The Web's most common method of interaction is the tried-and-true link: "Click here and we'll show you a different page." But the future of online will be fast, two-way communication, the roots of which are beginning to take hold. New technologies will soon give us speedy, uninterrupted access to the Web wherever we wander. We'll see innovative Web applications that allow us to access information anywhere and work seamlessly with colleagues around the globe. People will gain more power online--rather than simply reading the news, they'll be able to go out and uncover some stories of their own. And new sites and services will offer information targeted precisely to your needs, rendering one-size-fits-all sites obsolete.
Faster, far-flung connectivity
With broadband connections and Internet-enabled mobile phones becoming commonplace, what's next? Even faster connections -- and the place to look first for emerging speed gains is the US.
In late 2007 in the US, Sprint/Nextel will roll out mobile WiMax service (a high-speed wireless technology) in test markets, with the goal of serving as many as 100 million people in 2008. The "4G" service, which will coexist with the company's current 3G cellular network, will provide 2-megabits-per-second to 4-mbps downstream speed, with 500 kilobits per second to 1 mbps upstream. Peter Cannistra, director of broadband strategy and planning for Sprint/Nextel, says that the 4G network will be faster than any previous mobile service, and that its speed may be sufficient for use both on the road and at home.
To start, the service will work only with hybrid cellular/WiMax handsets and laptops, but Cannistra predicts that WiMax chip sets will become standard equipment in all manner of devices, including desktop computers, routers, and MP3 players. "It'll just be there, like Wi-Fi today, or like 56-kbps modems were in the past," he says.
Initially, your phone calls will probably still travel on the provider's existing cellular network. Cannistra says Sprint/Nextel will continue to expand its existing 3G cellular data service (known as EvDO), which will work with certain applications and as a backup to the 4G service.
But for US consumers who aren't always on the go and who want more speed, the big news is the fast growth of fiber-optic broadband service. Now available in 17 states, fiber-optic service from Verizon and others provides up to 50 mbps downstream and 5mbps upstream--far faster than most cable and DSL offerings--and it's going to become even faster.
"The new equipment we're installing, beginning at the end of the year, technically allows us to increase upstream speeds for FiOS by as much as eight times over what we do today, and increase downstream speeds up to four times what we offer today," says Verizon spokesperson Bobbi Henson.
Unfortunately, most cable and DSL providers seem focused on delivering content to subscribers, rather than enabling them to upload their own. Mitch Bowling, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast's online services, says, "We're aware of that dynamic starting to change," but Comcast's upload speeds are still stingy. Verizon's Henson says higher speeds for its DSL are in the works, but wouldn't say when.
Bowling did say that Comcast has begun rolling out service with 16mbps downstream/1-mbps upstream speeds in a handful of competitive markets, such as Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Verizon offers fiber-optic service. He wouldn't say when other areas will get the upgrade, but pointed out that Comcast has increased speeds four times in three years, so it seems likely that more speed boosts will show up in the near future.
The Web gets down to work
New Web services -- ones that mimic desktop applications but work entirely within a browser window -- appear constantly. But the Web apps you'll eventually use will focus on productivity and mobility, instead of simply giving you the same functions you'd find in a desktop application.
"Web applications are terrific for situations where you want to share and collaborate," says Google product manager Bret Taylor. "That's where we see the most benefit: for consumers planning the annual family reunion or a group of colleagues putting together a sales proposal."
Brandon Schauer, design strategist for Web consulting firm Adaptive Path, says the next phase of Web applications will focus on practical uses: "things that the rest of the world might have a reason to interact with, not just the Generation Y people who have time to click around," he says.
One business-focused Web application, Coghead, has been in development since 2003 but will launch about the time you read this. It's a beefy-looking app that allows nonprogrammers to build their own custom applications for tasks like inventory control, with data stored entirely online. Coghead CEO Paul McNamara says the application will be aimed at small to medium-size businesses, and at people who have some level of technical ability--"people who do macros in Microsoft Excel, work in Microsoft Access, or Adobe Dreamweaver," explains McNamara.
Another Web application that reflects that trend toward productivity is weSpendMoney. Due to launch in October, it's one of the first offerings to store users' financial data exclusively online, unlike more traditional desktop applications such as Intuit Quicken or Microsoft Money. Pedro Sousa, one of the developers, says that future versions of the application will allow users to view their data on the tiny screens of Web-enabled cell phones, too.
A focus on mobility is a common theme among Web apps. "At some point, applications as advanced as Google Earth will be able to run on devices as small as a cell phone," says Google's Taylor. "Users will be able to search and collaborate more effectively no matter where they are."
Another category that will gain in popularity is what Adaptive Path's Schauer calls "workarounds." Examples include Kayak.com, a site that uses a Web app to help people deal with the aggravation of shopping for airline tickets, and VideoEgg, which compresses video via a plug-in, thereby skirting poky uploads caused by slow upstream connections.
Social networking sites like MySpace are huge, but sites that aren't purely social will use people connections to solve problems. Schauer says sites that use social networks in this way "plug into what the Web has always been great at, which is getting you together with people who share the same interests but may be miles away." Examples include Last.fm and Pandora, which ascertain your musical preferences and play songs from additional artists you might like. These sites also let you find and play "stations" that have been created by others. Another similar site to explore is Soundflavor, which launched in early October.
Search engines with real savvy
Today most search engines depend primarily on algorithmic processing: results that are ordered by popularity. But better systems are beginning to supplement the blunt-force approach. "We want to do a better job of understanding the user's intent and the content provider's intentions," says Peter Norvig, director of research for Google. "We mostly rely on matching keywords, but we'd like to get closer to matching the intent."
