WHAT’S MY ADDRESS?
A new internet numbering system could computerize everything, reports Brian Kladko
The Internet is running out of real estate. Just like a city, the Internet’s virtual space is divvied up into addresses – not e-mail addresses, but Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Each numerical address represents a piece of the Internet, and you can’t connect to the Internet without one.
The current version of the Internet has more than four billion IP addresses. But soon, that might not be enough.
Fortunately, there is a solution: a new system that will not only provide an address for every person on earth, but every animal, every electronic device, every mechanical part. Everything, not just everyone, could be connected.
“Because you have the ability to link everything to everything else, you could conceivably have your cell phone control up to 250 different electronic appliances in your home”, explains Alex Lightman, an inventor, writer, entrepreneur and one of the most ardent boosters of the new system, called Internet Protocol version 6.
IPv6, as it’s known, is a set of international standards, or protocols, that allow computers to understand each other. It will replace IPv4, the standard that has enabled the Internet to function since its creation 35 years ago.
IPv4 worked fine when the Internet was used by a bunch of computer scientists. Now that everyone wants a piece of it, IPv4 is seen as increasingly obsolete.
Most people aren’t even aware of their IP addresses, because most people don’t own one: the addresses belong to government agencies, universities and companies. When someone logs on from home, they borrow an address from a pool of addresses owned by their Internet provider. Although there are still 1.3 billion addresses yet to be assigned, that’s not enough to accommodate two of the most exciting trends of the Internet – high-speed mobile computing and Internet telephony. Both technologies depend on the ability of two computers to communicate directly with each other. Every mobile device, for example, will need its own IP address to tap into the Internet with a broadband connection.
The U.S. Department of Defense has realized the possibilities. It’s converting all of its computerized systems to IPv6 by 2008, so that it can create a “Global Information Grid” – a military network that would provide commanders in the Pentagon and front-line soldiers a wealth of information about battle conditions.
But drumming up interest among private companies, and their customers, is more difficult. So proponents are dangling the prospect of an automated, remote-controlled future: one that will be made possible by giving an address to every device, not just computers.
IPv6, for example, could make it easier to get a taxi when you’re getting drenched. In Japan, sensors with their own IP addresses have been attached to taxis’ windshield wipers.
When the wipers start moving in response to rain, that information is collected through the Internet. Taxi companies use the information to redirect their fleets to rain-soaked locations.
If ordinary household devices can go online, manufacturers could monitor them to make sure they’re working right, or diagnose a problem when they’re not.
If a digital video recorder has its own address, the owner could tap into it from another city and download a show it had previously recorded.
In other words, the Internet won’t just be about sitting in front of a computer, reading Web sites or tapping out messages. It will be about controlling the minutiae of our lives, down to the most mundane details.
“Your refrigerator could call the store when it needed to and order more milk because it would know you were out of it”, explains Doug Barton, general manager of the international organization that distributes addresses. “There are some pretty grandiose ideas behind some of these things.”
When addresses were first doled out, the United States – which invented the Internet – got most of them, even though many are going unused to this day. But when Asian countries finally got on board, they couldn’t get nearly as many, which is another factor that is pushing many to advocate for IPv6. At one point, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had more addresses than China.
“There is a real sense of injustice about how the addresses have been provided over the years”, said Jim Bound, a Hewlett Packard computer engineer who heads a group promoting IPv6 in North America.
Thanks to a reform of the way addresses are assigned, as well as a technological workaround that allows many network users to share one address, the depletion of addresses that some people had predicted just a few years ago has still not come to pass.
But Chinese officials continue to complain about a disparity.
Countries throughout East Asia see IPv6 as a remedy to past wrongs, as well as their best hope of catching up to, or surpassing, the United States.
IPv6 conferences in Japan and China attract thousands, and Japanese prime ministers even mention it in speeches.
Some IPv6 missionaries, such as Lightman, say the United States will pay for its complacency. As the rest of the world moves to a different standard and starts slapping addresses on everything with a circuit, the United States will lose its technological edge.
“We’re a bunch of rubes with respect to the new Internet”, Lightman says.
But even some IPv6 boosters, such as Bound, say it’s only a matter of time before companies realize its potential.
“We are not the overweight, sloppy ex-heavyweight champion”, says Bound, who helped select the IPv6 standard. “What we are is someone who’s ahead. And therefore, for new technology, we have the luxury of operating at a slower pace. We’ll get there when we need to get there.”