Craig Nevill-Manning, founding Engineering Director of Google's New York office, looks at the future of the internet.
The internet is the fastest growing communications medium in history. It took radio 37 years to reach the milestone of 50 million users; TV took less than half that, at 15 years. And the web? It took only three years to reach 50 million regular users.
Today it's estimated that around a quarter of the world's population use the internet, with more than 200 million people joining the online revolution each year. With this comes profound changes in the way we all live. It might seem like science fiction, but soon most of the things you care about will be online: news, books, magazines and films alongside your photos, contacts, school lessons and doctor's visits.
It's fair to say that in the nearly 15 years since I completed my doctorate in computer science, things have altered dramatically; but it's the years ahead which herald huge shifts in how computing will affect our daily lives, and I'm most excited most by three big ideas: the cloud, mobile, and an ever-more-social web.
The development of 'cloud computing' is a fundamental shift in how we think about storing and accessing digital information; data is no longer stored on your hard drive or computer's memory, but is rather stored and accessible online.
Not so many years ago, working in computing meant worrying about floppy disks (remember them?), and more recently, losing USB sticks with all sorts of important data. Now we can access information from wherever we are in the world, on any computer. Not only does this have huge implications for our own personal documents and photos, for instance, as these are backed up online, but companies like Google can also use cloud computing to manage massive amounts of data more easily.
It's cloud computing that allows us to perform a search based on your query and have millions of results back for you in a quarter of a second - because the process is performed by thousands of connected computers sharing resources in the cloud.
Google Books is another good example of how cloud computing opens up a new world. Millions of books have been digitised and made available any time, any where, to people in New Zealand and around the world. In fact, we recently reckoned there were 129,864,880 books in the world, and cloud computing means you can access a large number of them while sitting in your living room at any time. I love the idea that the great works of philosophers, playwrights and adventurers are available to kids up and down the length of New Zealand, at the click of a mouse or the tap of a finger.
The next big idea I think we should watch with interest is the rise and rise of mobile technology. Mobile phones aren't 1980s status symbols any more; today my mobile has a faster processor than my computer had 10 years ago - and it's fully connected to the internet.
Unlike a computer which is tethered to your desk or your lap, smartphones put the internet into your pocket, helping you navigate through life by checking email on the go and getting directions. And there's a good reason that we call these phones 'smart': they are acutely aware of where they are in the world, with built-in GPS and voice and video inputs and outputs that are far easier to use than on a computer.
My Android-powered phone has an app called Qik, which lets me broadcast live video right from my phone, wherever I am. Or take Layar, an app which lets me "augment reality" using my phone, by layering information over images captured by the phone's camera in real time, like historical photographs and landmarks. The internet has never been so immediate or personalised as it is on a mobile device, and they're only going to get more powerful.
The final idea that I really think is going to change our lives is that the web has become more, and will get increasingly, social. In this respect the web is just catching up with real life: we are inherently social creatures. The first thing you want to do when you hear something interesting or funny is to share it with someone - news has always spread by word of mouth.
But now, mobile phones are making it easier to connect with people wherever we (and they) are, because we're carrying mini computers around with us and can send instant updates, and share photos, at the click of a button. I believe the social web will have profound consequences not just for how we stay in touch with loved ones, but for how we consume information. In a world of proliferating content, we'll want to follow news and information that particularly interests us, and increasingly it will be people in our social network that draw our attention to important articles, videos, and sites.
Cloud computing, mobile technology and a more social web are, in some senses, the pillars of tomorrow's internet: together, they provide a unique online experience that makes life easier, richer, and more connected.
When fully embraced they're going to help Kiwis stay more connected with the rest of the world; drive a new wave of Kiwi entrepreneurism; and increase the quality of all our lives. The most exciting thing to me? While I had some ideas about what the future might hold, I could never have predicted the power of these three big trends 15 years ago as a PhD student in Waikato, and I cannot wait to see how our world has changed even more profoundly 15 years in the future.
Craig Nevill-Manning is the founding Engineering Director of Google's New York office. He was a keynote speaker at the New Zealand Computer Society's "50 Years of ICT Innovation" conference last week, and was recently honoured with a Distinguished Alumni award from the University of Waikato.