Cerf's up(beat) on net future

Open source software could be part of the solution to the "digital divide", says internet pioneer Vint Cerf.

Vint CerfOpen source software could be part of the solution to the “digital divide”, says internet pioneer Vint Cerf.

It offers a mid-course between big company products, which are expensive for the home user “but at least give you someone you can yell at if it goes wrong”, and freeware, usually unsupported.

With open source you get reduced cost but some advice readily available from knowledgeable people. There are also a large number of people willing to add cheaply to the software pool and ensure that faults will be diagnosed and corrected.

Speaking in Wellington at a function arranged by the US Embassy, Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP protocol, said universal internet access is a laudable objective and one that will be ever more attainable as the cost of access technology falls. This will not just be due to technological advances in PC design and increasing competition, but will come about as less costly non-PC devices are increasingly used to access the network. Cyber-cafes also offer an economical way of getting on to the internet.

A member of his audience countered that software cost, not hardware cost, is likely to be the big inhibitor, whereupon Cerf countered with open source.

There is a lot of rubbish available through the internet, says Cerf, as well as countless sources of useful and accurate information, but that combination can be positive in that it encourages critical thinking and a talent for discriminating the good from the bad.

Asked whether the internet could encourage a narrow focus, whereby online users only read things and associate with people that confirm their prejudices, he said Nobel laureate Arno Penzias had raised that fear many years ago; “but he hadn’t seen Google”. Search engines expose the user to irrelevant material, which just might pique their interest. “The internet, aided by serendipity, broadens the mind, it doesn’t narrow it.”

He sees the internet as moving increasingly into the telephone’s market-space. One key bridge is SIP (session initiation protocol), which provides IP signalling for phone calls.

Along with voice-over-IP, this will tend to drive out circuit-switched protocols from the telephone network, and render telephone, internet and other media more interoperable.

The emerging Enum standard will, subject to user-driven privacy controls, allow a caller to use a phone number to look up email addresses and other ways of contacting the same party through the internet.

This convergence could have a significant social effect in muting the anger that sometimes develops in an email exchange, through misunderstanding of the mood of statements in text without voice cues. We will learn to recognise, says Cerf, that when discussions approach flashpoint, we are using the wrong medium. We will then switch smoothly to phone or videoconferencing.

The killer app for the laggardly video-conferencing medium could be something as apparently trivial as multi-player video games. Young players quickly cottoned on to the appeal of playing against opponents a long distance away, but “you can’t hear your [live] opponent scream or see him grimace when you shoot him down”. A sound-and-video link would give players that dubious pleasure, and perhaps lead some to later explore videoconferencing in a more serious role.

Some out-of-the-way alternative devices are already on the market, such as the internet-enabled picture frame — “I have three,” says Cerf. Artworks and pictures of family members and friends can be downloaded into the frame or sent by the subjects.

Naturally, says Cerf, security will have to be implemented when the devices reach mass-market status, “or I can see the kids uploading pictures to shock Grandma”.

Internet-enabled cars could communicate with bank databases and map-display software to answer the question “where is the nearest ATM?”

The internet-enabled refrigerator, requesting missing ingredients to complete a dish, has a certain logic, he says, since the fridge already functions as a communications and information storage device in many households, using the technologies of paper and magnetism.

Clothing could be internet-enabled, monitoring the user’s health signs and sending data both to the user and to his/her doctor. “But you’d better make sure your shirt can’t talk to your fridge, or you may find the fridge suddenly full of health-food,” Cerf warned.

On a more sober statistical front, Cerf produced figures from social surveys of the internet, showing that email was far and away the most popular use of the medium, being a dominant use of 50% of users. News acquisition runs at 26% and “surfing for fun” 22%, with game playing coming in at 7%.

In response to the inevitable question about internet pornography, Cerf said the problem is not nearly as extensive as is painted. Whatever its prevalence, like anything else on the internet, “it’s a reflection of us”. The answer, he suggests, is guidance for users, particularly children, and attitude-change arguments, not specialised internet censorship.

With porn as with unreliable information “the antidote is more information, not less”. The answer to students plagiarising material for essays could be an online database allowing tutors to analyse the phraseology of an essay and recognise cribbed content.

The internet will spread to Mars during the first decade of the 21st century, Cerf predicts. But new protocols will have to be devised and automatic devices made more independent fat clients, because of the irreducible delay even of a radio or light beam, and the huge variability of distance and orientation between planets over the course of a single session. TCP/IP won’t work in that environment, he says.

At the beginning of the internet, Cerf hadn’t foreseen that so many of the general population would delight in sharing information and creating their own content through weblogs and the like, he says. “Scientists and academics [the original users of the internet] do that all the time; but who would have though ordinary people would have the same instinct?”

He had seen the potential for e-commerce early, but only in some areas. “An operation like Amazon is reasonably obvious. What I didn’t foresee is the popularity of auction sites.”

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