NEW YORK (AP) -- Flip the calendar ahead five, 10 or 20 years, to a day when cable television boxes, refrigerators, even electric meters are hooked to the Internet.
A day when mobile devices can handle streaming video and multiplayer games, and cars commonly come with Internet road maps. A day when e-mail, the Web and instant messaging aren't limited primarily to richer, industrialized nations.
Before all that can happen, the Internet's foundation must be rebuilt. The communications system that glues the Internet together was designed for no more than 4.3 billion computers and devices -- thought to be plenty 20 years ago.
Half the connection points have already been assigned, and the life span for the remainder is estimated at five years. At that point, a "No Vacancy" sign may have to go up.
Engineers are trying to move everyone to a larger system -- with enough addresses for every human being to connect millions of devices apiece -- but acceptance has been slow.
"We see this very significant demand for Internet-enabled devices into the several billions by 2006, but we don't really have enough address space to support all of this," said Vinton Cerf, who helped invent the Internet's communications building blocks.
The communications matrix currently uses a string of 32 digits -- each a "1" or a "0" -- as addresses to identify connected devices. This system is Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4. The next-generation protocol, version 6 or IPv6, uses 128 digits. (Version 5 was experimental.)
The transition won't be easy and could cost billions of dollars worldwide. Equipment and software used to route Internet traffic will need replacement. Operating systems and applications will require updates.
Replacing all hardware and software at once is akin to rebuilding an airplane while flying.
To ease the transition, engineers are developing ways for networks on v6 to talk with those still on v4. It'll be like running two separate Internets, with boxes in the middle to connect and translate seamlessly between the two.
Although the foundation for v6 was largely completed in 1998, v6 is available today only sparsely, mostly in pilot projects. Stan Schatt, a Giga Information Group analyst, believes v6 won't reach parity with v4 until at least 2006, and v6 won't dominate until 2010.
It's a chicken-or-egg problem. Service providers and developers are waiting for demand from customers. Customers won't see benefits until products and services become available.
And some technophiles oppose v6 outright.
"It solves problems people don't have and it doesn't solve the hard problems we do have," said Mike O'Dell, an early v6 advocate who now believes the Internet has far greater problems -- like how to more efficiently route data traffic.
Critics question the true demand for the emerging devices that promise to gobble up more addresses.
For instance, do people really want a unique address for a refrigerator -- allowing hackers to spy on individual eating habits -- or order you a truckload of milk?
Backers say v6 will ultimately be needed because the Internet is simply running out of numeric IP addresses, particularly abroad.
"We basically hogged all the IP addresses in the United States. So as the rest of the world comes online, there's a shortage," said Bill Moffitt, product line manager for Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system, whose latest version supports v6.
Lawrence Orans, a Gartner analyst, points out that Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology each got a block of 16 million IP addresses -- more than what's available to latecomers, including the entire country of China.
"In North America, there's a lot of apathy about IPv6," he said, "but the world goes much beyond North America."
Governments in Japan and Europe, where wireless Internet services are popular, have been pushing for v6.
No one's being kept off the Internet yet by address shortages, but service providers have had to use stopgap measures to keep the Net from reaching its limit.
One common trick is the network address translator, a gateway for multiple devices to share the same number. Think of it as mailing a letter to a central post office, rather than to a person's home. Individuals then stop by to pick up their mail.
That works fine when the device using the translator initiates the request, such as retrieving e-mail or a Web page. But for emerging interactive services, such as video conferencing and multiplayer games, v6 proponents say door-to-door delivery is essential.
Interactive services such as multiplayer games may fail to find all players connected through address translators, says Tom Laemmel, a Windows product manager at Microsoft Corp.
And with mobile devices, Nokia's Robert Hinden said, the inability to give each an IP number would be like having cell phones that could only make calls, not receive them.
Already, the standards body for third-generation, or 3G, wireless devices is requiring IPv6 support.
Sony plans to include IP numbers in such products as camcorders and medical equipment to monitor parts and initiate service calls when necessary.
In the future, electric utilities may equip meters with IP numbers to monitor usage and shut off unessential appliances during energy shortages. Refrigerators could keep track of supplies and order groceries online.
Consumers could program video cassette recorders and adjust heaters or air conditioners from work.
Privacy advocates worry that these addresses could ultimately become permanent identifiers for tracking, though IPv6 engineers say options will be available to change addresses now and then.
For now, support for v6 is limited primarily to Internet traffic routers and operating systems.
Cisco, the leading maker of routers, announced v6 software in May. Microsoft will ship Windows XP and a Web browser with v6 this fall, though the v6 functionality is initially aimed at software developers, not everyday users.
Eventually, backers say, v6 will be unavoidable.
Steve Deering, one of IPv6's lead designers, said v4 stopgap measures discourage innovation because new applications might not work universally. IPv6, he said, "allows people to invent applications we haven't even thought of yet."
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