Father of Internet offers forecast

Vinton Cerf, who could claim to have invented the Internet without becoming a national punch line, recently offered an optimistic view of the online future – as well as sharing a look back at the ‘Net’s remarkable growth.

In 1973, Cerf helped create the Internet Protocol that links the threads of the Internet. The protocol assigns combinations of numbers to sites on the Internet. He reflected on the growth of that “huge network of networks” at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences here recently.

Cerf, now the chief executive of WorldCom Inc., has helped develop four other versions of IP, each broadening the number of possible network connections as the previous protocol language ran out of combinations. IP version 6, which is in development, will contain 28 bits of address space, he said.

Cerf joked that “while I can’t guarantee that will be enough,” he estimates that 28 bits falls “just short” of being enough to house an address for every star in the Milky Way.

“After that, I’ll be dead and somebody else can worry about it,” he said.

Cerf also said that the way things are going now, an “intergalactic Internet” is not out of sight. Then he got more serious, dropping the hyperbole but sharing some stunning statistics:

-In June 1997, there were 22.5 million host computers and 50 million Internet users worldwide.

-In January 2001, there were 115 million hosts and 573 million users.

-By the end of this decade, there will be 2.2 billion users worldwide, Cerf predicts.

However, the annual growth rate has slowed from 80 per cent to 40 per cent in the past three years, with the telecom industry in particular feeling the pinch of a tight economy, he noted.

This trend may be a trough, Cerf said, noting that cellular and digital phones have maintained a healthier growth rate and established a higher penetration rate: Half of all U.S. consumers use wireless devices such as Palms, pagers, and cell phones, while slightly more than one-third access the Internet.

The development of cell phones that also provide pager and e-mail services, as well as video games that facilitate competition between players in different homes, foreshadows a far-reaching integration of information and communication technology in “next-generation Internet,” Cerf suggests.

Surfing on US$300 consumer devices has possibilities, and Cerf has a few suggestions. For example, much of the fun of playing video games comes from talking to friends and watching their reactions, he said, so why not add small microphones and cameras to the videogame?

Game pieces could even be connected to televisions, he said, so players “could see and hear and shoot each other, which sounds like a pretty good videoconference.” Businesses could use the improved devices for videoconferences, too. “That way, if it gets boring we can just play the video game,” he said.

As for more mundane online devices, Cerf predicted scales that will report your weight not only to your online medical file, but also to the refrigerator; and “Internet-enabled socks” that can find their lost mates.

But Cerf warns of a dire side effect to such clothes-tracking devices. “If a guy called home to tell his wife, ‘I’m working late tonight,’ she could say, ‘Well that’s funny, ’cause your shirt’s in the bar on 15th Street.'”

He also issued a caveat about constraints on the rapid progress that is possible online. Wider-reaching applications will require more broadband access, he said, but network economics and regulatory policies make expanding the broadband a slow process.