Networks of the future

Networks of the future

Think back 10 years. The World Wide Web didn't exist. The notion that you could do business over the Internet was ludicrous. There was no HTML, no browser, no Java.

For that matter, there was no Windows operating system, there were no laptops or PDAs, no Fast Ethernet (never mind Gigabit), no frame relay or ATM, no DSL or cable modems. The big news in 1989 was the introduction of the 33MHz chip, 16Mbps token ring and fractional T-1s. If you could have predicted in 1989 all that's happened in the 10 years since, you'd be far ahead of the game today.

With that idea in mind, we assembled an all-star group of forward thinkers to help paint a picture of the corporate network of 2009. In the stories that follow, you'll find out what futurists, leading lights at major research labs, technology shapers at established vendors and innovative startups, and strategists at major user companies expect will be the big trends of the next decade. Along with their predictions, the team offers concrete recommendations that will help you prepare for the years ahead.

To make sure you don't get blindsided by technological shifts, we asked leading technology pundits and futurists, people who make a living thinking and writing about technology, to identify five major trends that will shape the industry over the next decade. No one can predict the future, but these folks are paid big money to try. What follows are their insights.

1) Decline of the desktop

Futurists argue that the pendulum has already begun swinging away from the PC and back toward the server, reversing the tide of the PC revolution, which shifted power from the mainframe to the desktop.

'It's fair to say we may have peaked in terms of how much is going to get loaded on the desktop,' says Peter Huber, a lawyer, author and telecommunications specialist who writes a regular column for Forbes magazine. PCs certainly won't disappear.

But 10 years from now, people will be using lots of other types of computing devices along with desktops, including handhelds and even miniature 'wearable' computers.

Data storage and synchronisation, plus more advanced features such as scheduling, is likely to occur at centralised server farms that connect the corporate office and remote workers via broadband links.

Paul Saffo, director of the California-based Institute for the Future, goes along with that vision: 'The PC-centric order is tottering and definitely giving way to something new. You can feel the centre of gravity moving inexorably toward something where OS-based desktop PCs are becoming steadily less important.' Conversely, he says, IP networks will become steadily more important.

The concept of monolithic, PC-based applications for functions such as human resources and accounting will give way to a more dynamic notion of a toolkit for a particular task, Saffo predicts. Employees will be able to pick and choose from a menu of specific software tools to complete a particular project. Some of those tools will live on the desktop, but others will live on the network.

Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and industry pundit, argues that 10 years from now, PCs will be the exception rather than the rule, 'with Wintel machines only a bit more important than punched cards today'. He sees PCs being knocked off their perch by network computers, Internet appliances (which would include anything from telephone-like devices to televisions), and non-desktop computers, such as enterprise servers and wearable computers.

2) The Internet will rule

Ten years from now, at least half of all business transactions will take place online, predicts Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in print-to-speech reading machines and speech recognition technology.

Issues such as security, authentication and quality of service (QoS) will all have been solved, says Internet guru Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings in New York. The Internet will be 'the basis of everything', she says.

The distinctions between intranets, extranets, the public Internet and corporate nets will disappear. 'In 10 years, it's safe to say, corporate networks will have fused with the Internet,' Metcalfe says.

David Isenberg, a former Bell Labs engineer who is now an independent consultant, goes even further, arguing that the current Internet may someday be superseded by what he calls the 'stupid network'. Isenberg says current efforts to add QoS features to the Internet are misguided because they are based on the notion that bandwidth is in short supply and needs to be managed and conserved. His view is that through technological advances, bandwidth will become abundant and inexpensive.

When that happens, Isenberg predicts, a new, stupid network may develop that has no QoS features and simply moves bits, with all of the intelligence residing on the end user's device. In his scenario, the QoS-based Internet will be used for established applications, but the stupid network is where innovation will occur.

