Personal computers will improve in speed, storage, and display at rates similar to what has happened during the past decade, while not increasing in price. The technology that underlies these computers is microelectronics, which is expected to continue its astonishing rate of progress for at least ten more years.
Personal computers will also improve in portability. In the near future several campuses (including MIT) will be wired for cellular radio connections at data rates that are useful for the Web. We can expect all our students, a few years hence, to have portable, book-size computers with wireless Internet connection. Perhaps the principal limit to portable computers will be battery technology.
Workstations that run Web servers will similarly get faster, have more data storage, and be able to support more complex Web services.
Internet bandwidth will increase dramatically. Currently most Internet connections are at rates below 2 Mb/sec, although there is a high-speed spine within the continental U.S. which achieves 34 Mb/sec. In the future, the amount of traffic will require upgrading many Internet links and as a consequence full video will be possible. The internal MIT networks support 10 Mb/sec traffic all the way to most individual desks.
High-speed Internet connections will come to most citizens at home, primarily through cable TV companies. The Web requires high-speed communications from the server to the browser, but not the other way around. This asymmetry matches perfectly the typical hardware configurations of cable TV.
Server software will undoubtedly advance, but even more interesting will be the development of a large number of special-purpose software programs, running on server machines, to perform specialized interactive Web services. These programs will be important for educational uses of the Web.
An extension currently under development is Java, which is a language to direct the downloading, from a server, of executable programs to be run on a browser. This concept could change the character of the Web dramatically.
Authoring tools will be available to permit easy Web publication in many fields. These will take advantage of field-specific knowledge. Software will be available to enable faculty members to do little more than specify the content in relatively simple plain English, and then get high-quality Web pages for a variety of uses. We will have available automatic conversion between HTML or its successors and a wide variety of other data formats. It will be as easy to publish on the Web as it is to write a paper or a book chapter today.
A key problem may be lack of industry-wide standards. The formatting capabilities of HTML are astonishingly primitive, and already some Web browsers have implemented nonstandard commands for such features as text centering, font control, and the like. Apparently the developers of these browsers hope to differentiate their products by means of incompatible features.
All it takes for the Web to support a new medium is for a special-purpose helper application and a convention for the format of the information. Web browsers are designed to accommodate novel helpers easily. There will probably be a multitude of incompatible formats and helpers, with the effect that Web publishers will never know the exact capabilities of their readers. The possibility of an unstructured jungle exists.
The Web's variable quality of content may be due to the fact that the "early adopters" of this technology were those who were enamored of the technology itself. At MIT the students caught on to the Web long before the university administration. In the future, as more organizations establish a presence on the Web, they will maintain their Web pages with the same care and attention paid to other public relations. Thus the content on the Web will be more reliable, and users of the Web will be able to infer reliability from recognition of the authors or organizations responsible.
Not surprisingly, much of the content on the Web today deals with its associated technologies. For every Web page dealing with botany there are probably a hundred dealing with computers. However, as the Web proves its usefulness, and as it becomes more pervasive in society, its content will expand to mimic society itself. Thus it is reasonable to expect within a few years a vast collection of resources, in all fields of interest. In its breadth the Web will rival public libraries, and its content will be an irresistible educational resource.