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What will it look like?

by Scott Bradner

The beginning of a new year, decade, and century seems to get us pundits looking back to history while at the same time trying to predict the future and I am not immune. I started writing this column in January 1993. The networking world was a very different place at that time. I doubt that many, if any, observers in those days could have predicted the Internet of today or the push towards the convergence of telecommunications technologies that seems to be on the near horizon.

In the early days of this column I spent time justifying an interest in the Internet in the face of the prevailing opinion that it was going to be replaced by something real. Newsweek & Time both said so in big cover stories on the national information infrastructure (NII). I also got admonished by the editors of this publication for spending too much time on this toy.

It’s a bit different today with Time giving its Man of the Year award to's Jeff Bezos for changing the basic nature of the retail business and the Internet figuring prominently in Newweek's predictions for the next century. Few now doubt the impact of the Internet.

But it's still a mysterious and worrisome thing to many including Tomas Nolle in the Dec 20th issue of NWW who seems not to quite get it that the Internet is international.

I think that two things enabled the Internet to become what it has become: the end-to-end model and the lack of governmental regulations. The end-to-end model in the Internet means that data flows between end systems without anything special happening in the middle. In particular you and I can come up with a new application and try it out over the Internet without having to get anyone's permission. And the lack of government regulations which inevitably come along with rules on what one can and can not do (in the name of increasing reliability for example) permits these experiments to continue.

But the Internet is getting too important in too many people's minds. Too important to be left to the technical people and to the entrepreneurs. So governments will step in to help make sure the Internet succeeds and thus may seriously reduce the chances that it might.

Arthur C. Clark observed that any significantly advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Today's Internet would be close to magic when viewed from as recently as January 1993. I hope that the Internet of 2010 is as magical when viewed from here. I predict it will be if governments don't help too much and compromise the end-to-end model with too much regulation but I fear they will.

I should have a more positive attitude at the start of a new century but I don't.

disclaimer: Harvard does not have formal opinions on centuries so the above is my own pessimism.