What Is The Future Of The Internet?

[UPDATED 4/5/10 @ 3:30pm - Reflects Google's asking of FCC to ensure universal access]

This website launched, fittingly, the same day as the iPad. This “magical and revolutionary device” is supposedly heralding a new era of computing. While it may help the dying newspaper and magazine industry see a renaissance, it remains to be seen how it affects mobile platforms like commerce, academic sharing, and media usage. This article is not about the iPad though. Just like the invention of the keyboard, mouse, touch screen, and quad-core processors, the iPad is just another link in the chain. So as we watched someone throw a one-day-old iPad into a blender, we pondered the question:

What is the future of the internet?

This question has already been posed by Prof. Jonathan Zittrain (@zittrain) of Harvard Law School and the Berkman Center in a compelling book titled “The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It.” While we don’t plan on offering a book review or getting into the tremendous detail that JZ got into, we do think it’s important to point out this great book and recommend that you download it (for free) through the book’s website. The book is distributed through a Creative Commons license, which brings us to a simple theory:

Information Will Be Free, or at least Cheap

Despite the best efforts by the MPAA, RIAA, councils, and companies who have a vested interest in charging as much as possible for media, the internet seems to be headed in the direction of becoming a level playing field. Whether you’re a musician looking to get your first album distributed, programmer with a great application that no one knows about (yet), it’s not going to be much longer until the playing field is not only even… it’s tilting in your favor.

Ever seen a blockbuster (Read: very popular movie that has sold out for multiple weeks) movie that has a few title sequences that show company logos like Miramax, 20th Century Fox, or Warner Bros.? What about a blockbuster movie that was created by a very small company you never heard of? You’re finally starting to see this happen as distribution channels begin to open and movie theaters start listening to the masses rather than executives. For example, the film Paranormal Activity became a sensation online thanks to a chilling trailer, twitter buzz, and social media sharing of information bout the film. The movie wasn’t made by one of the major companies with millions to spend on advertising. Instead, Blumhouse Productions made Paranormal Activity and spent roughly $15,000 on production. As of April 2010, it has grossed nearly $200,000,000. It accomplished this because of two things:

  1. It was a good product.
  2. It built buzz over a long period of time.

Let’s examine these ideas:

1. It takes a quality product to achieve the kind of marketing success Paranormal Activity saw. This logic can be applied to the massively viral movie ‘Snakes On A Plane’ that was essentially marketed as being so bad it’s good. While the film hasn’t yet made it onto MST3K, it has not stood the test of time. DVD sales of Snakes On A Plane were nearly non-existent and the buzz wore off almost as soon as the film hit theaters. Since this was unabashedly bad product, there was very little staying power expected. However, a film like Paranormal Activity is ‘look away in terror’ scary and would be a great DVD to own. This secondary revenue stream was something missed out by Snakes On A Plane.

2. It takes time for something to become an online sensation. While events designed at creating buzz like Apple keynote addresses create nearly instant buzz on the internet, it takes weeks or months to get traction. Again, this falls back to the event actually being of high quality. People are not going to get excited about another JooJoo tablet but if Apple unveiled a new version of the iPad or iPhone, it’s going to be big because the product has been proven. Paranormal Activity did not develop buzz in just a few weeks or even months. The film was released on October 14, 2007 at Screamfest Film Festival, then screened on January 18, 2008 at Slamdance Film Festival, then saw a limited release on September 25, 2009, then finally had a nationwide release on October 16, 2009 due to popular demand online.

The internet isn’t free. It is cheap, though.

This article is not about Paranormal Activity, nor is it about Jonathan Zittrain’s book. It is instead about the medium used to facilitate these two examples. The internet is relatively cheap for the end-user. In most first-world nations, the internet can be obtained by purchasing a broadband connection or by taking a big risk and stealing wi-fi from a neighbor. Either way, this system will eventually be replaced by a nationwide wireless and broadband system such as the Google Fiber system currently under consideration. While this system is still at least a couple years away, the internet is by no means expensive like it was in the era of AOL where a user had to pay for every single minute they spent online. Can you imagine how costly it would be to not just read but actually write for a blog?

Long story short: the internet will continue to get easier to access, content will continue to expand, and the devices used to access it will continue to become more powerful. This means the trickle down effect of so much access in first-world countries could make it easier for places like Africa to get radio internet where they can use an OLPC laptop to access the same sites popular in the UK, US, and Asia. While it would take a massive investment in infrastructure to allow e-commerce to reach African nations, the dusty roads have already been built. Companies and government needs to now pave those dusty paths and allow for Africans to buy from Amazon and be able to select ‘Overnight Shipping.’ When this happens, globalization and modernization of countries will be at its apex. Just another example of how the internet is leveling the playing field.

Google is currently asking the FCC how it will use spectrum for mobile broadband and ensure universal access. The father of the internet, Vint Cerf poses the question in the Washington Post here. Read more about how he became the ‘Father of the Internet’ here

If the internet and its content were free, as the current trade winds are predicting, the number of available users would multiply. This is why it is in advertising companies’ best interest to lend a hand in creating a more open and low-cost / free internet. Unfortunately, this will take more than a few years to happen as the lobbies and power of Comcast, Verizon, Cox, and other providers are still a big part of legislation. Small steps have been taken (the nationwide digital upgrade for TVs) but it remains to be seen if companies can figure out a way to take advantage of the millions of new customers that would be gained from a free or cheap nationwide broadband network. While it would be an expensive undertaking in infrastructure, it would propel the United States (any other nation that can afford it, too) into the 21st century.

We hope that Geek Guidebook can help spur this type of thought process and discussion throughout the internet. That’s why we’re launching this simple logo with the hope that you include it in your website, blog, thoughts. It symbolizes the idea that the internet should be for everyone no matter what side of the spectrum they’re on. Enjoy and thanks for reading.