The internet's future is out of this world

Vint Cerf on the limitless possibilities of the internet

In 2006 most people in the developed world would find it hard to imagine life without the internet; never before has a single technology become so central to our lives so quickly. Email, search, e-commerce, social networking sites — hundreds of millions of people use them every day. But the original internet was a very different world. Designed in 1973, the idea was to enable the US Defence Department to integrate computers into its command and control system. Of course, it was also immediately adopted by its academic developers for their own uses!

Many people often confuse the internet with the "web". In fact, the "web" — the pages you and I see when we are online — is one of many applications supported by the internet. Since the commercial availability of the internet in 1989, the percentage of the world's population going online has increased dramatically. Current estimates indicate that one-sixth of the world's population is now online. Given this level of growth, it is not beyond reality that we may see over three billion people online by 2010 — that's nearly half of the world's population!

This anticipated growth can be attributed to two main factors — mobile technology and the increased localisation of content. With approximately two and a half billion mobile users across the world (many more people than have access to a personal computer), the scope for internet access via the mobile is huge. It also gets around the problem of access to a fixed line, which in the developing world is often limited to the wealthy few in urban areas. According to estimates by the World Bank, more than two-thirds of the world's population lives within range of a mobile phone network.

But what really matters is local content and local services. There are currently around 22 million internet users in the Middle East and North Africa. We're now providing services like Gmail and Google News in Arabic, and we have other services in the pipeline. Of course a lot of the information on the web will still appear in languages such as English and Spanish. That is why we are investing in translation tools which, while not perfect (even our own!), do help Arabic speakers to make use of this content. The best way to make the internet more useful to particular language speakers is to include more content in these languages on the network. We hope that our Arabic speaking colleagues will respond to this need by contributing Arabic language material online.

I've heard people argue that the internet is controlled by the United States of America, and that it's yet another way of increasing that nation's influence and the hegemony of the English language. The vast expansion of local content made available by local ISPs suggests otherwise. Indeed, even the core technical architectures of the internet are decentralised and managed by local actors across the world. It is true that many of the top-level domain names that we are most familiar with (.com, .org, .net) are handled by registries incorporated in the United States. But country-level domains such as .uk, .eg and .mx are handled by locally-based, locally-governed internet organisations. The second-largest top-level domain is .de (Germany) with 10 million registrants. All registries are overseen — not controlled — by ICANN, the self-regulatory coordinating body that ensures proper representation across all countries.

Ninety-nine percent of the internet's infrastructure is controlled by private entities and organisations, and at the end of the day local content tends to be of most interest to internet users. So every organisation, American or otherwise, has an interest in providing services in lots of languages if it wants to make the most of the opportunities the internet offers.

The rate at which the internet is developing shows that we will be in for some very exciting times over the next decade. My personal opinion is that the future lies with the devices and applications that will be able to take advantage of "always on" connectivity. Household, car and office appliances will be online 24/7, providing greater integration into our digital lives.

Another area I've made some forecasts about is the "interplanetary internet". This is now very much a reality. I expect that the next Mars landing will carry the Interplanetary Internet Protocol suite on board to improve our ability to transfer data between planets.

One thing is for sure: internet users and service providers are constantly inventing new and creative ways to make use of the ocean of information flowing into and out of the internet daily, whether on this planet or another one.

Biography: Vinton Gray Cerf is chief internet evangelist at Google and was the co-designer of TCP/IP protocols and basic architecture of the internet