Renovating the online world

How academia and industry are jointly constructing the future web.

Once a network of machines, the Internet has long matured into a network of people. Now it needs to be fundamentally reconstructed to become a network of both people and machines.

Whether they are business partners collaborating in real-time across thousands of miles, e.g. video-conferencing from the Fijis as if they were sitting in the office next door, or whether it is the crowd on a virtual shopping trip around the world, sharing whatever info there is to share with like-minded followers, fans or friends—they all move, work, talk and play within the “matrix” of the all-pervasive Internet. Which question could be more relevant for both economy and society than the issue of how all of this is going to develop further—the future Internet, its technologies, applications, business models and the way they will change our lives. Again.

More than a minor upgrade

Internet traffic – Stephen G. Eick, Bell Laboratories

The web is predicted to grow from about 1.5 billion people hooked to mostly cable-connected desktop computers today to approximately 4 billion users in a genuinely mobile infrastructure within just a few years. However there will be even more machine devices than people, able to interact autonomously—the often quoted “Internet of Things” and “Internet of Services”. Goods will negotiate their own transport with the trucks available, and the odd vending machine will order its own supply when products are about to run out.

Such scenarios, in these two cases even already realised as prototypes, are being heavily investigated by researchers in every European country. The challenge lies deep in the neural network of a global nervous system which still runs on a technologically outdated infrastructure, originally designed in the 70’s and not really made for the new paradigms ahead. Many future applications will be too fast and too complex to run on a 40 year old system. A nervous breakdown, so to speak, would be the result of running the increasingly three-dimensional web on the old infrastructure.

The grand challenges are, above all, “knowledge instead of data” and “finding instead of searching”. Soon, there will not even be enough unique addresses left for all the networked devices in the world. Furthermore it has to be decided who should actually govern and manage the Internet and how privacy and security issues can best be dealt with.

The web is in for much more than a mere update. It will have to be and is going to be fundamentally reconstructed.

View from the top

“You could say that the Internet has become a victim of its own success,” says Mario Campolargois, Director of Emerging Technologies and Infrastructures at the European Commission. He is in charge of an extensive research initiative that was kick-started at a conference in March 2010. More than 90 projects are now addressing new and more holistic approaches to the future network architectures and service technologies. These projects are based on so-called “public and private partnerships” (PPP) between research and industry and represent a joint investment of about half a billion Euros. “Whereas our current Framework Program takes a medium to long-term perspective,” Mr. Campolargois explains, “we want to complement this with the PPPs in a shorter-term program that will bring more systematically the application and the supply side together.” The idea is to shorten time-to-market by involving potential users much earlier in the research process.

Though politically steered by the Commission and the EU member states, the PPP initiative is actually industrially driven with the aim of developing a new communication service platform which is meant to be generic, open and trusted. SMEs, in particular, will then be invited to develop applications on the basis of this platform.

The objectives of the initiative are as ambitious as the expected impact of the future internet itself. The economy, for instance, is to benefit from increased productivity and new services offering new dimensions of mobility and personalisation. A more open and interconnected innovation process is supposed to lead to products which are much closer to the needs of the users. The expected empowerment of citizens, already witnessed today through “web 2.0”, is supposed to make public services more efficient and user-friendly and blaze a trail for a more just and flexible access to knowledge and education.

In a few years time we will hopefully be able to say that the architects of the new web were not only reconstructing the system from Asia and the US but also significantly from Europe, thus providing the basic structure for continental industries to develop their future business within the future internet.

Alexander Gerber
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