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Internet Founder Tim Berners-Lee Details 4 Concerns About Future of Mobile Web (Nokia World 2010)

This morning at Nokia World 2010 in London, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely known as the inventor of the Web, addressed the audience in a keynote speech where he spoke about the future of mobile technology, including both the positive impacts it brings as well as the areas of concern. After encouraging developers to build for the Web, so as to deliver applications that work on all types of devices, even the ones that haven’t been invented yet, he then proceeded to detail areas which need addressing, specifically privacy, accountability, network neutrality and the 80% of the world that doesn’t have access to the World Wide Web.

The Mobile Web Today: Location is Just “Tip of the Iceberg”

Berners-Lee began his keynote by discussing the improvements we’ve seen in technology in recent years, most notably the ability of our devices to be location-aware. However, he says, “location-awareness is just the tip of the iceberg.” Devices already know so much about you: your geographical position, which way is up, which direction you’re headed, etc., but future devices may know more than this. For example, they may know about your medical information and your physical state. Perhaps they could tell when you’re excited by measuring heart rate increases, he said.

Another major improvement which is impacting the Web is the explosion of data available online, a project which he has heavily contributed to, here in the U.K. with data.gov.uk and its U.S. counterpart data.gov. Not so long ago, less than 10 years ago, in fact, “data” on the Web consisted of governments uploading a scanned document, like a spreadsheet that would be posted as a PDF on a government-hosted website. If anyone ever wanted to do anything with that data, they would have to re-type the information. Today, that same type of data is more accessible – the raw data itself is available and, says Berners-Lee, there’s a race between governments and other organizations as to who can provide the best and most interesting data.

As for how data access relates to mobile, Berners-Lee explained that data drives development on mobile, just as it does on the Web as a whole. Even a basic calendaring type of application is data-driven. By combining the aspects of mobile technology, like location-awareness, with the semantic Web of data, entirely new types of mobile applications can exist. Most recently, augmented reality applications are an example of this pairing, tying together location with data to identify points of interest just by aiming your mobile phone at something like a landmark or building.

4 Concerns about the Future of Mobile

All that being said, Berners-Lee also mentioned that there are concerns which we need to be aware of when moving forward with mobile technology. They are as follows:

1. Privacy

The challenge of privacy is one many companies, both mobile and otherwise, have been dealing with in recent months. However, on mobile phones, the problem that has not been worked out yet is how to allow a user to share their location while still making it easy for them to understand when they’re sharing critical information, how much control they have over that information and who can access that data. The challenge here is how to do all this without getting in the way of the user’s experience.

The solution, says Berners-Lee, is that we may need to re-adjust our ideas about privacy. “I think that we’ll end up having to think about privacy from a different point of view,” he said.

2. Accountability

Along the same lines of user privacy, is the idea that companies that want access to our critical information have a responsibility to build systems that respect that data. “Responsible” companies that are accountable for how they use our data are key. Clearly, this is a struggle many companies are dealing with now, and no one has a winning formula yet.

3. Neutrality

A perennial favorite topic for Berners-Lee is the idea of network neutrality, referring to regulations that forbid prioritizing the speed or access with which one company’s data is available over another’s. Companies that want you to use their services have an incentive to end neutrality for their own benefits – for example, those that provide voice services may want to slow down access to VoIP services.

Here Berners-Lee was the most passionate, saying point-blank that “the moment you let neutrality go, you lose the Web as it is – you lose the idea that you can click a link and go anywhere.”

4. Bringing Web Access to the Rest of the World

The last point also involved a project in which Berners-Lee is involved: providing Web access to the 80% of the world that doesn’t go online. He works on this issue through the foundation at webfoundation.org, which examines the challenges in this area. Surprisingly, lack of signal with which to log onto the Web is not the main thing holding back the spread of the Web. 80% of the world has access to the Web, but, for some reason, chooses not to use it.

The cost of data is partially to blame in many cases for this, and for those who cannot afford data plans through their carriers, they’re limited to SMS for sharing information. But SMS is very constraining, says Berners-Lee. What’s needed instead are better, more low-cost data plans for mobile phones. Carriers should want to offer these plans because once people get a taste of what a data plan can provide, they’re potential customers for an upgrade to a more expensive plan that offers even more data and would generate more revenue for carriers.

Affordability of Web access is an area which Nokia thinks about when building their technologies. For example, Nokia’s Ovi Maps service uses compression so as not to need data access when zooming in and out, unlike competing service from Google Maps. Nokia’s messaging services also compress data and as, Mary McDowell, Nokia’s EVP of Mobile Phones, mentioned in the keynote speech following Berners-Lee’s, Nokia’s recent acquisition of mobile Internet company Novarra was primarily for access to its proxy-browsing browser technology, which saves on clicks, while also providing faster and more efficient access to the Web. This is an important technology for emerging markets where data plans are pricey, but needed.

Disclosure: Nokia paid for this reporter’s travel and accommodations to Nokia World 2010.

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