The Internet has changed family history forever, making research faster, more affordable and more rewarding. In the next five years, that progress will only accelerate.
Only a small fraction of the world's genealogical records are online today. On April 17, 1997 we sold the first Ancestry.com subscriptions. We had 55 databases online with a total of about 110 million records. We signed up 50 subscribers the first day at $49.95 each. Today a subscriber to Ancestry.com gets hundreds of times as much content and value as they did in the beginning.
FamilySearch is digitizing all the records in its granite vaults. Millions of rolls of microfilm, captured in more than 100 countries since 1939, will be digitized, and then indexed by a massive volunteer force.
Other non-profits, including Internet Archive and Allen County public library (one of the country's largest genealogy libraries), are digitizing content.
Amazingly, Google plans to complete the scanning of all the world's 135 million books by 2020. If anyone in your family tree was ever mentioned, it won't be hard to find the source.
With abundant online content, computer scientists will invent automatic ways to intelligently find actual references to your ancestors and bring them to you – in some cases, without you having to perform a single search.
As these linking tools are integrated into social networks like Facebook and Google+, living descendants will be able to comment about the meaning of each discovery:
"Now I know why grandpa always told me to study math & science – this newspaper article says that when he was 16 he won a scholarship because of his math skills and that led him to university where he met grandma."
Ask the typical teenager today where they would go to find their family tree and stories or photos of all their ancestors, they'll probably give you a blank stare. That will change because there will be "an app for that" as everything intersects.
Within five years nearly a third of the world's population will be carrying a smartphone. In 2015 analysts forecast 1 billion smartphones will be sold. There will be many family history apps.
My father already has a family tree app on his iPhone. He loves how easy it is for him to find a new source record and connect it to anyone in his tree.
The form factor of iPads, tablet computers, and smart phones will make them convenient for people doing family history from anywhere. Millions of genealogists will be taking snapshots of tombstones or other kinds of documents, and uploading them to "the cloud" where they will be accessible on various web sites.
Facebook and Google+ will have more than a billion users within five years, connecting both family and friends.
Facebook already stores more photos that any other site in the world. And Google has the largest index of content of any company on the planet. Imagine what will be possible in family history when this content becomes easier to find, share, and link to your family tree.
These kinds of sites will enable meaningful family conversations to take place around each piece of newly discovered content.
Hundreds of millions of people play casual games on social networks and on mobile phones. One game called CityVille, attracted 100 million users in 41 days.
The first attempt to build a mass market family history discovery game is called FamilyVillage. It has tens of thousands of users already.
Tools and apps like these coupled with more data will propel family history forward. It's an exciting time. The next five years will see more advances in this field than ever before, and all of us will be the beneficiaries.
Paul Allen was the co-founder and CEO of Ancestry.com. His current company FamilyLink builds social and mobile apps for families.