Dawn of the web potato

Web video isn't just for stupid pet tricks. It's driving the Internet's future, says Fortune's Brent Schlender.

By Brent Schlender, Fortune editor-at-large

(Fortune Magazine) -- It's time to retire "surfing the Web" from the Dictionary of Internet Jargon. You hardly ever hear it nowadays because that's not what most of us do when we go online anymore. We don't surf; we do specific things - e-mailing, instant messaging, shopping, Googling.

And according to two recent studies from Cisco and the Online Publishing Association (OPA), what people do more than anything online is consume "content": look at videos and photographs, read the news, and get the lowdown on friends and celebrities at MySpace or Facebook. In other words, we've become Web potatoes.

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This is a big deal. For one thing, the more time people spend online, the more attractive the media become to advertisers. That's why Google (Charts, Fortune 500) recently started experimenting with overlay ads on YouTube videos. Get used to it.

But there are other consequences. When a politician's gaffe or a waterskiing squirrel or whatever gets hot on YouTube, the sudden surge of petabytes or even exabytes of digital data can tax the Internet infrastructure. (To give you an idea, one petabyte is one million gigabytes, or the numeral one followed by 15 zeroes; an exabyte is one billion gigabytes, or the numeral one followed by 18 zeroes.)

When you add in all the new stuff that's moving online - telephones, videoconferencing, high-definition TV, as well as much of the computing interactions of business and government - some even predict digital brownouts.

The OPA study measures how Internet users spend their time, while Cisco's white paper tracks how and where the bits we consume come and go. So they are counting different things. But they arrive at pretty much the same conclusion: that consumer usage of the Internet now is growing much faster than - and is about to outstrip - business and government traffic. Consumer content, especially video, will drive the Internet for the foreseeable future.

Both studies are full of interesting, if debatable, statistics, observations, and predictions. The OPA's Internet activity index contends that a typical Internet user spends 47% of his time online looking at content, 33% communicating, 15% shopping, and 5% Googling or using other search engines.

The definitions of those categories, however, are a little fuzzy, and the search figure seems strikingly low, although the OPA emphasizes that search activities have grown as a proportion of Internet time by 35% since 2003, when they accounted for merely 3%. (To me, however, that statistic implies that search engines might be getting worse.)

Cisco's white paper, called "The Exabyte Era," strenuously asserts that the Internet is in no danger of "collapsing under YouTube traffic, nor is it likely to," despite the fact that in North America online video transmission has swelled to 18% of all Internet traffic in 2007, from 7% in 2005, and will grow tenfold by 2011. Cisco (Charts, Fortune 500) also estimates that consumer traffic, which is expanding at a 57% annual clip, compared with 37% for all Internet use, is on the verge of blowing past business as the biggest user segment of Internet activity.

Of course, you also have to consider where these numbers are coming from. The OPA is an industry association whose primary mission is "to advance the interests of high-quality online publishers before the advertising community," and obviously it's in Cisco's interest to portray its own growth potential as unlimited.

But in a general sense they're right because, as the wild popularity of YouTube has shown, video and the Web were made for each other. It's only a matter of time before most video - even plain old TV - will be delivered to the living room via the Web.

So here we are. The Internet is on the threshold of becoming synonymous with all media and communications. Fifty years ago it was military largesse that fostered the origin of the semiconductor chip, the computer, and the Internet. The needs of business took information technology to the next level as corporations retooled chips and computers and software and networks to automate much of their operations.

And now, not so long after the turn of the 21st century, the most exciting things emerging from IT are a result of consumers' unquenchable thirst for something to watch. Surf's up.  Top of page