What will rule the "new" Internet?

Examining the role of Google, Facebook and Apple’s iPhone

Exploring the impact Google, Facebook and Apple's iPhone will have on the Internet, along with what economic models will rule.

Josh Quittner, writing in Time recently, explored what vendor -- Google, Apple or Facebook -- will be the next great Internet platform. It is quite a good article, but Quittner only addresses part of the conflict that is determining what tomorrow’s Internet will look like.

Quittner’s article, titled "Who Will Rule The New Internet," examines the relative openness of the different vendors’ Internet platforms and what the impact of the openness, or perceived lack of it, might have. The platforms discussed include Facebook’s F8 open development platform, Google’s Android open handset operating system and OpenSocial common API for social applications, and Apple’s iPhone and its software development kit.

There is little question that all of these are and, more importantly, will be, some of the key technologies over the next few years.

Particularly germane this week is the iPhone since the next generation of it was announced Monday at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference. Quittner, as most observers have done, gushes over the iPhone while mentioning that it is the most closed of the platforms. It is also something, as Quittner mentions, that Harvard Visiting Professor Jonathan Zittrain addresses far more starkly in his new book "The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It"  and addressed at the 10th anniversary of Harvard’s Berkman Center For Internet and Society.

I do not view the iPhone with quite as much worry as Zittrain does (read "iPhone plus SDK: promise, threat and limits") -- it would be hard to -- but the initial closed model will need to get fixed at some point. And I fully expect that it will, just like the Mac, which is a platform that Apple can use to build an environmental cocoon of its own software while, at the same time, being a platform that anyone else also can write software for.

But, as I said above, Quittner only addresses a part, maybe a small part, of the dynamic that will shape the Internet of the future -- and even help decide what platforms rule. He addresses the hardware and software at the edge of the Internet but the tussle over the 'Net’s economic model, best illustrated in the network neutrality and content pattern discussions, will continue to be a dominating issue.

Harvard alum and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was quoted in a Washington Post interview this week saying that within 10 (plus or minus four) years there will be no nonelectronic media left, and that there will be far more content producers in the future. But Ballmer may be only part of the way to internalizing the patterns of content creation and distribution on the future Internet.

It is already the case that a huge percentage of younger folk have created Internet content using sites like YouTube and MySpace. Many of them also have shared content using tools such as BitTorrent. It is easy to imagine marrying these two concepts and producing a distributed MySpace where users publishes their material on their local machines and are not dependent on a central bank of servers.

This model of the future would actually be a throwback to the early days of the World Wide Web. Most resources, and therefore most content distribution, were developed by individuals, not media conglomerates. I do not expect the Super Bowl, with its (hopefully) inventive ads, will go away as a centrally managed media event, but we may just see a future in which more bits will come from you and me over the course of a year than from what are now seen as the traditional publishers.

This would be an interesting future for all of us, not only the traditional content providers - but it would be very interesting indeed for them.

Disclaimer: Harvard is mentioned above a number of times, but the university had no input to this column - the opinions are all mine.

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