Bradner's column: What will it look like?

The beginning of a new year, decade and century seems to get we pundits looking back to history while at the same time trying to predict the future, and I am not immune.

I started writing this column in January 1993. The network world was a very different place at that time. I doubt that many, if any, observers in those days could have predicted the Internet of today or the push toward the convergence of telecommunications technologies that seems to be on the near horizon.

In the early days of this column I spent time justifying an interest in the Internet in the face of the prevailing opinion that it was going to be replaced by something real. Newsweek and Time both said so in big cover stories on the national information infrastructure. The editors of these publications also admonished me for spending too much time on this toy called the Internet.

It's a bit different today, with Time giving its Person of the Year award to's Jeff Bezos for changing the basic nature of the retail business, and with the Internet figuring prominently in Newsweek's predictions for the next century. Few now doubt the impact of the Internet.

But it's still a mysterious and worrisome thing to many, including fellow columnist Thomas Nolle, who in the December 20, 1999 issue of Network World doesn't quite seem to understand that the Internet is international.

I think that two things enabled the Internet to become what it has become: the end-to-end model and the lack of government regulations.

The end-to-end model in the Internet means that data flows between end systems without anything special happening in the middle. In particular, you and I can come up with a new application and try it out over the Internet without having to get anyone's permission.

And the lack of government regulations regarding what one can and can not do (in the name of increasing reliability, for example) permits these experiments to continue.

But the Internet is getting too important in too many people's minds. It's getting too important to be left to the technical people and entrepreneurs. So governments will step in to help make sure the Internet succeeds, and they may seriously reduce its chances of success in the process.

Arthur C. Clarke observed that any significantly advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Today's Internet would be close to magic when viewed from January 1993. I hope that the Internet of 2010 is as magical when viewed from the current era. I predict it will be, if governments don't help too much and compromise the end-to-end model with too many regulations. But I fear they will.

I should have a more positive attitude at the start of a new century, but I don't.

Disclaimer: Harvard does not have formal opinions on centuries, so the above is my own pessimism.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at

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