Fortune Magazine
Fast Forward
China's lead in tech
As Internet technology moves toward the next generation, will lassitude doom the United States to relative mediocrity?
By David Kirkpatrick, FORTUNE senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - "The U.S. is a few years behind the rest of the world," says Tom Patterson.

It's the kind of statement I've grown weary of, yet here it is again, referring this time not to broadband penetration or cellphone sophistication, but to progress on implementing the next-generation Internet.

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Patterson is an expert on Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), a set of transmission standards global groups have adopted to expand the capabilities of the Internet. In January he founded Command Information, a U.S. company that aims to help companies make the transition to IPv6.

While Patterson is not an alarmist, it's easy, listening to him, to become one. His basic message is that there's no question that IPv6 will dramatically increase the capabilities of the net, and thus companies - and countries - that adapt earliest will gain great advantage.

Unfortunately for Americans, the countries now moving fastest are China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Nordic countries, and France.

Patterson also says IPv6 has been misunderstood as merely a way to increase the number of available web addresses. It does that, of course. Today's Internet addressing scheme, called IPv4, based on 1970s technology, will max out at about 4.3 billion Web site addresses. IPv6, by contrast, will be able to simultaneously manage a number of addresses equal to 34 followed by 27 zeros. That's a lot.

Patterson says if we just wanted to operate the net as we do today we could get by with the addresses we have. But IPv6 enables whole new ways to live and work, he argues. Because it can assign a unique Internet address to anything electronic, it can tie in sensors in our homes, vehicles, workplaces and even under our skin.

That will enable more-efficient management of energy, transportation and health care, among other things. IPv6 also has many capabilities to make the net more secure.

China's head start

China made a comprehensive national commitment to IPv6 way back in 2000, when it started working on what it calls the China Next-generation Internet.

"The Chinese are trying to build the number-one rated information infrastructure in the world, and want to announce in 2008 - at the time of the Beijing Olympics - that they are thus an economic superpower," says Patterson. Because it was early in adoption, China also had a large role in influencing how IPv6 would work, he says.

Patterson says the Chinese government has put special emphasis on taking advantage of IPv6's many capabilities for mobile devices. That will give people with cell phones new ways to connect to one another, save battery life, and manipulate other devices from a phone.

The world's most sophisticated user of IPv6 now is the Korean military, he says. Meanwhile, Japan has focused on the use of IPv6 in homes. In Sweden and Japan, government-sponsored TV ads promote IPv6 to the public.

The primary driver of the fitful U.S. adoption of IPv6 thus far has been the Department of Defense, which has mandated that by 2008 all electronics it acquires must be IPv6-compliant.

Patterson believes it will be the 2008 Olympics that finally push the United States to expand its commitment to this technology. "People in the U.S. watching TV during the Olympics may say 'Hey, I can't do that - how come a 13-year-old Chinese girl can?'" continues Patterson.

Time to catch up

Here's a consoling thought for Americans: If we get off our duff we can learn from the mistakes in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere.

Microsoft has built IPv6 into its upcoming Vista operating system, so eventually, as that gets deployed, businesses and consumers will have the ability to use IPv6 - assuming other parts of the U.S. infrastructure incorporate the new standards.

I'm sure some aspects of the transition will be controversial here - like its implications for privacy - but we haven't even begun that debate.

Patterson's main aim in meeting me was to promote the notion that companies ought to get on the IPv6 bandwagon. I'm sure that's true.

But in the meantime, he just gave me another reason to mourn the fact that I live in a country whose leaders seem to have little clue about technology or its impact on national competitiveness. Top of page

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