Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Where next for the web?

Sunrise over Earth, SPL

Twenty years into the life of the world wide web, one scientist's idea for a simple way of sharing information with colleagues has come a very long way.

It's been an accidental miracle, growing without much direction from committees, governments or corporations.

But now it's on the verge of another transformation. BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones has been talking to the scientists who are trying to predict and even guide its future.


Whether we call it a semantic web, or a web of linked data, scientists believe that we are now building a much smarter network.


By putting far more of the world's raw data online, and then teaching the web to understand and interrogate it in new ways, they hope to give its users a far more intelligent resource.

"Think of the web as a large decentralised database," says Professor Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton University, "containing everything from train timetables, to places to eat, to where you might get the best deal. What it will deliver is a much more refined search, you'll have a finer grained web."

The idea then is that instead of a search such as "next train to Manchester" turning up a series of web pages, it will give the user real answers. But only if the data is provided in the first place.

Professor Shadbolt is part of a campaign spearheaded by the web's creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to persuade public and private bodies to put much more of their data online.


We think of the web now as something we approach via a browser, using a keyboard.

Woman in sunglasses

But, according to another Southampton University scientist, Dame Wendy Hall, that's about to change: "We'll be able to access the internet wherever we are, whatever we're doing almost in a device-free way. We may see it through our glasses, or through some sort of visor we'll wear."

Professor Hall believes the browser will disappear and that we'll interact with the web through applications - much as people are already doing with smart phones.


And it won't just be people online.


More and more objects - from cars, to heart monitors, to sensors around our homes - are going to be hooked up to the web contributing to a growing flood of data.

Where will that data be stored? In the cloud, of course, or in other words in the vast data-centres now being built by web superpowers like Google and Microsoft.

"In some sense the web is becoming a very large computer," says Andrew Herbert, who runs the Microsoft Research Laboratory in Cambridge.

"There are huge opportunities but huge engineering challenges," as the web moves into the cloud, he says.


It's clear that the web's future is mobile - and for most of the billions who join it over the next few years, their first experience will be via a mobile phone.

Android smartphones

One of the mobile industry's big thinkers, Benoit Schillings of Myriad software, says that will make us even more dependent on the web.

"We assume now that it is something we have with us all the time. So when you lose your phone it becomes a disaster - it's now an essential part of how human beings function."

But Mr Schillings says the limitations of a mobile network, as compared with data coming down a fixed line, mean that research in areas like compression becomes all the more vital.


So how do we make sure that this pervasive, mobile, intelligent web can keep growing without eating the planet?

Professor Andy Hopper of Cambridge University runs a programme called Computing for the Future of the Planet.

He's optimistic about what the web can do.


A season of reports from 8-19 March 2010 exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:

Digital giants - top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
Mapping the internet - a visual representation of the spread of the web over the last 20 years
Global Voices - the BBC links up with an online community of bloggers around the world

"It's a pacemaker for the planet, an indispensable part of our civilisation," he says.

But he's looking at how computer technologies can be used to control or reduce our carbon footprint.

One of his students, for example, is trying to create a personal energy monitor which uses the new "web of things" to pull together all kinds of information from online sensors monitoring energy use.

But surely the bigger it grows, the more serious the threats to the web's stability?

"The running joke in the engineering community is that the internet is always on the verge of collapse," says Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks, which monitors the performance of the network.

He's optimistic that the internet will continue to mend itself, but points out that increasingly this will depend on a few giant corporations which now control the traffic.

In the last three years, says Dr Labovitz, Google's share of global internet traffic has grown from a fraction of 1% to well over 10%.


Which brings us to the crucial question - who's in charge of the web's future? So far it has grown on principles of openness and mutually agreed standards - but some now fear the emergence of a corporate web where innovation and free expression will be shackled.

"There are no guarantees that it will carry on to evolve the way it is now - open, free and with universal standards," says Professor Wendy Hall.

"If you lose that or the standards are taken over by a commercial concern, then the web will change dramatically."

You can hear more about these topics in Discovery on 10 March as part of the BBC's SuperPower season, exploring the extraordinary power of the internet.

Print Sponsor

Luminaries look to the future web
30 Apr 08 |  Technology
Helping the web to understand
16 Dec 08 |  Technology
The mash-up future of the web
19 Feb 07 |  Technology
Smart tags hail the web of things
05 Feb 08 |  Technology


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific