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The future of the internet

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As the internet celebrates its 30th birthday, Matt Warman says you ain't seen nothing yet.

Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the world-wide web, in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004.

Tim Berners-Lee, who developed the world-wide web, in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004.

As 1983 got under way, the thrill of Australia winning the Ashes for the first time since 1975 set pulses racing.

Meanwhile, even the most enthusiastic of geeks was struggling to get excited by the standardising of the "transmission control protocol". Yet the move that took place 30 years ago this week to a new system for connecting computers spawned the multi-billion-dollar internet industry, changed the course of the music business forever, reinvented banking and fundamentally changed how we communicate with each other.

The internet, originally short for "internetworking", was first set up to connect research and academic institutions, but 1983 saw the moment when individual networks were connected securely and in such a way that the failure of a single component did not bring down the whole "net".

What we are familiar with today, however, is the "world wide web", invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Although the web relies on the internet, it is essentially a service that runs over the top of it, connecting billions of different pages via links. The internet is the hardware underneath, from cables that are occasionally inadvertently cut by trawlermen to enormous "switches" that route information.

Indeed, the growth of the internet, which is expected to be worth at least $3.84 trillion by 2020, continues at breakneck pace. It already connects more devices than there are people on Earth, even though just 2.4 billion of the world's population of 7 billion is online.

But as more of them do hook up, the world 30 years from now is likely to look even more different than 1983 does to us today.

The birth of the internet

Late in the evening of October 29, 1969, a seminal moment took place that laid the foundations of the internet. As described in Gregory Gromov's Roads and Crossroads of Internet History, Leonard Kleinrock, a pioneering computer science professor at the University of California, and his small group of graduate students hoped to log-on remotely to a Stanford university computer.

"They would start by typing 'login', and seeing if the letters appeared on the far-off monitor. We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at the lab," Professor Kleinrock said in an interview. "We typed the L and we asked on the phone, do you see the L? Yes, we see the L, came the response. We typed the O, and we asked do you see the O? Yes, we see the O. Then we typed the G, and the system crashed."

But as Gromov observes, "a revolution had begun". By 1981, that two-computer network had expanded to 213, known as ARPANET, and linked University College London and a few European locations to what remained a largely American network.

On January 1, 1983, a mandate by America's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that all computers on the network use that same "transmission control protocol", or TCP/IP, meant that a global, open and easy-to-connect-to network was born.

Weaving the web

Sir Tim's radical improvement to the internet was the idea that pages of information and pictures could also contain links to other pages, allowing users to "surf" from one to another without hindrance.

His decision that this should not be a proprietary service, attracting fees or costs for users, meant the open web that we know today could exist.

It also gave birth to vast web servers, housing the information that users wished to access and which now occupy warehouses around the world. Indexing that information first took place manually, until Google's new algorithm automated the task of crawling the web.

Google, quickly joined by Facebook, remains the pre-eminent web giant, largely thanks to the advertising revenue that it generates from showing commercial content next to search results. For the first time, advertising was matched to a user's known interests.

Today, however, the web is also a disruptive force that is likely to cause the closure of thousands of traditional, bricks-and-mortar shops around the world between now and March alone.

A new internet

Three trends will shape the future of the internet: as more people in more countries get online, it is likely to connect the world in a way that has not yet been fully appreciated. Vint Cerf, one of the internet's original pioneers, even wants to see it sent into space.

More machines, too, will start to use the web, meaning that your fridge, in a long-promised new guise, will be able to order food before you run out. Machine-to-machine communication is already here, with sensors in flower pots triggering automatic waterers, but its scale will become much greater.

Finally, the growth of personal identities online will see us all targeted for goods and services much more than we are currently. The "social graph", by which Facebook already knows our connections to other people and our interests, is only the beginning.

Some have privacy concerns, or worry that economic changes will mean we'll all become overly reliant upon the web. But for now, at least, most users will judge that the benefits, from banking to gaming and from education to entertainment, remain far greater than the risks.

Telegraph, London