Media: All about ... The evolution of the internet

The web will integrate further with the real world, Alasdair Reid reports.

The next phase of the revolution is underway, and it might not be televised. We give you ... Web 3.0.

Or, at least, we think we do. Unfortunately, there is, as yet, very little consensus as to what Web 3.0 might mean or what exactly it will entail - the market is still at the stage of defining it in the same sort of hardware terms as it did when it looked forward to the age of the information superhighway (or, even more cutely, the "Infobahn").

So, it might be safe to say that, at the simplest level, Web 3.0 is what happens when internet connection speeds comfortably in excess of 10MB become commonplace. The first, and most obvious, change this will deliver is an across-the-board enhancement of the web's video capacity. Some have even gone as far as to christen the next stage "full video web".

This is, of course, interesting in its own right. As was the case with Web 2.0, though, video is not expected to be the most radical or exciting aspect of the story. No: the next phase of the revolution will, we are led to believe, involve "the semantic web" - the ability of websites to "read" the content of other websites in meaningful ways. This, backed by a deluge of application breakthroughs, will, we are told, add up to nothing more nor less than artificial intelligence.

There's a science fiction resonance here - much more so than was ever the case with Webs 1.0 and 2.0 - that will arouse suspicions. The very phrase "artificial intelligence" conjures up the wide-eyed enthusiasms of the worst sort of techno-fantasist. (And it's touching to hear those at the cutting edge of this revolution talking about "Web 0.0", by which they mean the concept that the rest of us persist, somewhat feebly, in referring to as "real life".)

On the other hand, there's almost no room for scepticism here, because the guiding light of Web 3.0 theory is none other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who is credited with inventing the worldwide web back in 1990, while working as an independent contractor at the European Organization for Nuclear Research - and whose opinion in such matters has, as a consequence, acquired the status of holy writ.

It's clear, though, that this third evolution of the web will involve the generation of a lot more data about each individual and his or her relationship with the real world - and that this information will be cross-referenced and analysed in ways we currently find unimaginable, especially as you'll be increasingly encouraged to store all your personal data and software (what was formerly known as your hard drive) on the web.

According to Craig Walmsley, the head of strategy at AKQA, there will be a major mobile component to this, too. He advises anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of the future to visit www.enkin.net, a site created to compete in the Google Android Developer Challenge. It combines GPS, orientation sensors, 3D graphics and live video to "create a new way to navigate the world".

Walmsley explains: "Rather than the virtual world becoming more like the physical, the opposite will happen. The physical world will become informed by the virtual - overlaying data from the web on the world around you, based on where you are and what you are looking at."

1. Web 1.0 lasted from the launch of the worldwide web, which by common agreement happened on Christmas Day 1990 with Berners-Lee's first successful communication between an internet client and server, to, for argument's sake, the dotcom bubble and its subsequent pop in 2000. Web 1.0 relied on dial-up modem technology, which commonly delivered a connection speed of 56K. So "www" rather often stood for "worldwide wait" - and in these early days it was also (in hindsight) the "read-only" web: you could read and interact with websites - even buy stuff - but you couldn't customise.

2. Web 2.0 was what happened when a much-heralded technological leap forward, formerly known as "the information superhighway", actually arrived, and connection speeds comfortably in excess of 1MB became commonplace. That meant streamed video and huge downloads were now possible - but, even more importantly, enhanced capacity delivered enhanced interactivity, and a whole new generation of platforms emerged to allow users to make and exchange their own content. Social networking became all the rage. Web 2.0 lasted from the early years of the new Millennium until 15 May 2008.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

CONSUMERS

- Civil liberties are an immediate concern when you begin talking about allying enhanced processing speeds to database and software dispersal.

- Add in the certainty that there will be a greater cross-referencing of personal data, and it is highly likely that we'll see an accelerating erosion of privacy.

- There are, in short, horribly dystopian implications.

ADVERTISERS

- Jean-Paul Edwards, the head of OMD Media Futures, says the implications could be profound. He explains: "Web 3.0 will link lots of different things together. It will join the dots within all the user-generated information created in Web 2.0 to build context and meaning. At the simplest level, an advertiser might be able to look at what your friends like and use that information to make extrapolations about what you might like."

- He adds: "The sort of targeting techniques that currently seem advanced will start to feel very basic. It's possible, if this all lives up to its promise, that we'll reach a stage where we have entirely transparent markets: the system will know you so well that it will know what you should buy."

- In fact, Edwards concedes that, taken to its logical conclusions, this could mean that we won't need advertising any more - which could be a sobering thought for some.

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