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Monday, April 28, 2008

Future Web Trends

William Goldman, the Hollywood screenwriter who penned such screen classics as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “All the President’s Men” and “The Princess Bride” famously once said that when it comes to movies, “Nobody Knows Anything!”. What he meant by that was in Hollywood, no matter how experienced you are or how much market research you do, nobody knows when or where the Movie God is going to appear and sprinkle magic dust and make a movie a hit.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The same could be easily applied to technology. Take these oft-quoted predictions for example:

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." -
- Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

But a necessary and fundamental part of innovation is the ability to spot trends which involves a certain amount of prediction. Yes, those predictions may come back to haunt you…but if you’re right, you may have struck gold. So I've been mining the blogosphere and conference circuits for a handle on what those “in the know” predict as the “next big thing”.

So here we go:

Semantic Web
The Semantic Web is the next forecasted step in the web’s evolution as defined by its creator, Tim Berners-Lee. We sometimes forget that the World Wide Web was created as part of a research project by Mr. Berners-Lee at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. With the help of Robert Cailliau, and a young student staff, he implemented his invention in 1990, with the first successful communication between a client and server via the Internet on December 25 1990.

The Semantic Web is an extension of that original creation whereby the semantics of information and services on the web is defined, making it possible for the web to understand and satisfy the requests of people and machines to use the web. In effect, we are talking about an “intelligent” web which understands the meaning and potential use of the content, or as Berners-Lee himself describes it: computers "analyzing all the data on the Web ‚ the content, links, and transactions between people and computers."

The potential of this evolved web in terms of communications and commerce contradicts the idea that we are entering another bubble. In fact, it is more likely that we are heading into another period of aggressive innovation. In fact, Ireland – or more precisely, the Digital Enterprise Research Institute in Galway – is one of the leading lights in this area of research where the stated goal of its Semantic Web Cluster is “to develop the baseline technologies that will make data on the World Wide Web understandable to machines.” It’s research areas are particularly focused on ambient intelligence, digital libraries, online communities of professional and social networks and search engines that will answer questions rather than just provide links to possibly relevant information.

The Grid
Grid computing is a phrase which can have several meanings but generally relates to the concept of “distributed computing” whereby the hard work of processing data is not done on the client-side but rather distributed across a network or “Grid”. This sort of “utility” computing means that users can access much higher levels of processing power or specific application software when they need it.

The Grid @ CERN is one example of the innovative uses of Grid computing and springs from the necessity of dealing with huge the amounts of data which will emanate from the output of their Large Hadron Collider, the biggest scientific instrument in the world. When the Collider goes live this year, in an attempt to re-create the Big Bang within a laboratory environment, thousands of physicists around the world will start clamouring for access to the streams of data that will come out of the instrument.

The data will be a goldmine for finding traces of new exotic fundamental particles of matter, which in turn will tell physicists a lot more about how the Universe was formed and what its future might be. The data will be produced at about 10 Petabytes a year. That is more than 1000x the amount of information in book form printed every year around the world , and nearly 1% of all information that humans produce on the planet each year i.e. a LOT of information!

The only reasonable way to access this amount of information (actually, much more than this, since the cumulative data over more than a decade of operation will have to be stored) seems to be Grid technology. So CERN has taken a big gamble on Grid technology, and is pushing the technology forward in several ways, in order to make the 2008 LHC deadline.

The Attention Economy
As access to the internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous through a plethora of mobile devices, it is going to become increasingly difficult for television and radio broadcasters and print publishers to stand over their current model of advertising. To put it succinctly, the “television” doesn’t know who you are; the internet does. This is where the Attention Economy comes in.

Quite simply it is the concept of a marketplace where consumers agree to receive services in exchange for their attention – much like the way television broadcasters foist adverts on viewers. However, in this case the consumer has choice in regards to the services and the advertising is personalized for them. A win/win situation for all involved. However, it’s development is plagued at present by issues of privacy such as those that beset Facebook when they launched their Beacon initiative. Basically, the Beacon application shared purchasing information with friends in the network – a sort of “peer marketing” exercise that ended in disaster when Facebook informed one users fiancé that he had purchased a ring for her online. Sort of spoiled the surprise!

Virtual Worlds
We've discussed Virtual Worlds in previous posts and so it is hardly surprising that I'm still bullish about this particular trend. But it is breathtaking how quickly and vibrantly this sector is developing.

With the Chinese government rolling out a Cyber Recreation District outside Beijing solely dedicated to virtual world environments (with a platform courtesy of the Swedish company, MindArk), Asia is certainly taking the lead in this particular area. One need only look at the explosive growth of Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games in Korea to see how as the 'young generation' grows up and infrastructure is built out, virtual worlds will become a vibrant market all over the world over the next 10 years. The newer applications of virtual worlds (or 3D Internet as IBM like to call it) are not so much about living in a virtual reality as opposed to bringing the virtual into your own reality.

Mobile Web
Is this a trend? Do we not all have mobiles with internet access? Well, we thought we did until the iPhone came along. Yes, it took Apple to shake the mobile phone industry out of its dull lethargy in the same way they did with the music industry. What we are going to see now are many more location-aware services available via mobile devices; such as getting personalized shopping offers as you walk through your local shopping centre, downloading applications for everything from fitness mentoring to recipes on the fly.

The iPhone
The revolutionary iPhone UI is the one that brought the web to the fingertips and will open the door to a whole range of innovations. As Apple’s Software Developer Kit and Google’s open platform mobile OS Android gets in the hands of an army of global amateur developers, we will see an explosion in mobile applications and mash-ups “pimping” our handsets.

Other notable trends that we don’t have time to go into here include the following:

Artificial Intelligence: That old science fiction gem, Artificial Intelligence (check out Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Independent film-making: As digital video empowers more and more film-makers, as writers digest the studio deal with the Writer’s Guild and as the internet becomes embedded into more and more devices, things look even brighter for independent film-making globally. (Check out

Personalisaton: We don’t mean that old cookie-powered trick of having your name at the top of the website you visit. We mean RSS news feeds, on demand video, music and text, personalized advertising and services created just for you. (Check out

posted by Neil Leyden @ 5:50 p.m.


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