to each other very well, and they do not really talk to other people's devices at all.

I think the big change we will see in the next 10 years is that programs will get better at acting independently and communicating over the network without our intervention.

Cars will book themselves in for servicing, hospitals will consult online diaries before scheduling an appointment, and fishing boats will sell their catch at market before reaching port, all thanks to these software agents.

Of course this brings with it massive risks, and poses threats to privacy and social life which will worry many of us. But we have proven able to absorb the impact the net has made since 1994, and I am optimistic about our ability to do so in future.

A wired world carries with it the potential to achieve a much greater measure of social justice for all in the world. It could help us manage resources, be aware of natural or human disasters more rapidly and deal with the enormous complexity of the world more effectively.

It is not an unalloyed good, of course, and producing computers and running networks has its own environmental cost.

But I believe that the balance is tilted firmly in favour of the greater use of computer technology, and that the benefits to come from it will help us all.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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