The March to Invisibility.

It’s should be clear to everyone at this point that Internet access is approaching ubiquity in the developed world. Cable, satellite, DSL, WiFi, 3G, etc. provide an uninterrupted connection for anyone who can afford it, and the price of entry is falling fast.

This trend has long been evident. In fact, it’s the reason I abandoned my undergraduate training in economics and political science ((That, the low pay, and the cringe-inducing prospect of working in the governmental sphere.)) (c. 2003) to build websites. It’s also the reason Jay and I left comfortable, well-paying jobs working for an established agency (c. 2009). The potential energy in this system is enormous, and we fully intend to tap it.

Make new friends, but keep the old.

The traditional Internet (i.e. what you see when you sit down at your computer) is well-established now, yet it’s still in the growth stage. Approximately half the businesses in America do not have websites. That’s good news, because it means they’ll need to create them. The rest do have websites. That’s good news also, because they understand the value websites bring and are prepared to invest further into expanding and re-designing them.

The absolutely staggering fact that we’re faced with, however, is that while the mobile Internet is even less established today, it may well be larger when all is said and done. The sheer amount of time we spend away from our desks, the convenience of accessing information from pocketable devices, the lack of entrenched PC bias in the developing world, the pattern of embedding Internet connectivity in every conceivable device—your car, alarm clock, mp3 player, handheld video games, e-reader—all suggest vast opportunity and incredible scale.

We are at the precipice of a revolution.

At the risk of belaboring the point, somebody will be building these sites. They will necessarily be different than the experience you encounter when sitting at a desk with your mouse in hand, but the core ideas are the same: data on one end, person on the other, Internet connection in the middle.

The cellphone industry.

Which brings me to the genesis for this post. David Pogue recently wrote an article in the New York Times praising Line2, an iPhone application making VoIP calls easier than ever. Conveniently, there was also a story in the Wall Street Journal quoting Sprint CEO Dan Hesse saying cell phone carriers will be charging strictly for data within the next two years rather than the current model of charging for minutes spent talking.

Hesse’s right. Though I know nothing about the timeline for such a prediction to come true, the idea that all phones will come with the Internet built in and that we will meter them in megabytes not minutes is patently obvious. The 20th century notion that radio, television, phone calls, and text messages are fundamentally different things is nearing extinction. It’s just data, and somebody, somewhere is going to serve it that way sooner rather than later.

Three laws of early 21st-century technology.

Finally, we need to understand that the invasion of the Internet is only part of the larger story of the cheapening and miniaturization of electronics. It is, of course, the most disruptive part and justifiably receives a disproportionate amount of the attention.

The technology is nearly in place for an ever-present, reliable, fast Internet connection. When that happens, the Internet will go from ubiquitous (always available) to invisible (so tightly enmeshed with our way of life we only notice when it’s gone). For many of us, it’s already as much a utility as electricity and plumbing, and powerful companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Intel, and Microsoft stand to profit handsomely by making this increasingly inexpensive technology truly invisible for not only the information workers but also their friends, family, and neighbors. We are tantalizingly (or frighteningly) close to the day when every phone is an iPhone ((In capability if not in quality.)).

For context, I’m going to propose three broad laws for understanding the tidal wave of technology rushing toward us in the first half of the 21st century. These aren’t universal, there will be exceptions, and chances are they’ve been stated before by others. They will be, I hope, useful in framing the way you think about the next 25 years.

  1. Everything that should be electronic will be electronic.
  2. Everything that is electronic will connect to the Internet.
  3. Everything that connects to the Internet will have at least a screen and input mechanism, if useful. ((I’m cheating a bit on this last law, as you can tell. Many devices that connect to the Internet will most likely do so by proxy. Just like your Bluetooth headset connects to your phone, these items will be able to connect to a primary device that can read data from them and write data to them. It won’t be necessary to include screens and input mechanisms on each and every device.))

Will a baseball bat be electronic? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t bet against it. I suspect it may ultimately have sensors attached and somehow wirelessly communicate the data it gathers. Perhaps, though, it can do without a screen.

Will cereal boxes come with screens and Internet connections? Jesse Schell thinks so. It’s hard to find a reason that it won’t happen.

So what.

Well, first of all, get your head out of the sand if this is news to you. If you work on or around computers in any capacity, you are working on the Internet. That includes phones, televisions, cars, etc. See the three laws above. The sooner you understand that, the better for your career.

Everyone else, keep doing what you’re doing and batten down the hatches for an avalanche of real-time, location-aware, cloudy applications rolling out in the near future on a platform of your choice. ((Except maybe Palm.)) As media producers and information wranglers, we have a lot to learn, a lot to improve, and, frankly, a lot of customers to lead. On the flip side, as consumers, we’re faced with a glut of entertainment, productivity, device, and carrier choices. The competition ((Free market, ftw.)) has done its job in producing an array of incredibly robust, inexpensive options. Let’s just hope that the Internet’s infiltration into our lives doesn’t leave us flummoxed by the paradox of choice.

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