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Now for an Intelligent Internet

by Bill Gates

Reprinted from "The World in 2001," a publication of The Economist Group Tomorrow's Internet will look a lot like today's, asserts Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft. But it will be a whole lot smarter. In 2001 more than 400m people worldwide will surf the Web's 4 billion pages and spend half a trillion dollars on goods and services in the process. Yet for all its wonders, the technology will be roughly where the automobile was when Henry Ford launched his Model T. Both the Internet and the PCs we use to access it represent a big advance on the age of the mainframe - computing's horse and buggy era - but the bigger advances in digital technology are still to come. In many respects, today's Internet actually mirrors the old mainframe model, with the browser playing the role of "dumb terminal". All the information you want is located in centralised databases, and served up a page at a time (from a single Web site at a time) to individual users. Web pages are simply a "picture" of the data you need, not the underlying data itself. You can look but you can't touch - editing, annotating or otherwise customising the data is hard to do. If you want to pull together data from multiple Web sites, you often end up scribbling it down on a notepad. That is far from the "intercreative space" envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee, whose pioneering work led to the creation of the Web. To transform itself into more than a medium that simply presents static information, the next generation Internet needs to solve these problems. Instead of being made up of isolated islands where the user often provides the only integration, it must enable constellations of computers, intelligent devices and Web-based services to collaborate seamlessly. It must offer individuals complete control over how, when and what information is delivered to them, and allow them to protect their privacy and security by controlling who has access to their personal information. At the core of that transformation is Extensible Markup Language, or XML. An open industry standard defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (with extensive input from Microsoft and other high-tech companies), XML offers a way to separate a Web page's underlying data from the presentational view of that data. It works in a similar way to HyperText Markup Language (html), which uses "tags" to define how data is displayed on today's Web pages. XML uses tags to provide a common way of defining precisely what the underlying data actually is. The effect of this technological lingua franca on the future of the Internet will be far-reaching. XML "unlocks" data so that it can be organised, programmed, edited and exchanged with other sites, applications and devices. In effect, it turns every Web page into a programmable mini-database (so you can actually analyse those stock price statistics you find on the Web without having to cut-and- paste them into a spreadsheet first). XML enables different Web sites to share all kinds of data without having to use the same computer language or software application. Individual Web sites can

collaborate to provide a variety of Web-based services that can interact intelligently with each other. And information can more easily move from one device to another. The next generation Internet will be a computing and communications platform in the same way that the PC is. Programs "written to" the Internet (just as they are written to the PC platform) will run across multiple Web sites, drawing on information and services from each of them, and combining and delivering them in customised form to any device you like. The distinction between the Internet and your PC or other devices will break down - advanced software (like that of Microsoft's .net initiative) will automatically determine whether the information you need is available locally or remotely, then bring it together to best serve your needs. Many pictures, one canvas As the barriers between online information, services and devices break down, how you interact with them will also be revolutionised. Today, you use separate software applications for every computing task you want to perform, whether it is browsing the Web, writing and editing, e-mail and instant messaging, accessing your calendar and contacts. The next generation Internet will enable a more integrated approach. You will use a single, unified interface that moves transparently between the Internet and the PC or device you are using, allowing you to browse, write, edit, schedule, communicate or analyse data. I see it as a "universal canvas" for the Internet Age. You will also interact with your computer in many more ways. Today, the amount of e-mail I receive that has handwriting or voice annotation is negligible. In future, the majority of messages will come in some form other than typed text. Today, you always know whether you are on the Internet or on your PC's hard drive. Tomorrow, you will not care and may not even know. Your business and personal information will be safely stored on the Internet, automatically synchronised and instantly available to you - no matter where you are. Everything that can think will link - transparently and automatically. So if you are travelling and need medical attention, your personal physician service will be able to locate the best local doctor, make an appointment that fits into your schedule, share the appropriate medical records and arrange payment. All you will need to do is give your permission. Think of it as a "personal Web," intelligently acting on your and your family's behalf. Think of it as the ultimate business tool, boosting your firm's productivity and taking a big step closer to friction- free capitalism. Just as the system of musical notation made the orchestration of instruments possible, the power of XML and advanced software is making the orchestration of online and offline data and services a reality.