Imagine if your cat had an Internet address. In the future, it will. So will your doorbell, your snow-blower, and each of your children.
Not before IPv6, though. The acronym sounds weird when you say it – “Eye Pee Vee Six” – but it’s an important one. An IP address is a set of numbers separated by dots that acts as a numeric identifier for every device that connects to the Internet. When your computer or home router or mobile phone connects to the Internet, each identifies itself with an IP address. If my computer wants to communicate with your computer, the two devices swap IP addresses and then data can move between them.
That system of numbers has been around since 1973 and in geek circles it’s called IPv4. But IPv4 has limitations, mainly because there are only 200 million or so combinations of numbers possible. Yet, there are 60 million people around the world on the Internet today. We get around that shortfall by sharing IP addresses when we connect to the Internet. When we need an IP number, our devices get one from the Internet service provider. When they’re done, the number is recycled.
But wouldn’t it be great if we could each have our own IP address from birth to death? Data could find us anywhere. Scary to some, perhaps, but in a mobile, digitally connected world, it would be very convenient. No more leaving your dental X-rays behind when you change dentists. They could be allocated to your personal IP address and could be accessible to you anytime you asked for them.
Because there is a shortage of IPs, we can’t assign an address to every person in the world. Enter IPv6. This is an update of IP address technology that some really bright minds have been promoting. IPv6 allows for as many as 1038 unique Internet addresses. That’s a really big number and hard to imagine, but put it this way: It’s enough addresses to give every molecule on earth an IP address.
This is going to be very handy because it means we can assign a trackable address to everything we own, so we could locate anything we wanted anytime we wanted on the network. It’s the underpinnings of the smart home where the home knows where everything is. It’s the foundation of a smart future.
Alex Lightman, spokesperson for the North American IPv6 Task Force, and his colleagues believe that everything that’s worth $25 US or more will one day have an IP address. (The one exception would be food: Your side of beef will not be on the Internet.)
From a practical perspective, this means that a hockey mom will be able to see all the data travelling to and from her children’s computers, devices, and, yes, even their Game Boys. She’ll be able to program the microwave remotely. And the fridge will call for a repairman and perhaps even get fixed remotely. Of course, there will be privacy issues, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
From a North American perspective, we’re a little behind on IPv6, while China, Japan, and Korea have been seriously interested. That positions the Asians and their economies way ahead of us when the next generation Internet comes. Lightman is worried about this. “We’re Napoleon and this is our Waterloo!” he exclaimed with a zeal that’s infectious. Rightly so.
Since the U.S. controls most of the IPv4 addresses, American companies are less interested in IPv6. “Cisco, HP, and (Internet service provider) NTT Verio have done their job on IPv6,” Lightman said, “but Sprint, AT&T, Microsoft, Intel — these guys have not.”
The U.S. Department of Defense has mandated the use of IPv6 by 2008. The rest of America is less bullish, although anything that the American industrial military complex gets interested in will interest the rest of America (and Canada and the rest of the world) sooner or later.
Lightman believes the companies that are not focused on IPv6 will come around. “We’re lone voices in the wilderness, but once Madison Avenue and Hollywood and Washington and Silicon Valley realize it’s important,” said Lightman, “it’ll be a chance to redo the Internet and do it better.”