Microsoft is another company investing heavily in research on search technology. "We're working on all kinds of things that will go away from 'here's ten links on a page,'" says Adam Sohn, a director in Microsoft's online services group, which is responsible for the Windows Live portal. "If someone is searching for 'Jaguar,' he explains, "the smarts to distinguish between 'he's looking for a car' and 'a big cat in the jungle'--that's coming."
Search engines can also deliver improved, more personalized results by adding better sources of information. "A search engine would be very good at telling me who won the 17th World Series, but bad at telling who's the best nanny in the neighborhood," says Sohn. So search engines are adding social networking features for sharing information within small groups.
Social-network searching will extend to other areas, too. Sohn says most video sites encourage the people who upload clips and those who view them to add tags. "Over time, especially with video, there will be this social input, where people add tags to other people's video. Then you get this sort of community-reinforced set of searchable attributes."
Soliciting input will also help provide searchers with more personalized results. Norvig says Google should do a better job of helping people use the search engine the way it is by offering proactive suggestions--for example, "It looks like you're trying to do this kind of search; here's how you do it." Sohn says Microsoft is building two-way feedback mechanisms that will ask users how useful they found the search result.
Both Norvig and Sohn agree that one issue search engines will be addressing is how to present search results. Most search sites have many sections drawing on separate databases. "[We have] one look for Web sites, one for news, one for images," Norvig says of Google's site. "We want to find a way to combine all of that information." Microsoft's Sohn uses the example of combining results from Windows Live's QnA (question and answer) section with its main search section. "We need to build the connection between the two services. It's not a multiyear thing; it's in the next 12 to 18 months."
New clout for everyday people
Even with throttled bandwidth, people are uploading 65,000 new videos to YouTube each day. More than 52 million blogs are covering everything from the best burger in Boise to the latest campaign finance scandal. Think that's impressive? Amateurs will find new venues that will give them even greater influence.
Look for some venues to attempt to steer public opinion. GIYUS.org, a coalition of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, is the first group to use Megaphone, a free system-tray utility that, in GIYUS.org's implementation, delivers alerts about online articles that it says are anti-Israel. The utility's more than 20,000 users can click on the alerts and be taken to the site that published the article so they can voice their objections to the piece. GIYUS.org does not own the Megaphone technology, but confirmed that the currently anonymous software developer who created it will soon allow other groups to use it.
One organization that has its eye on the political process is the Sunlight Foundation, which is enlisting an army of volunteers to expose the practice of earmarking, wherein senators and representatives anonymously attach funding requests for pet projects to congressional bills. The foundation plots on Google Maps the locations of projects funded by some 1800 earmarks, in all worth more than $500 million and contained in a single appropriations bill. Volunteers click on this map to find earmarks in their district; they then contact their representative to ask if the lawmaker sponsored that earmark.
The foundation's next step will be to tackle other appropriations bills scheduled for this fall; eventually the group will create a central repository of information that anyone can access. "The ultimate goal is to turn K Street [the area in Washington, DC, where many lobbying groups reside] upside down, using the technology and creativity of thousands of people," according to Zephyr Teachout, national director of the foundation.
Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and writer of the PressThink blog, says that amateur and professional journalists can work together to produce something greater than either could produce separately. "Bloggers are good at filtering and organizing information," he says. "Sometimes they get involved in [reporting on] things, but often it's accidental. They're collating what's out there." Next April, Rosen will launch a site, NewAssignment.net, which will combine the efforts of amateurs and professionals. Members will suggest, debate, and research stories; professional reporters will complete selected stories.
Rosen says that "hyperlocal" news sites are starting to spring up around the country to cover events in towns or neighborhoods that bigger media outlets ignore. One of these sites, Baristanet.com, covers Montclair, New Jersey; in September, it ran stories on area vandalism and on a "wild" party attended by hundreds of underage drinkers. Backfence.com maintains subsites for a handful of communities in California, Maryland, and Virginia, but more subsites are on the way. Members can post news, events, photos, and reviews of local businesses, and readers can carry on a dialogue with other locals. While some of the information still tends to be of the "juiciest gossip from the farmer's market" variety, and Backfence's sites look pretty sparse, they're starting to offer more important stories, such as one about a pet store getting raided for animal-treatment violations.
The Web will continue to reshape itself to serve not just professionals and geeks but everyone, whether they have an opinion, a gripe, or simply a job that needs to be done.
Future threats: Four trends that could cripple the new Internet
The Web's potential is limitless, but these four issues could really mess things up.
No Net neutrality: Congress is evaluating whether to give big telecom companies the right to charge companies for a guarantee of faster access. But once Big Telecom gets its way, critics fear, small, innovative new companies could be crowded out by the Microsofts and Googles, which can afford to pay for good access.
Copyright complaints: In August, the reporter who caught the Rodney King beating on tape sued YouTube because someone uploaded the video to the site. Universal Music Group may sue YouTube and MySpace over users uploading copyrighted video. Kill the messengers, and we could lose vital outlets for public opinion and discourse.
Security concerns: The pace at which customers are moving to online banking has slowed, in large part because they are worried about online security. Banks have investigated interesting concepts such as using secure RSS feeds, which would allow you to receive, for example, credit card activity alerts in a feed--though banks have their own security concerns to worry about if they add such services. Until the Web gets safer, these kinds of issues won't be resolved.
Crappy connectivity: Upstream bandwidths are still constricted, making uploading things like video files a time-consuming task. Furthermore, usable mobile bandwidth still costs an arm and a leg, and some carriers impose annoying limitations on how you can employ Web access.