Tale of Two Tapestries
TR: In some ways, the Internet seems to be displacing the telephone network.
CERF: Think of the Internet and the Plain Old Telephone System, or POTS, as two tapestries hanging side by side. The Internet is dynamic and flourishing, while the phone system is venerable, ubiquitous, and reliable. Now imagine if we take these tapestries apart and reweave them together one strand at a time so the two are indistinguishable from one another. That’s the future we’re heading toward.
TR: I thought the Internet and telephone system coexisted pretty well right now. Data, voice, and video already share the same lines.
CERF: Yes, indeed, they travel over the same beloved fiber optic lines. What we don’t have in place yet, though, are technologies that get POTS and the Internet to work invisibly and in concert, delivering the integrated services that the communications revolution has always promised but has yet to deliver.
TR: I still don’t understand what exactly is lacking in the present system. From my desk at MIT I can make a phone call, send a fax, check my e-mail, and surf the Web-all pretty much simultaneously.
CERF: Yes, but integration will provide more seamless interaction. You could have a universal, multimedia “in-box” that can accept e-mail, voice mail, video mail, and faxes. That’s not going to happen until the Internet and the phone system are blended better. By the year 2010, more than half of all voice traffic will be traveling over packet-switched networks. But for the great majority of users, placing a voice call over the Internet will be no different than placing a phone call today.
TR: What will we be able to do that we can’t do now?
CERF: Say you’re catalog shopping on the Web and you’d like to ask a specific question about a product you’d like to buy. Already, we’re seeing applications that would let you make that call using the same Internet connection you are using to view the page. It might also allow integrated messaging, so that your pager alerts you when a particularly important e-mail arrives in your in-box. Services like these are being introduced for the corporate marketplace now. What will be really exciting is when they become available for widespread consumer use.