The Current State of the Internet: Walt Mossberg at the Closing General Session

(Photo courtesy of John T. Adams III/SLA)

The Closing General Session (which ironically does not mark the close of the conference) was highlighted by a wonderful endnote address by Walt Mossberg, technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who reviewed what’s happening in the Internet, PC, and cell phone worlds.

Mossberg said that we need to think about the Internet in a new and different way. Most people think about it as a discrete activity done on a PC. That idea will look ancient in 10 years, and we won’t talk about “going on the Internet” or “going online”. The Internet will become 24/7 for everyone. We should begin thinking about the Internet like the electrical grid. You can plug a huge number of things into the grid, but we don’t talk about being “on the electrical grid”. The Internet will recede more and more into the background as it becomes more an integral part of life. The more the explicit references to it diminish, the more it will have succeeded. The Internet is a grid of information, entertainment, commerce, into which many number of devices will be connected by a plug. The devices will take just what they need to perform from the Internet.

The PC has peaked as the dominant digital device. It been superseded by devices like the Palm Treo, which have replaced a laptop in many respects. Impediments to advances lie with what Mossberg calls the “Soviet Ministries”—the telecommunications carriers. Like the Ministries, the carriers sit athwart the free market and presume to know best what the consumer wants. On a visit to Verizon Wireless, Mossberg observed a sign reading, “It isn’t a phone until Lou [the head of Verizon’s certification department] says it’s a phone.” So even if you have the best phone in the world, it will be useless until it receives approval from one of the carriers. We are seeing a repetition of the situation in the long distance business until the 1970s.

Search has been a tremendous democratizing force because it has become the way most people approach the Internet. But progress in searching has stalled—there has not been any real discernable improvement in the accuracy of results. Although there has been improvement in presentation of results, search should focus more on actual answers instead of a list of links. The biggest problem with search today is that the emphasis has left improving the results for the consumer in favor of selling ads.

Other issues that are obstacles to further success and development of the Internet include:
Copyright. Mossberg drew applause when he said, “We have an insanely bad copyright system in this country.” Intellectual property is good, but companies who have it have chosen bad ways to exercise their rights. We need a copyright law passed that defines consumers’ rights, not only rights holders’ rights. All our laws are written from the premise that nothing can be copied. This is backwards—most people are consumers not copyright holders. We need a law that defines their rights. It is ridiculous that software licenses only apply to one computer. People now have multiple computers, and licenses should recognize that fact. We need laws that recognize consumers’ behavior while protecting against rampant piracy.
Anonymity. The Internet situation will evolve into an anonymous Internet like today’s (the “fantasy Internet”), plus a more reliable network where people will have to stand behind what they say and write. People’s lives and reputations can be ruined by “anonymous cowards”.
Ethical responsibility and the view that random communities of people are just as smart as trained professionals. Yahoo Answers provides answers, not opinions, from any random person who wants to answer. Is this ethically responsible? For example, somebody could die based on an answer they receive to a medical question.
Despite these problems, Mossberg strongly feels that the Internet has a great future.

Mossberg feels that there is a big need for researchers like information professionals that are skilled at plucking out what users need—someone who understands the context of the research, and who can look for patterns that make sense. Many corporate level executives don’t have time to do this, even if they might have the skills to do it.

One of the great things about journalism is that there is no license to be a journalist. So citizen journalism and more voices in the form of blogs is a good thing. The problem is that standards and ethics policies are often abysmal or missing entirely. It will take time to find a way to find a solution to this problem.

Open source is not a religion that will save us. Open source today is mostly geeks making things for other geeks. Most people in that community would not recognize a consumer if they saw one. They don’t have usability labs to test products, and they usually only finish a product 80%. Someone has to be responsible for products. The virtue of Microsoft, Apple, etc. is that they are responsible—if you don’t like it, you can complain, get your money back, or ask them to fix the problem.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today

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