The feature story that follows was originally published in 1997. When I wrote this article as the electronics editor of Popular Mechanics, the Web was just six years old. Dial-up connections ruled. There was no Google, no Facebook, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no Twitter. There was no Hulu, no Spotify, no Instagram. There was no Cloud computing. There were no smartphones. Netflix was founded that year, but as a rent-by-mail DVD company, not the internet behemoth it is now, slinging trillions of bits over the Net every day—hundreds of thousands times the total internet traffic of 1997.
Back then, the internet was used mainly for email, news groups, and to access the relative handful of websites that were around, like book-seller Amazon, eBay, and the Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite portals. Was the internet dying? No. That was hyperbole. But it was at a crossroads. Something had to be done to accommodate the incredible increase of data traffic we knew was coming and the looming shortage of address space. Soon after that article ran, the internet backbone was expanded and strengthened. Tens of thousands of miles of undersea fiber-optic cables were installed, truly making the Web worldwide.
Since then, data-intensive providers like Netflix, Google, and Facebook have changed the way data is routed over the internet by building private content-delivery networks (CDNs) that run in parallel to the internet backbone. These CDNs eliminate choke points and deliver data quickly, providing uninterrupted video to your smart TV or to smartphones in far-flung corners of the globe.
And the IPv6 addressing scheme, introduced in 1998, is being implemented with enough capacity for billions of unique addresses for every living person. Overkill? Perhaps. But consider how popular such devices as smart speakers and connected thermostats and lights are today. Then remember that the Internet of Things is still in its infancy, much like the internet itself was in 1997. Tomorrow’s applications haven’t even been dreamed up yet. Whatever they are, you can be sure that the internet will be ready to take on the challenge. It won’t die. We can’t let it.—Brian C. Fenton