Internet godfather Vinton Cerf is not worried about video traffic bringing the net to its knees in an oft-predicted technical meltdown. Instead, at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival he warned that TV, and not the net had better watch its ass as it approached its own “iPod moment.”
Distinctly unlike most techno-pundits, when Cerf starts mumbling threats or using weird new phrases or conjunctions, it really pays to listen closely and unpack what he says. There is little chance that Cerf crafted his words to fulfill some kind of lecture-circuit deliverable, some meme-for-meme’s sake nonsense phraseology standing in for insight. This is a guy who got up from his terminal one day having built IP, which you just used, are using now and will use again in the next ten seconds; there isn’t much he can say about the internet that isn’t insightful.
Dr Cerf, who helped build the internet while working as a researcher at Stanford University in California, used the festival’s Alternative McTaggart Lecture to explain to television executives how the internet’s influence was radically altering their businesses and how it was imperative for them to view this as a golden opportunity to be exploited instead of a threat to their survival. The arrival of internet television has long been predicted, although it has succeeded in limited ways so far. But the popularity of websites such as YouTube – the video sharing service bought by Google in 2005 for $1.65bn (£800m) – has encouraged many in the TV industry to try and use the internet more profitably. Last month the BBC launched its free iPlayer download service, and digital video recorders such as Sky Plus and Freeview Playback allow viewers to instantly pause and record live television.
Dr Cerf predicted that these developments would continue, and that we would soon be watching the majority of our television through the internet – a revolution that could herald the death of the traditional broadcast TV channel in favour of new interactive services.
“In Japan you can already download an hour’s worth of video in 16 seconds,” he said. “And we’re starting to see ways of mixing information together … imagine if you could pause a TV programme and use your mouse to click on different items on the screen and find out more about them.”
Some critics, including a number of leading internet service providers, have warned that the increase in video on the web could eventually bring down the internet. They are concerned that millions of people downloading at the same time using services such as iPlayer could overwhelm the network.
Dr Cerf rejected these claims as “scare tactics”. “It’s an understandable worry when they see huge amounts of information being moved around online,” he said. But some pundits had predicted 20 years ago that the net would collapse when people started using it en masse, he added. “In the intervening 30 years it’s increased a million times over … We’re far from exhausting the capacity.”
16 seconds? That’s a lot of time to wait for Bambino!