You can learn a lot from the history of war—even the future of the Web.
In 1942, the U.S. and its allies were in full retreat from the greatest over-the-water offensive in history. The combined forces of the Japanese military had succeeded in pushing the Allies back to the very shores of Australia—which became the Japanese Empire's next target. The Allies knew that if Australia fell to the Japanese, the Pacific would be lost, the chances of mounting a counteroffensive would be zilch, and we would all be eating sushi under a Rising Sun. Without going into too much detail, the U.S. Navy broke the Japanese code, discovered their intentions, overpowered the invasion force—and the Japanese lost 25 ships, halting their offensive in the South Pacific. That event came to be known as the Battle of the Coral Sea.
You're probably asking yourself what this has to do with the World Wide Web. Well, hold on to your mouse. I'm getting to that.
You see, the Battle of the Coral Sea was historic not just because of the U.S. victory—but how it was won. It was fought entirely in the air, by opposing carrier-based aircraft. The two fleets never saw each other!
Sort of the way interaction on the Web will be in the future.
What do I mean? Let's take online shopping as an example. In the not-so-distant future, shoppers and merchants will conduct a purchase on the Web in the same way that the two opposing naval forces did in the Coral Sea. The U.S. and Japanese navies dispatched planes to engage the enemy. In the future, shoppers will dispatch personal software agents to engage merchants—and vice versa.
Here's how it will work. You wake up one morning with a desperate need to shop the Web. You boot your personal shopping agent and send it out onto the Net armed with instructions to find a certain product at a certain price under certain terms and conditions. Out on the Net, the personal shopping agent finds a corresponding merchant's selling agent. The shopping agent presents the shopper's request and offer, negotiates the price and terms with the selling agent, and completes the purchase. Shopper and merchant have no direct contact with each other. The shopper never had to visit a merchant's Web site.
Here's an example. It's early Monday morning. Before Stephanie leaves for work, she programs her personal shopping agent to look for an anniversary gift for her parents, by filling out the following form:
Product Description: Anniversary gift for my parents from their daughter.
Consumer Description: Couple, male 55, female 53, good health, love to travel, dine out, contemporary homeowners.
Price Range: US$90–175
Options: Thumbnail photo
Consider: Crystal, pewter, art, collectibles
Consider Not: Furniture, clothes
Terms & Conditions: Money-back guarantee, toll-free #, return policy, delivery time, shipping and handling fees, online security information
Stephanie hits "Send" and her agent takes off for the Web while Stephanie takes off for work.
On the Web, her personal shopping agent is diligently filling Stephanie's request. In its travels, her agent "meets" a selling agent from Contemporary Gifts. Their selling agent informs Stephanie's agent that it can fulfill its request for an anniversary gift for her parents—a hand-blown crystal vase from Venice. The shopping agent and selling agent negotiate the price, terms, and conditions, and finalize the purchase using Stephanie's shipping information and credit card number.
Deal done—and without the shopper or merchant being in direct contact with each other. And, by the way, without the need of a merchant Web site.
It doesn't end with shopping. Netizens will use current and future software and technologies to remotely find and engage other Net users and information. This engagement at a distance will be the death knell for what we call "Web sites" today—and in the process will create a new Web of the future.
People think that the Internet and the World Wide Web are the same thing. They're not. In fact, in the future, viewing Web pages from a personal computer will be only one way—and a very small way at that—of finding information and interacting on the Net. Sure, the Net can carry Web pages, but it can carry much more—in fact, it can carry just about anything that can be digitized.
Internet radio is a good example of the non-necessity of Web sites. Sure, you can access a Web page on the Net and download a music file onto your PC. But that's so last century! A company called Kerbango now makes a stand-alone Internet radio. It finds Net radio stations on the Web using its own software and then allows you to play the stations through its Net-enabled radio. Real Audio's Real Player is another example. When you use Real Player or its video counterpart, you're not visiting a Web page with your browser; you're using a non-browser program to access audio and video files—and play them—from the Net.
HTML, the technology used to build most Web sites, is not the tool to use on Internet-enabled devices and appliances. HTML is a hard code to parse, and the current browser technology doesn't readily adapt to the tiny screens of mobile Internet-enabled devices such as cell phones and PDAs.
Here's an even better example of the browser's diminishing importance. Chat rooms accessed through your Web browser was the old way of interacting with others on the Web. ICQ, AOL, and MSN Instant Messaging is the new way—removing the need to browse the Web. And even though these technologies don't require a browser, they do require that you access a server to obtain the information they offer.
But that too will change. The new peer-to-peer networking technology such as Gnutella eliminates the need for accessing a central server at all. This ability of one Internet-enabled device to engage another opens the door to something even more interesting. A company called Roku has created software that turns your PC into a mini server. With their software, you can access your PC from anywhere in the world. You could retrieve your email from a Web enabled phone, send email from your cell phone with attached files from your PC, even access MP3 files and play them on your Internet-enabled PDA or phone.
Electronic Arts is taking this trend to perhaps its highest level. Its Majestic is tagged as "the game that plays you." Instead of just playing the game on your PC, the game engages you by leaving clues to the games' mystery in your email, through instant messaging, phone calls, faxes, and someday even your TV—contacting you every which way. Every communication device you own becomes part of the game!
The World Wide Web will soon live up to its name. No longer will we be tied down in front of a PC, using a Web browser to enjoy the benefits of the Net. The new Web will be ubiquitous, always accessible, and always "on." People will be online everywhere—in hotel rooms, on airplanes, in lobbies, conventions, at work and at play, and everywhere in between.
Brave New World? Not Quite
There's a fly in the digital ointment. In fact, there are three of them. Their names are spam, privacy, and security.
In keeping with U.S. federal decree, the position of every new cell phone must be able to be located within 100 yards. That distance will be shortened to 100 feet if the federal government has its way.
What does this mean to you? Spam!
Picture this. You just came off your flight and are headed for the baggage claim area. You pass the snack shop and your phone rings. It's the snack shop, offering you the special of the day. You walk on and pass the parade of rental car counters. Your cell phone beeps and an instant message pops up on your screen, offering you an exclusive discount on an Avis rental car. As you can imagine, this kind of personal intrusion is already happening. Cell phone users in Phoenix recently got spammed by a mortgage company offering low home-refinancing rates.
As annoying as that is, it can get worse.
When peer-to-peer technology arrives on wireless devices such as cell phones, you could easily set up a virtual private network between friends and family. You can stay in touch with the latest news, plan events, and swap private information—all over your own private network—but so can unwanted guests such as computer hackers. You see, the Internet was built as an open system. Great for the idealist who wants to exchange information free from the shackles of centralized information systems. But to a person responsible for the soundness of a network, it's a security nightmare.
It's a lot easier to build a secure system first, locking out everyone and everything, and then open carefully controlled holes to the system that allow access. But the Internet wasn't built that way. It was built as an open system first, free of security blocks that later had to be added piecemeal. Now security and privacy professionals have quite a challenge on their hands: how to make a system built on open access secure enough for commerce and protecting individual privacy. And that will not be easy.
The World Wide Web as we know it today is dead. The new Web is just being born.