The internet has become an integral part of our lives. Whether for shopping online or making a holiday booking, socialising with our friends through social media, or just finding information about areas we are interested in, there is hardly a day we don't connect to it.
How did this happen? The internet only achieved critical mass once an easy-to-use, standard way of accessing it had been created: the worldwide web. All you need is an internet browser and you can go surfing wherever you like. So, what will be the next milestone in the development of the internet?
Currently, most internet interactions are initiated by us - something that is not likely to be the case in the future. The number of 'things' that interact with the internet is steadily increasing.
It is no longer surprising that washing machines are now available with internet connectivity, or that your power meter feeds back information to your energy provider which is then available for you online. In the future, the 'internet of things' will become more and more ubiquitous. Devices will initiate their own communication and will intelligently interact with other devices.
For example, the embedded computing device in your washing machine might communicate with the power meter to check current electricity prices with the aim of starting the wash cycle when prices are low. Or your heat pump might check your geolocation data to see whether you are approaching home so it can switch itself on to make your home cosy for your arrival.
What role do humans play in the internet of things? Device creators usually enable people to communicate with their smart devices, often by offering an app for their smart phones. This is convenient, especially when the app is free - and when you are only dealing with a small number of devices.
But what happens if most of your household appliances become part of the internet of things? An app for your washing machine, an app for your heat pump, one for your fridge, and how about small appliances like toasters, water kettles, lights and more? Then add all the devices outside your home that are of interest when you are in their proximity, like parking meters and vending machines. Imagine how many apps you will have to install on your smartphone.
The prospect of app inflation clouds the future of the internet of things. But there is a silver lining - the 'web of things', or the 'physical web', as Google calls it. Instead of individual apps, devices use a general purpose browser. You can download this browser, called Physical Web, from Google's app store even though it is not yet an official Google product but rather an early-stage experimental project.
The technology behind it is UriBeacon, an open specification to connect devices via Bluetooth low-power beacons to your smart phone. The beacons broadcast short URIs, or uniform resource identifiers. As Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, puts it: "A uniform resource identifier is a compact sequence of characters that identifies an abstract or physical resource." If you are in proximity of an UriBeacon, the browser pulls in the URI broadcast of the device and shows it in a similar way as a Google search result, which you can then tap to interact with the device.
So no more flood of apps on your smartphone but one unified app for the internet of things. While there will be billions of devices on the internet of things, Bluetooth low-power beacons have a limited range so only nearby devices will be picked up. For instance, you will only see the menu of the restaurant you are looking at, rather than the menus of all restaurants in town. Or you will only be able to transfer money to the parking meter for your car park, rather than any other one.
As the beacons just broadcast to you and don't monitor you, they are not a threat to your privacy as such. But in the same way that malicious websites can use spam and phishing methods to collect private information today, reacting to rogue beacons in the future could allow access to the personal data stored in your smart phone.
So if the web of things becomes a reality - and there is every chance that this will happen as UriBeacons are cheap and can connect to most modern smartphones - what will be next? Once regular web browsers are able to deal with beacons, their broadcasts can be incorporated into Google search results, providing you with geospecific information. This is when the web of things meets the web as we know it today.