Twenty-five years ago today, a now-defunct vendor of artificial intelligence registered “symbolics.com.” It was the first dot-com and represented the birth of a revolution. Even after the bubble of the then-nascent dot-com economy burst 10 years ago, the commercial Internet has become the economic force of our time, delivering $1.5 trillion in annual economic benefits to businesses and consumers. The Internet has transformed business, politics, daily life, and entire societies throughout the world. In the Internet economy, consumers not only find the specific product or service they are looking for, but they can also shape and customize those same products and services. Remarkably, this is just the beginning.
The dot-com economy is by no means mature. About 1.7 billion of the world’s 6.7 billion people use the Internet, meaning 75% of us are still off to the side of the flow of e-commerce. Less than a third of Americans buy things online. Only about half the small businesses in the U.S. have a Web site.
So what would a “completed” Internet revolution look like? No one really knows. But it is intriguing to forecast some of the changes likely to occur over the next decade. As today’s young people become tomorrow’s adults, an ever higher percentage of people will become digitally engaged, reading the news, shopping, enjoying entertainment, socializing, and tending to health, education, and work online. Faster broadband service, more affordable and accessible technology, policy initiatives that close the digital divide, and economic growth will enable billions more people around the world to join the dot-com economy.
LIKE GRAINS OF SAND
Already, more and more people are becoming comfortable with online self-service applications in commerce, leading to lower prices and more convenience. The advent of ubiquitous connectivity is also beginning to redefine what we once thought of as the Internet. In the future, the Internet will be integrated with the world around us, enhancing our interaction with the physical world. The adoption of IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) will mean that Internet addresses will be available for every device, sensor, and even every person. Once IPv6 is fully implemented, there will be more IP addresses than grains of sand on the planet.
In just the past few years, we have seen a range of new products, such as smart phones, netbooks, and tablet PCs, come to market, along with a proliferation of applications. And these are just the beginning. Increasingly fast, energy-efficient, and low-cost, even wearable computing systems may some day replace “point-and-click” with “point-and-think.” Fix your gaze on an object in a gift shop in San Francisco, click your eyeglasses, and it will be sent to your home in New York. With augmented reality, the answer to the classic question, “Where can we get something to eat around here?” comes in the form of a map, real-time street views, walking, directions, and reviews instantaneously showing up in the palm of your hand.
New applications in the emerging dot-com world will also transcend the cool and shiny but sometimes superficial appeal of some of the apps produced to date. New creations promote more serious goals of energy efficiency, health care, personal safety, and productivity. Utilities are rolling out Internet-connected devices that empower consumers to use energy ever more efficiently. Forgot to turn the lights out or set the TiVO when you left the house? Do so from your phone. Intelligent transportation systems integrated with GPS navigators and phone applications already let users know about real-time traffic conditions and steer them away from traffic jams, wasted gas, and rattled nerves. The result could be billions of dollars in savings.
NEED FOR GOOD POLICIES
As we mark the 25th anniversary of the dot-com, it is important to consider what nations must do to ensure that the commercial Internet reaches its full potential. We must ensure that national policies continue to support the commercial Internet and the innovation it enables. This means supporting the deployment of technologies such as wired and wireless broadband, mobile payments platforms, health IT, and other Internet platforms. It means removing regulatory and legal barriers to the emergence of e-business models. And it means creating incentives for companies to invest in Internet-enabled business practices and advance the digital literacy of all. If nations do this, we will have a lot to look forward to in just the next few years.
The dot-com economy has already more than exceeded its promise as a means of generating new products, services, and business models and is a dream come true for innovators and entrepreneurs around the world. It is making us smarter, safer, more efficient, and better connected. But the best thing of all? The best is yet to come.
Originally posted on BusinessWeek.com.