As an invention, the web is stunningly successful. Almost half the world's population use it, and far more people now have access to it than those who don't. In little more than a generation, we've seen the first website joined by over four billion others to become one of the most important, widely used information and knowledge tools ever created.
But, what about its future? Is there anything standing in the way of this global digital juggernaut, or will its shortcomings ultimately limit its progress?
The Web's too big
In 2016, the web became a victim of its own success. The first major version of the system used to give every website, computer and connected device its own unique Internet Protocol (IP) address, ran out of space.
Thankfully, it's been long understood that the existing pool of IP addresses available under Version 4 of the protocol would reach its c.4 billion limit long before demand for them dried up. To say its successor, IPv6, solves this problem is something of an understatement. Even at the web's current rate of growth, it will take some time to exhaust the new pool of 2128 or 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 IP addresses.
But despite this mind-boggling capacity, pressure on broader web infrastructure will continue to grow.
The size of the average website has 'bloated' over time from well under a megabyte at the turn of the millennium to the 'multi-meg' sites of today. Website owners continue to build more creative, engaging websites and the use of video is near ubiquitous. On YouTube alone, 300 hours are uploaded to the site every minute, and by 2020, experts predict there will be 44 zettabytes of digital data in existence (a zettabyte is a billion terabytes) - a significant amount of which will live on the web.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile operators are trying to stay ahead of these performance and capacity demands with the launch of superfast broadband and 5G mobile networks. Despite criticisms that availability for these service is too patchy, huge progress has been made. Today's connection speeds mean a 1GB file takes around a minute and a half to download on a 100MB broadband service. Twenty years or so ago, when we were all using 56k dial-up modems, the same file would have taken roughly two days to arrive.
In my own web hosting industry, which is responsible for storing and supporting many of the world's websites, there has been dramatic growth globally, and is expected to reach over $143bn by 2020.
The future is mobile
This type of growth brings constant change, and in the last 12-18 months there have been some notable milestones that illustrate how our use of the web is evolving.
Aside from continual increases in usage levels across all demographic groups, the common factor is that mobile has usurped desktop as the way we prefer to surf the web. In 2016, mobile web usage overtook desktop for the first time. By this time, Google had already reported that mobile searches had overtaken desktop, and total spending on mobile advertising overtook that for PCs in the first half of 2016.
However, even though we spend more time each year surfing the web on our mobiles, we already spend 90% of that time using apps. In the mobile world, the dominant role of the website has been assumed by apps.
But is the future secure?
A depressingly reliable web trend is the range, frequency and severity of security breaches. Whether it's hacks, Denial of Service attacks or data theft, criminals understand the value of the web as a way to steal and extort.
As a result, the web has acquired a very bad reputation for security in recent years, and given the sometimes catastrophic personal and business impact of an attack, it's not surprising why. Recent research put the cost of cyber security breaches in the UK alone at £30 billion in 2016 - a figure greater than the UK government's entire transport budget.
It's tempting to think we're fighting a losing battle, but in the vast majority of cases good security is more than capable of preventing and mitigating all but the most determined of attacks. For many, what needs to change is their approach to web security and their proactive determination to more effectively protect themselves or find a specialist partner who can.
We're a generation into the lifespan of the web - if we jump forward another 25 to 30 years we can be pretty sure that an evolved version of it will still be with us. Unfortunately for some, security will still be a huge issue, but it's fascinating to think where the next phase of innovation might lead.
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