Internet turns 21, but needs to grow up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 11:15am

It celebrates its 21st birthday this year, but is the World Wide Web growing up? From e-mailing, search engines and file sharing to the dotcom bubble, the emergence of Google and, most recently, the creation of social media, the digital landscape has had many landmarks, but few ask what it has actually achieved.

Is social media the "killer app" of the web? Or is it mobile working? Perhaps it's e-commerce, something many of us use it for every day.

"The greatest achievement of the web is the fundamental shift in access to and control of knowledge," says Peter Chadha, founder of DrPete, a firm of independent strategic technology advisers.

He picks out Wikipedia as best embodying this new global spirit of collaboration, where anyone can be an author and effectively take control of the resource.

"This is a seismic change from pre-web, where knowledge was held and controlled by those who 'knew better'," says Chadha. "The web has enabled the dissemination of knowledge across the globe, and this has led to a knowledge-based economy and democratisation of the world."

Social media platforms such as Twitter are now being used to communicate so quickly and effectively that they can galvanise demonstrations and mass gatherings, for instance, in Cairo's Tahrir Square during last year's Arab spring uprising against Egypt's Mubarak government.

With 300 million Weibo users in China, 500 million on Twitter and an astonishing one billion active users of Facebook, the continuing importance of social media is the direct consequence of what some consider the crowning achievement of the connected world - mobile broadband.

The web's tie-in with telecommunications on a massive scale has been credited by some as fostering socioeconomic development across the globe, primarily through its promotion of mobile broadband via web-connected smartphones and laptops.

"Mobile broadband connects global citizens in remote, rural and previously under-served regions to the knowledge economy and the information society," says Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a body under the United Nations.

"It paves the way for a host of applications, products and services improving productivity, efficiency and quality of life across every sector from government services to education, transport, health, logistics, energy, urban planning, finance and entertainment."

Mobile broadband is a phenomenon. More than a billion people were using it by the end of last year, while ITU statistics show that by June this year global mobile subscriptions in general were just below six billion. That's a global penetration of 86 per cent.

However, that total figure does hide huge disparities; just over half of citizens in developed nations have a web-connected smartphone compared to only 8 per cent in developing countries. More startling is that barely a third of the world's population - 2.3 billion people - has any access to the internet. In Africa, web users are a tiny minority at a mere one in six.

It's precisely those statistics that prompted the inventor of the World Wide Web in 1989, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, to create the World Wide Web Foundation. As part of its mission to increase global access, its ongoing study called the Web Index ranks the web's impact on people in 61 countries, using statistics on telecommunications infrastructure, the use of social networks, business use of the web, and even freedom of speech.

As of September 2012, Sweden was the highest ranked, followed by the US and Britain, with Yemen and Zimbabwe at the bottom. China was placed 29th, between Kazakhstan and Tunisia, with Singapore and South Korea the top-ranked Asian countries in 11th and 13th place, respectively.

Crucially, the study also contains advice on where a country needs to improve.

"Unless we wish to create a second, potentially deeper and more dangerous mobile internet digital divide, we must ensure fair, affordable, universal access to all of the citizens of the world," said Toure, speaking ahead of October's ITU Telecom World event in Dubai.

This is because the web is now primarily a place to do business on the go. But it's not a level playing field. If the income gap that exists between the world's rich and poor is not to massively increase, web access has to be made as easy for a financier in Hong Kong as for a market trader in Yemen or Zimbabwe.

It's the smartphone that has the power to quickly transform lives for the better, but in future it's not going to just be handsets, tablets and laptops that use the web. Next up is the "internet of things", also known as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, which will shape a world where your car can talk to your auto repairer, a pacemaker can feed medical data to a doctor, and where "smart metering" will put your home's heating system in direct communication with the utility company.

"Machines and devices outnumber humans by a factor of 10 to one," says Macario Namie, VP of marketing at M2M operator Jasper Wireless. "As a result, M2M is one the few markets that can truly surpass human connectivity. Its limitless reach holds tremendous promise in connecting future societies."

The World Wide Web has achieved much so far, but to truly live up to its name it's clearly got a lot more work to do yet.