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The Internet in 2020: Four visions of the future

What is the internet going to look like in 10 years time? Cast your mind back a decade into the past and the internet is almost unrecognisable compared to its current form. Technologies and services have evolved at a rapid pace, and the scale and volumes that are currently in place today would have been almost inconceivable at the beginning of the millennium.

Does this mean that it is hard for us to predict more immense changes that might happen in the next 10 years? The Internet Society has formulated four visions for the future of the ‘net, not all of them rosy.

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Starting with the worst, and progressively getting more optimistic as we go through them, here are the four scenarios imagined:

Boutique Networks

This scenario envisions the death of the internet as we know it. The global web of communication is eradicated as local entities, such as governments and service providers take control, and institute local ‘intranets’, disconnected from each other. The incentive for the controlling players is the ability to control activities, services and content online, and also to institute more powerful and far reaching payment models. The vision is bleak, with most of the benefits of the internet as we know it today being eradicated.

Information is not free in any interpretation of the word, and we are denied what has perhaps proven to be the most powerful aspect of the internet – the ability to connect easily with other people in distant lands, whether for business or for pleasure.

Moats & Drawbridges

Similarly to the Boutique Networks vision, the internet is fractioned into a number of more localised networks, restricting the flow of content and information. In this scenario however, it is large corporations that control the individual networks, influencing governments to support the new infrastructure. The large corporations control which content is able to flow from one individual network to another, and under what conditions.

News and media producers are forced to supply content that is deemed appropriate by the large corporations, who are motivated purely by profit. Smaller suppliers of news and content are driven out of business because of the control over the global networks that the large corporations wield.

Porous Gardens

In a slightly more optimistic vision, the internet is still a globally connected network, theoretically with the same potential for the dissemination of news and content that we are familiar with today. However, large companies have become more inextricably interlinked with the way in which we consume online content and services, and as such have gained more and more power.

As internet users have aligned themselves with particular devices, and suppliers of apps, these company-specific devices and applications have become both the totality of our experience of the internet, and too important to fail. Technologies are closed and exclusive, and developers and content producers will all become more and more aligned to one platform in particular, causing greater rifts of incompatibility, less economic competition, and greater barriers to entry.

Common Pool

This is the most optimistic scenario, a positive vision of a ‘collaborative, competitive and evolving’ internet. The internet has become a platform in which large companies strategise and innovate, but also in which individuals and small businesses are on the same playing field, able to challenge the status quo, and offer competitive services in their own right.

The philosophy of ‘open-source’ is embraced whole-heartedly, with more and more technology becoming open, and more and more services integrating user-generated content. Freedom and competition drive innovation which means that individual businesses are less secure.

However, as more and more opportunity for entry opens up globally, solutions to existing problems and exciting new services abound as multiple players “work together” to drive the internet forwards.

The first two scenarios are likely a little extreme – the power of global technology companies, and the economic benefit to everyone of a globally connected internet seems too great for such fractionalisation to occur. Not only that, but diplomatic relations between the majority of the world’s countries do not seem to be so strained that the inevitable result in the next ten years is the division of the internet into separated, distinct networks.

The third vision is perhaps the one to think most carefully about. It’s clearly a comment on the trend in technology/platforms hinted at by Apple’s mobile devices and iTunes/App store. The “Porous Garden” scenario is certainly a growing element in today’s internet. There are already large corporations controlling more and more of our daily interactions with online services and content, and this trend is certainly on an upwards incline.

The utopian “Common Pool” scenario feels overly optimistic – we can see from the history of other industries that large incumbent corporations often do wield more power than might be ideal, and often manage to survive longer than they should with their sluggish pace of innovation, and uncompetitive service offerings.

However, the internet is a different animal, and it has clearly shown itself to be a battlefield in which the Davids of the world can sneak up on sleeping Goliaths, and pull the rug out from under them. It definitely is a realm of business with relatively low barriers to entry and very rapid innovation. This kind of environment gives more favour to smaller businesses, and puts pressure on larger corporate entities to stay competitive and agile.

My bet is that in 10 years time, the internet will look something like a blend between the “Porous Gardens” scenario and the “Common Pool” scenario.

Which way do you think we’re heading?

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