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One of these days

A look at the future of networking.

One of these days everybody will be on the Net. One of these days we’ll have computers that anybody can use. We might also have computers that can use anyone’s body. As we know by now, major technologies have pluses and minuses, promises and dangers. That’s one of the reasons for considering the future of a technology–to think about where it can take us, for good and for ill.

In the previous three columns I’ve explored aspects of the future of computing: the core technologies such as quantum computing and nanotechnology; support technologies such as holography; and last month, the future of software. In the final column of this series, it’s time to consider the future of networking. While almost everything about computers has some effect on society, networking is almost by definition a social activity–especially when it connects people, of course, not so much when it means computers communicating with computers. You need look no further than the Internet to understand this aspect of computing and the power of networking to change society.

Net futures

“The Internet is the future.” I believe somebody first said that about 20 years ago. Is it still true? In a literal sense, of course it is, since as the mother amoeba of all networks, the Internet will be around–in some form or another–for a long time. Still, will the Internet more or less by itself be the driving force of the future, as it has been for the past decade? Many would say the Internet has reached a kind of plateau in form and content, and that what happens in the future will be evolutionary change, and slower change at that. This is a fairly important question for those of you in small and medium-sized businesses because commitment of resources to Internet-related projects is not a foregone conclusion. As demonstrated by the demise of the dot-coms, there is peril in believing too much hype. On the other hand, despite taking its lumps, e-commerce is alive and recovering well.

You have to be careful about associating the Internet too closely with the Web and what you see in a browser. For one thing, much of the immediate future of the Internet is in extending the range of the Web (wireless, broadband, etc.) For another thing, the Internet is more than the Web. In its role as a communications protocol, the Internet is driving a, or perhaps the, revolution in convergence.

Optical looking glass

Broadband all over the country–heck, the world–is what everybody predicted as the ultimate source for fast Internet connections. That’s everybody in the computer and communications industry joined by some outsiders too–outsiders like Enron, a company that knew a good thing when it saw it. The broadband bandwagon had many components, but at the national network level, the big deal was fiber optics and high-speed connections. Some very big companies invested billions in fiber-optic networks, seeing them as their ticket to wealth.

Fiber-optic broadband was purported to be the infrastructure that would make convergence a reality, but then some of the problems mentioned above started to be a drag. Momentum faltered and suddenly there was something nobody predicted–overcapacity. While a lot of people still couldn’t get reasonably priced and reliable DSL or cable Internet down the last mile to their houses, national networks were sitting with unused bandwidth in their fiber-optic cables. Along with the economy, the bottom fell out of the broadband market. What happened had a lot more in common with gold mining. Where I live in Montana, most gold mines never made any money from gold; instead, money was made from selling stock.

What’s this have to do with the future of computing? Obviously all that glitters is not gold. There’s plenty of room for technology to come a cropper thanks to greed and speculation. There’s nothing wrong with the technology of fiber optics; in fact, this infrastructure will be the future of networks near and far. But that’s not enough to guarantee immediate success. I think the point here is that because networking by its very nature has a lot of players–manufacturers, standards groups, government, consumers, and businesses–it’s going to continue to be the most unpredictable area of technological change.

Boogeyman around the corner

While I’m painting a gloomy background to the picture of networking, I might as well continue with another boogeyman for the future of computing: security (and its codependent, privacy). Like the boogeyman, the lack of security in our networks (on and off the Internet) is scary. Often enough, it’s more than scary–it’s destructive and costly. Every time we add a new component to our networks (wireless, streaming media, Web services–the very things that make up the future of computing for the next five to 10 years), we also add new risks to security and privacy. It’s bad enough that these technologies are complex and prone to error and breakdown; they’re also under attack from some very bright and sometimes criminal minds.

A perceived lack of security generates a feeling among consumers (business and personal) that vital information and privacy are easily compromised. Above a certain level, this feeling is commercially lethal. Consequently, security is something everybody has to watch, because it affects the success of technologies and because it could happen to you.

Work evolution

To my mind, nothing embodies the negative and positive forces at work in networking–as well as its power to transform the way we work–more than collaboration. I don’t think anybody has quantified this yet, but certainly the percentage of work being done by teams or people directly collaborating with each other must be gaining on the work done (more or less) by individuals. I do know that collaboration is another buzzword that’s being mooted by b-schools and business literature everywhere. There are predictions that within a decade or two, nearly all significant work will be organized into collaborative projects.

With our national culture of stubborn individualism, I’m not so sure that collaboration will come all that smoothly to America. People value their privacy and personal initiative. Also, as they say, knowledge is power, which makes it difficult to share. How do you get ahead if everything you know and do is shared with the other idiots on the team? However, as modern business becomes more complex, demanding of quick reaction, and strung out all over the world, how else can you cope with it except by collaborating?

Because modern business requires agility, computing and communication tools are absolutely essential. Thus, networks and collaboration software (and I include Web services in this group) have become increasingly important. So have all the elements of convergence–phone, e-mail, streaming media, etc.–become technologies that bear watching because of what they mean to collaboration.

Technologies emerge

Have you ever heard of an Emerging Technology Analyst? I’m not talking about think tanks, research outfits, or academia. By one estimate, there are now several hundred people working with this job description in corporations. They’re highly paid specialists–some of the best and the brightest. Why? Because what you don’t see coming can really hurt you–or you can miss profitable opportunities. People in these jobs don’t just follow technologies but also try to understand their impact on business and society at large. You don’t have to be a Luddite to feel that computers (let alone technology as a whole) are hardly the whole story of the future. Human beings can still have a “normal” life without personally being involved with computers. However, if you live in America the computers will be there, working in the background. Right now computers are relatively obvious–relatively big, human-operated, and an adjunct to most activity. One of these days–certainly before the half century–computing and communication devices will be woven into the entire fabric of life; not just part of the economy but everything including our clothing and even our bodies. These forms of computing will more often than not be small, almost invisible, interconnected (networked), and in some respects independent.

Near-term and long-term, the future of computing is well worth watching, worth thinking about, and worthy of concern.

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