2020 vision: 10 things you'll see on the Web in the next 10 years

During the past 10 years, federal agencies have made significant progress with their Web sites and the way they use the Internet for daily business. A decade ago, many agencies were still transitioning from simple online “brochure-ware” toward real e-commerce and data sharing. In contrast, most major federal agencies now offer a variety of online databases and ways to electronically file requests and license applications, and most can accept online payments.

Given that progress, it’s worth taking a gander in the other direction. What might the government’s Internet presence look like in another 10 years? Here are 10 things we fully expect to see by 2020.

1. Cloud computing progresses, but success and cost savings remain a mixed bag. Starting with Los Angeles moving its e-mail services to Google in 2010, a few large proof of concept efforts will emerge during the next two years and help build the foundation for broad acceptance of cloud-based solutions. But after that, expect to see these successes followed by some critical issues, such as security breaches, service challenges and difficulties in adhering to government rules for archiving and information availability. When combined with the ongoing difficulty of calculating true return on investment for cloud services, these concerns will slow the transition to cloud. However, agencies will resolve these issues, and by 2020, we should see cloud solutions that have solidly proven themselves on several fronts, eventually becoming a widely accepted platform for government operations.

2. The net neutrality pendulum swings both ways. All Internet data traffic exists in the form of data packets that are shuttled across all connected networks. Cooperative data packet exchange has been under way for 40 years, and it has been successful. But some complex problems have emerged in recent years. Here’s the basic problem: The largest networks, known as Tier 1, support a basic peering arrangement that allows packet traffic from other networks to pass through the Tier 1 networks. That creates a lot of traffic, and some Internet service providers have started to deal with traffic overload by prioritizing packet traffic. That's not bad in theory, but it could give ISPs the power to slow traffic from competitors or channel people toward some services and away from others. People who support net neutrality think all data packets should be treated equally, while those who think ISPs should have a choice in how they treat data disagree. We expect the net neutrality supporters to win the first couple of rounds in this fight, but the topic won’t go away. Eventually, the telecommunications lobby will win, and by 2020, setting priorities for certain data packets will likely be the norm.

3. Your desk has a single device that serves as a phone, computer, video screen and more. Improvements to voice over IP, TV over IP and shared platforms for social media systems will lead to unified devices that no longer look like phones or computers. Instead, you will have a large screen, keyboard and headset. For government, it’s increasingly likely that this unified device will be a thin client, and you will connect to various services by opening new windows — one each for phone calls, daily business tasks, applications, databases and more. As you do your business, mini-transactions are created in a generic format. Those transactions can then be parsed to users as they prefer, perhaps as an e-mail message, automated voice message, text message or instant message to a phone, or update to a database.

4. Accessibility problems are finally solved for government Web sites. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to make electronic information accessible to people with disabilities. The intention is good, but compliance has lagged. Yet by 2020, we expect to see improved screen readers, better standardization of how text and images are rendered on screen, and other technologies that should make both working and Web surfing a more positive experience. We expect to see the government step up its efforts to help refine global standards and interfaces for assistive technology. Meanwhile, companies such as Freedom Scientific are pushing the envelop on things such as screen readers. Open-source projects such as Gnome are helping to develop multiple interfaces, including screen reader and other displays.

5. Data lag and packet latency problems are solved on large parts of the Internet. The National Science Foundation expects to award several multimillion-dollar contracts during the next year to develop and test new Internet architectures. Meanwhile, projects such as the Global Environment for Network Innovation, which has also received NSF funding, have helped develop global test networks with an eye toward handling large sets of data traffic. That is good news, but will this broader bandwidth come at a premium price? (See net neutrality, above.) Meanwhile, projects such as the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Floating Cloud Tiered Internet Architecture, which reduces the need for sprawling routing tables for some types of packets, could eventually further streamline network traffic, at least for some tiers.

6. Proximity networking changes the way we connect to the Internet. Many people have already experimented with finding networkable devices in their proximity, whether via Bluetooth or by connecting your laptop while sitting in an airport. But connectivity will extend far beyond this, to include networks that wake up when a possible connection exists, such as when you approach a parking space, or when temporary peer-to-peer networks form during special events, ranging from traffic jams to full-blown emergencies. In the next 10 years, offices could be networked to sense if it’s you or someone else sitting down at your computer. Even your thermostat might know it’s you and adjust to your preferred temperature. That’s the fun stuff. The more business-like attributes of proximity networking include improved security through access control, being able to print from your phone to any device you happen to be near and being able to drop files onto a shared conference-table screen.

7. Spam and phishing are mostly under control. The bad news is that security concerns will never fully go away because it costs far too little for spammers to get started, while the rewards can be great for spammers and those who phish for information. But by making the barrier to entry a little higher, much of the problem can be stopped. How? By assertive use of new laws and lawsuits to go after spammers and malware installers; by launching and continuously updating social engineering awareness campaigns; and by improving internal rules for government networks, adding things such as egress filtering and highly detailed domain name white and black lists.

8. IPv7 could be waiting in the wings. For the past few years, the Internet Engineering Task Force has been circulating ideas and draft papers related to the next version of IP. The updated version, whenever it happens, is likely to be called IP Version 7 (IPv7). But don’t hold your breath. IPv6 took well more than 13 years to develop, and it still is not widely implemented. And there’s only the smallest chance that many of us will be using IPv7 by 2020. So why be excited about it? It might be that IPv7 will finally be able to address the problem of spoofed data packets. Today, IP is designed to deliver any data packet if the “To:” portion of the packet is properly addressed. That makes it easy for hackers to spoof the “From:” address. If IPv7 can fix that, it will significantly change the nature of packet traffic on the Internet, which is a good thing.

9. Agent software finally takes hold. The idea for intelligent software agents dates back at least 30 years. These are pieces of software that act on a user’s behalf, interfacing with other computers, databases or information sources. If you’ve ever used the notification systems on eBay or Google News or maybe set a price trigger for buying a stock online, you’ve already used agent software. But agents are getting more autonomous and powerful. They already can be set to monitor file folders, looking for updates to Really Simple Syndication or Extensible Markup Language files. Versions on the horizon can be set to automate specific decisions related to what’s found in those files, triggering other processes, ranging from purchases to notices of violations and reconfiguring network traffic.

10. Government interactions with the public makes a tectonic shift. Many people in their teens and 20s do not read the newspaper nor view government notices that arrive in the mail. They get all of their news and other information online or via their cell phones. This demographic shift, coupled with the climbing cost of paper printing, means that more government business will move online, including setting up accounts and log-in information for everyone who wants to do business with your agency. Because people of various skill levels will start logging on, agencies will need to collect demographic information to make decisions on what data to display and how to help with information navigation. To monitor best practices in this evolving arena, visit and monitor the sections called "Managing Content" and "Usability and Design."


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