The Ever-Evolving Net
TR: How can the Internet be changed to make it a better tool for business and commerce?
CERF: Well, there is nothing in the present structure of the Internet that isn’t friendly to commercial transactions. Dell Computer reports sales of $6 million a day on their site, while Cisco Systems reports $2 billion per year on their own. Also, corporations are spending billions of dollars to create private intranets as a way to increase efficiency. Mass consumer spending on the Web seems to be in the early stages of lift-off. One very visible example is bookseller Amazon.com, which recently reported quarterly revenues of $66 million. That company grew to 700 employees in less than a year.
TR: What have you found most gratifying about the way the Internet has evolved over the years?
CERF: When I began my work, I was happy just to have packets travel successfully between points on the network. We didn’t realize that we were developing a blank canvas that future technologists would paint upon with such broad and bold strokes. For instance, while we did do tests in the 1970s with transmitting audio and video, I never dreamed what we’ve seen develop over just the past few years. Today, in fact, we’re seeing many types of media-most notably radio-being reborn on the Internet.
TR: Do you see lessons from innovations past to guide those who strive to refine the Internet today?
CERF: Look at the telephone. The underlying technology has advanced radically over the decades, but in one crucial aspect-the user interface-it has barely changed at all since the 19th century. So I think the most important technological innovations we will see with the Internet will be the ones that devise new interfaces to older services that are richer and easier to use than the simple but constrained interface of the telephone today. Of course, if we are successful with speaker-independent voice recognition, we may find a kind of renaissance in the use of voice as an interface to complex services.
TR: Put yourself 10 years in the future. What is it about the Internet in 1998 that will seem the most quaint?
CERF: The idea of having to dial a phone to make a temporary Internet connection-which is the way many people use the Net today-will seem pretty odd. We’re going to evolve to the point where network access is provided like electricity-in other words, always on. Today, we use a circuit switch (telephone) to get to a packet switch (the Internet). In the future, we’ll use a packet switch to get to a circuit switch-if we need the circuit switch at all.
TR: The Internet has gone from obscurity to near ubiquity in less than five years. That pace can’t be sustained, can it?
CERF: Well, we are a long way from ubiquity. Only about 40 percent of all U.S. households have Internet access. In other parts of the world, the penetration is considerably less. Besides, nothing happens overnight-it only seems to. The Internet today is a result of many thousands of people devoting their entire careers to moving network technology forward, step by incremental step. When the Internet burst into the public consciousness, it was the culmination of a process that began in the 1960s. Looked at that way, the rate of change isn’t necessarily unsustainable.