The Internet at Forty

Internet outineIt was forty years ago. The year 1969 might be remembered for the moon landing or Woodstock, but this month, September 1969, forty year have passed since the beginning of the most disruptive technology of our times – the Internet.

From being a research experiment lead by a group of scientists, the network has turned into a global media, social and entertainment network causing all sorts of disruptions along the way. Despite many predictions that the network will fail as it grows, the Internet has scaled remarkably well, now hosting some 1.6 billion users, and with the rise of netbooks, smartphones and cloud computing the usage will only increase. But, given the potentials, the Internet is still in its early stages and yet it is outdated and needs to be reinvented.

The success of the Internet is in its design. Let’s look at some design points. Firstly, the Internet is relatively simple. The designers did not complicate the network with authentication or security issues. They just built a simple network that routes data. It is a perfect example of how the simple wins.

Secondly, built at the dawn of the Cold War, the designers built the network to be robust and flexible in case of a nuclear attack. If one host would go down, the rest of the network would still function. There was no central point, the network is decentralized.

Thirdly, it is package switched as opposed to being circuit switched. The idea is to break data, such as an email message into packages and send each of the packages over the network.

Fourthly, it is generic. The data flowing though the network is all the same, there is no specific type of data. There is no “email package” or “movie package”. They all equal and they are all the same. This is the most significant contributor to the success of the network. Anybody can invent and implement a new protocol on the network, publish it and get people to adopt it. With this openness, the innovations kept coming. Email, FTP, Usenet, HTTP and so on. Open platforms tend to win.

However, forty years later, as usage patterns are changing, several inefficiencies are being exposed. The world was different forty years ago. Content such as music and films were not digital and the network speed did not allow content to be transferred between sites so easily. Today, music and films are being streamed over the network. Music sites like Rhapsody and TV stations like Hulu are Internet based. The network was not built for this and this has exposed how inefficient it really is. Consider a low quality movie of 700 MB. This movie will be placed in 6,250,000 packages and if it is routed through 14 hosts, opening a package will occur 87,500,000 times!

In contrast to proprietary networks like CompuServ, the designers of the Internet were not trying to build a commercial service that could be used to start a company. They were solving some technical problem using brilliantly simple ideas.

Today, the Internet cannot only be improved; it is under attack by those that want to control it more. All technologies that become mainstream and successful find themselves controlled by policymakers and anybody with an opinion. Due to the lack of authentication and security, the Internet has to put up with anti-social behavior and security attacks. Gone are the days when respect and ethics kept people in line. Now all sorts of social problems find a new channel in the Internet, causing critics to blame the net itself for the behavior of individuals.

Although we take the Internet for granted, we are now at the end of the current Internet in two ways. First, the technology is likely to change with new networks adding layers of trust and efficiency on top of the current infrastructure. Secondly, the debate over network neutrality will end with either controlled Internet policed by governments or the policy makers and businesses adapt to the new rules determined by the new channel. Some say the former outcome equals the death of the Internet.

This Internet is one of the most disruptive technologies of current times. In just few years, this network has invaded most areas of societies and changed the way people work and live. This network of computers has also created a new functionality and created new business opportunities. Forty years old, and currently going through some mid-life crises, if the network prevails, the best years are yet to come.

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