The Future of the Internet
Will the Web have a place in a world full of apps?
This essay is part of Farhad Manjoo's continuing series on the future of innovation. Read the series introduction, Manjoo's story on the future of mobile gadgets, and readers' predictions on the future of mobile devices.
Your devices' deeper integration with the Internet will change your life even if you don't do a lot of processor-intensive tasks. One of my favorite ideas about the future of computing is the notion of the "continuous client"—Joshua Topolsky's view that when we move from gadget to gadget, the stuff we're doing on one machine should travel with us. If you've got Slate and a spreadsheet open on your office computer when you leave for the day, the same windows should show up on your laptop at home, too. Right now, different companies are working on different aspects of this problem. Google's Chrome OS, which stores all data online, currently offers the most advanced implementation of the continuous client, but it's far from perfect. I suspect that continuity will be one of the main areas of interface innovation over the next few years. You'll use a plethora of gadgets made by different companies, but you'll pick up right where you left off as you flit from one to the next.
There is, of course, a huge question mark dangling over the network-enabled future I'm describing. This future depends on fast and ubiquitous broadband, which, in the oligopolistic American telecom market, isn't guaranteed to happen soon. Over the next few years, major American mobile carriers will adopt faster "4G" wireless Internet systems—but will they be fast, cheap, and reliable enough to spur the sort of innovation I'm describing? I don't know. Honestly, I'm pessimistic.
But even if the United States doesn't take part in this revolution, it's still going to happen. South Korea is working on a plan to increase its wired broadband speeds to 1 gigabit per second by the end of 2012, and it's aiming for wireless speeds of 10 megabits per second. These are roughly 10 times as fast as American broadband speeds. And it's not just South Korea; pretty much every other industrialized country has better broadband than we do. It's a scary thing to contemplate: If the network is the computer, and we don't have the network—what do we have?
What do you think—am I being too pessimistic about American broadband, or too optimistic about how the Internet will revolutionize our gadgets? Let me know your thoughts on the future of the Internet in the comments below. I'll discuss your ideas in a future column.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.