Take the telephone, for instance. After the printing press and the telegraph, the telephone was one of the biggest advances in communications mankind has ever seen. Few recall this date, but in 1891, Almon B. Strowger developed his "Strowger machine-switching system." Essentially, this system freed telephone users from operators -- from interaction with Ma Bell.
The era of "operated-assisted" calls was over. The telephone became faster and easier to use, and had greater privacy -- personal and business communication would forever be changed.
Just over a century later, we are on the cusp of a similar phenomenon. Today, most interactions with the Web are through a browser. "So what's wrong with that?" you say. "I fire up my browser, go to my stock trading site, banking site, and so on, and maybe click here to buy something. It works."
But just as talking to an operator for every call limited what you could do with the phone system, having to use a browser is limiting what can be done on the Web. And just as Ma Bell was in the midst of each phone call, so browser makers' brands are front and center in every experience on the Web.
Eclipsing the PC
But things are changing -- fast.
First, the PC will clearly no longer be the center of the technology universe. While today PCs make up 80 percent or 90 percent of Internet communications, the growth of wireless and pervasive products will reduce the number to less than 40 percent very quickly.
Europe, Asia and to some extent Latin America have already moved heavily in that direction. PCs are not going away -- in fact, PC growth will continue -- but the days of the PC and the Web browser being the primary means for people to access the Internet are over.
Second, emerging standards such as WSDL, SOAP, and UDDI will enable a new generation of "Web services," essentially allowing PCs or any of these wireless devices to communicate with multiple systems via the Internet. No longer locked into a single "Web site" and without the limitations of the browser, we'll see an explosion of truly customizable content with the look, feel and accessibility of the desktop or device.
For example, imagine tracking all your frequent-flyer points in a single application -- one that (if you are online) automatically goes to each of the airlines' Web sites, logs in your account number and password, and downloads the balance. And, if you are offline, still allows you to access and manipulate the data. All this with an application sitting on your desktop, looking and feeling like a Windows (or Linux) application, not like a browser.
Most people think of the Internet and the Web as being the same thing. They aren't. The Internet is the underlying communications network and the web is an application for retrieving pages and hyperlinking. There will be more and more applications that use the Internet and don't require a browser.
Instant-messaging applications are a good example. More recent is the emergence of peer-to-peer applications. We will see many applications being developed which look and feel like the native desktop but which utilize the Internet seamlessly in the background. They will operate offline and then update things the next time you connect. Individuals will no longer be shackled to the traditional browser model of the past.
We're only at the beginning of this new wave of innovation. Web-services creation tools, emerging standards and innovative ways to develop client code that connects to these Web services are going to trigger yet another wave of increasing Internet usage.
Certainly, the browser -- like our friendly operator -- will not cease to exist. What we may see, however, is a return to what it was originally intended for -- to "browse." Features in existing browsers will still make them the tool of choice for viewing content and data -- or just "surfing."
The Internet will again become the avenue for innovation of new tools and applications; let's enjoy the ride.
John R. Patrick is vice president for Internet technology with IBM Corp. Patrick joined IBM in 1967 and spent the first half of his career in various sales, marketing and management positions. He helped start IBM's leasing business at IBM Credit Corp. and was senior marketing executive for the launch of the IBM ThinkPad. He is a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and a member of the advisory boards of ThirdAge Media, space.com, IntraLinks, and Neoteny.