Ask any veteran of the Internet to name its most exciting feature, and the answer is almost invariably the same: Where it is taking us. What the future holds. People who have worked in this field predict that far greater things and more positive applications than any we presently have are just over the horizon.
First is the Internet's size and capacity. The current 350 million users are just a fraction of the world's population. And the technology is advancing so rapidly that in a few years, laptops and other simple computers will be inexpensive enough to allow hundreds of millions more users to get on-line.
Then there is the issue of linking all those computers through the Internet. According to Internet authorities, it could handle the load of being connected to the 600 million telephones today. Work is already under way to prepare the Internet to handle that volume, and more.
Plans are also in the works to make the Internet available through public computer stations, or kiosks, which would soon make accessing the Internet about as easy as making a call at a pay phone. Some would be equipped to service users who didn't even bring their own laptop. To the businessman, it means never being far from files or information. To shoppers, it means being able to locate merchandise or place orders from anywhere. To students, it means research can be done at home and papers sent in from any University in the world. The Internet can bring entire libraries, if not classrooms, into the home for just a few dollars a year.
Financial transactions will become easier and faster than ever before. Through the digital cash products that are coming to the market, purchases can be made without giving a credit card number (exposing it to risk of theft). Instead, the purchaser transmits digitally encoded bits of information which are accepted as money by other computers, and securely buys merchandise and services, pays bills, and even pays income taxes.
Television is expected to soon be linked into the Internet, expanding it's entertainment and information possibilities. Through the TV set will come up-to-the-second stock information, transpiring news and job information. There will be movies on demand and interactive TV in which the audience participates in shows they watch.
Star Trek-style video teleconferencing where the callers see each others image while they talk on the telephone will soon move from futurist to the present. The hardware is nearly ready for marketing. Virtual reality, the whole field of equipment and programs which make possible such things as lifelike flight simulations, is also coming to the Internet for high-tech entertainment and also for instruction and training.
Traffic on the Internet today includes Java applets, streaming video and audio, subscription channels, as well as HTML and email. The government has handed over several sections of the Internet to private companies, and the capacity of the Internet's backbone has been increased to keep up with the exponential growth in traffic. Over the last few years new technologies have widened bandwidth to handle the increased traffic, but engineers don't know how long they'll be able to keep ahead of demands on the network.
Many experts in computer networks warn that too much traffic will shut everything down. To prevent the problem, we'll need faster networks and more efficient protocols.
In answer, there are two competing LAN technologies promising a ten-fold increasein network speeds - ATM (Asynchronus Transfer Mode) and gigabit Ethernet. To handle the faster speeds, a new Internet Protocol has been proposed, IPng (IP new generation, or IPv6). It's designed to handle the growing size of the Internet and faster network speeds. Just as the ARPAnet was based on open standards, all three of these technologies are nonproprietery.
Here are some estimates and projections for the Internet.
Present: roughly 366 million people online
Projected: 700 million by 2002
total revenue generated by online retail estimated at $350 billion
Projected: $1,200 billion by 2002
Present: Online banking services used by 15 million households in the
Projected: 25 million by 2002