The World Wide Web is just about 15 years old, but already it is showing signs of wear as growing demand for Internet addresses and everyday functionality challenge the limits of the technology behind the Web.
In the not-so distant future, for example, computers and mobile devices will likely communicate easily and securely with refrigerators, light switches and other appliances.
Much of that can already be done with today's technology, but some industry insiders say the current Internet standard falls short of being able to meet the full potential of such functionality.
It's time, they say, for an upgrade.
Companies led by Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp and KDDI Corp believe the solution is a nascent next-generation standard: Internet Protocol, version 6 (IPv6).
The advanced technology allows for virtually an unlimited number of Internet addresses, making it possible for every home appliance or device to be given its own address.
The networks will be more efficient and architecturally simpler than current networks, which only allow for four billion addresses -- not even enough for every person on Earth -- and require a labor-intensive net of technology to manage them.
Security features, such as encryption, are also built directly into the IPv6 standard, unlike the current version, where security was added as an afterthought.
"As broadband networks become more common, we believe it will open the door to new services and devices beyond Internet surfing and e-mail such as smart appliances that will require more secure networks than are available now," said Satoshi Ishiyama, vice president at NTT Communications, the broadband arm of NTT.
Japan is not the only country focused on IPv6. In Asia, China, Taiwan and South Korea have also announced intentions to upgrade to the advanced standard over the next several years.
In the United States, the Department of Defense has said it would phase out purchases of current standard-based network equipment and switch entirely to IPv6 by 2008.
However, Japan has been the forerunner in the field, helped in part by the government's so-called "e-Japan" policy, which aims to create a ubiquitous network that will allow any device or thing -- be it an appliance or a box of cereal with a tiny tracking chip -- to communicate via the network.
IPv6 devices are expected to start entering markets later this year. The government estimates that new emerging businesses and services taking advantage of the technology will be worth 84.3 trillion yen ($809 billion) by 2010.
"Right now, Internet communication is subject to limitations of the network structure," said Jun Murai, a Keio University professor, who led the development of the Internet in Japan and is spearheading the development of IPv6.
"The structure of communications should be developed by society... Our job is to develop a technology that's as open and flexible as possible so when doctors, farmers, entertainers, or ordinary people have needs, we can meet them."
For now, the biggest challenge for Japan's two-largest telecoms carriers, NTT and KDDI, is to kickstart the momentum.
The two companies both say their IPv6 networks are essentially ready. NTT Communications already offers IPv6 service while KDDI started a trial on its network last summer.
However, with an extra fee and no applications available, there is little foreseeable demand. Moreover, many of the concommit to products compatible with IPv6 without adequate network coverage or users, and users won't buy into it unless it's cheap and useful," said Toru Maruta, a manager in KDDI's IP network department.
KDDI and NTT Communications said they are exploring technology compatible with both the new and old Internet standards in anticipation of a long transition phase.
Kenshi Tazaki, analyst at Gartner Japan, said he sees a lot of potential in the new technology but he doesn't think IPv6 will take off until well after 2010.
"The hardest segment to tackle will be corporations because they won't upgrade networks until they see how that will help them make money," said Tazaki.
"They will not invest in new network equipment just to improve efficiency, but if they see a direct correlation to sales, they will invest."