I love the internet, but sometimes it's instructive to remember which internet I love. I came of internet age just as AOL was exiting the walled garden dark ages and introducing its customers to the world wide web. The internet, for me, is formed of HTML and hyperlinks. Search engines and messages boards. AIM and IRC chats. I was just out of high school when the web entered the "Web 2.0" phase, in which it has more or less remained. This is the world of blogs, Gmail, Wikipedia, Twitter, and YouTube. But the internet is never defined by these applications, merely expanded by it. Before my time, Gopher, FTP, and Usenet were the premiere internet applications. Nowadays these kids have Spotify, Snapchat, and Instagram on their fancy smartphones, and I begin to feel a little old. It's a post "world wide web" era. There are no hyperlinks to Snapchats, and Netscape Navigator would be an insufficient portal to Instagram.

And, of course, none of these evolutionary stages were inevitable. In Japan, for instance, around the time Apple was preparing to introduce us all to smartphones and untether us from our laptops and desktops, a vibrant mobile culture already existed. Emoji, texting slang, picture messages, video calls, and even mobile payments all were wildly popular in Japan long before they became mainstream features in the US. But those very cellphone savants were far less PC-savvy than their US counterparts. While fast forwarding through a generation of phone technology, much of Japan's youth missed out on "my" version of the desktop-defined internet.

Over the holiday break I spent time with a new new generation of internet users — my elementary-aged nieces and nephews. These are the sort of future world leaders who will have a hard time comprehending why a screen won't respond to their touch, and to whom Snapchat and WhatsApp will be the "old" internet by the time they're in high school. This is terrifying to me. But the internet must ever march on.

I guess what I really worry about is that the mobile internet, in its current incarnation, will be "enough" for a new generation of users. You can do a million amazing things with a phone, but every single one of those experiences was built with an old-school desktop or laptop. You know, one of those bizarre machines with a mouse, keyboard, and a stunning lack of touchscreen technology.

This is terrifying to me. But the internet must ever march on.

But the mobile-only internet user is a rising portion of the population. Home broadband adoption has nearly flatlined over the past few years, while smartphone adoption has skyrocketed. According to the most recent studies, about 10% of the population relies on a smartphone alone to access the internet. A new generation of cord cutters. Like the much-discussed millennial who skipped out on a cable TV subscription when they got their first apartment, in favor of internet-based entertainment, many of the smartphone-only types are young and never had home broadband in the first place. A smartphone gives them all the internet they need, and with phones only getting more capable and interesting, it's unclear what could persuade them to fork over the additional monthly cash for a home broadband connection.

Maybe tablets will save us. Android and iOS tablets are a nice step toward "power user" for someone raised on smartphone interfaces. It's surely my shortsightedness that fails to see the new-wave of tools and technologies that will make mobile devices as competent at creation as my simple laptop. But how will we get our tablets online? Tethering? You might as well describe to me the apocalypse.

The internet will keep evolving, but let's hope we don't forget about the best parts in the process.

Image by Matt Grimm


About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year