3) It's a wide, wide wireless world

Up to now, wireless has gone pretty much nowhere. Ten years from now, it will be everywhere. Constant wireless connectivity will be taken for granted, Dyson predicts. Arno Penzias, former chief scientist at Bell Labs and current venture capitalist, concurs. Employees will be able to work from home, hotels, roadside rest areas, or wherever they happen to be, and tunnel into the corporate net through virtual private networks, he says.

Most landline telecommunications will be replaced by wireless communications that will include high-resolution moving images, Kurzweil predicts. Wireless will allow people scattered all over the world to easily conduct meetings. Corporate travel will plummet.

The convergence of video, voice and data will have taken place, and consumers will be able to download books, movies and television and radio signals to their portable communications devices over broadband wireless links.

4) Computers will be everywhere

By 2009, you'll be walking around with maybe a dozen tiny computers on your body. They will be embedded in your clothes, in your watch and in your earrings. These tiny computers, many with specialised features such as high-resolution displays, speech or speech-recognition capabilities, will be linked together into a body LAN.

You might wear a pin that contains a personal identification chip that will allow you to use an ATM machine or get through the front door at work. The navigation systems now being installed in cars could be included in your new watch. Your jogging shorts may come equipped with tiny computers that monitor your heart rate and notify you if you're starting to overdo it.

You'll probably be wearing a tiny computer that allows you to surf the Web. Communications devices such as pagers and cellular phones will be miniaturised. Another computer may keep track of your daily schedule. All of these devices could be linked to an earpiece that delivers voice messages and to eyeglasses that display text.

Your home will be even more well equipped. The average household will have more than 100 computers, Kurzweil predicts, and each house will have its own server. Computers embedded in security cameras, motion detectors, lights, alarm clocks, heating and cooling systems, refrigerators, microwaves, communications devices, PCs, televisions and VCRs could all be linked to the server. You could be at work, connect to your home server and control all of those devices remotely.

This may seem far out, but the futurists are convinced it's only a matter of time. 'I think we all agree that networked appliances will be untethered and extraordinarily compact,'' Penzias says.

Need proof? Stanford University computer science professor Vaughan Pratt earlier this year created a Web server the size of a matchbox using off-the-shelf components. It uses a wireless modem to connect to the Internet and connects to a display that is viewed using special glasses.

There is seemingly no limit to the practical applications of wearable devices. According to Neil Gershen-Feld, who co-directs the Things That Think research consortium, airline mechanics are starting to wear computers linked to display glasses so they can read from a repair manual while keeping both hands free.

Pratt predicts that in 10 years, wearable computers will be common in the business world to support applications for which people now use personal digital assistants - planning and scheduling, reporting and information exchange.

Saffo adds that the proliferation of inexpensive analog sensors, based primarily on MicroElectro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology, will allow networks to collect all kinds of information. Imagine that every fryolater at McDonald's has sensors that monitor how well the fries are being cooked and report back to a central server dedicated to quality assurance.

Saffo says these analog sensors will pave the way toward incredible manufacturing efficiencies, mass customisation of goods and 'consumer connectivity like you never imagined'.

5) Convergence of man and machine

Today, people and computers inhabit parallel uni-verses: people live in a sensory-rich, physical, analog world; computers live in a deaf, dumb and blind digital world.

'That's going to change,' Saffo predicts. 'We're going to put eyes, ears and sensory organs on our computers and our networks in absolutely unprecedented ways. We're going to ask them to observe and manipulate the physical world on our behalf'.

By 2009, Kurzweil predicts, computers will come with built-in video cameras and will be able to identify their owner by face. Advanced speech recognition software will be commonplace, and the majority of text will be created by humans talking to their computers rather than typing.

The graphical user interface will be replaced by the LUI, a language user interface. When talking to their computers, Kurzweil says, people will interact with 'an animated personality', or a simulated person.

But, if all this sounds overwhelming, Pratt offers this bit of advice: 'Relax, the changes aren't going to come all at once.'

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