Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Hooray! Today is the 36th anniversary of the invention of the ARPANET, which grew into the worldwide Information Superhighway we all know and love. It's difficult to overestimate the value of the Internet - I wouldn't be typing this here and now, of course, if the project had failed. Almost every advert you see on telly is accompanied by a WWW address; email addresses are now as standard on business letters as telephone numbers were in the eighties, the decade before the genesis of the World Wide Web. But the Internet is much more than the Web page you see before you when you open up Mozilla Firefox or Opera - email, file transfer, newsgroups, all came into being or were integrated into the Internet years before the advent of Englishman Tim Berners-Lee's incredible achievement.

Newsgroups, of course, were once the poor cousin of the Internet, maintained by a network of UNIX machines communicating over slow telephone lines, sending email messages explicitly from machine to machine before they reached their final destination - the old europe!america!asia!africa!ben format showing the path from your machine to ben on africa. And their popularity has since declined - but not their purpose. Most of the messages in my Gmail inbox are from mailing lists, where users of particular operating systems, fans of Lord of the Rings and connoisseurs of needlework (!) congregate to share ideas, news, problems and solutions.

At one time, Europe was engaged in the first stages of constructing its own continental network, based on the International Standards Organisation's Open Systems Interconnection framework (yes, that's ISO/OSI). The US government was even preparing to switch over to the protocols - I have a computer science textbook from the US that goes into the ISO/OSI in some considerable detail; (it also hails OS/2 as the operating system of the future - we see through a glass darkly).

The ARPANET, of course, was a US Department of Defense product - proving the old age about most progress being made in wars (in this case, of course, a Cold War, thank God - the concept of global thermonuclear war was the genesis of several great films (here and here), but in reality is just too horrible to contemplate).

Where was Microsoft in all this? Surely the Great William H Gates III saw this coming? (I have even heard people try to tell me he invented the whole thing). Well, no, actually - after the WWW rose to prominence, he set about setting up the Microsoft Network as a rival to the Internet; after an abrupt realization (and about turn) he bought the rights to the Spyglass company's Internet browser, morphed it into the much-beloved Internet Exploiter, and passed the royalties onto Spyglass. Of course, since IE was bundled with every copy of Windows, Spyglass in fact got a big fat wad of nothing.

It's tempting to weigh in once again against All-Knowing Bill (the man who once said "640K should be enough for anybody" now brings you Windows Vista, at a cool 15 gigabytes), but it's not as if he was the first to miss the boat. The Unix vendors (I use the mixed-case spelling, rather than the trademarked all-uppercase-UNIX, in deference to inventor Ken Thompson's wishes) spent years arguing and competing amongst themselves, with the result that Bill Gates was able to amaze the world in 1995 with "innovative" technologies that were, it's true, a vast improvement over DOS, but which had mostly been invented 10 years or more before. Though, I do seem to remember DOS crashing less.

IBM, of course, were so late in coming to the PC market that they didn't have time to come up with their own design, and so left the way open for cloned machines to take them over. IBM is now a global services company and recently sold their comparatively small Personal Computing division to Lenovo, who make desktop computers and laptops licensed under the IBM name. And long before that, IBM founder Thomas J Watson, whose name now graces one of the great islands of Hackerdom, the eponymous Labs at IBM, remarked that there would only ever be a market for FOUR computers!

It's notable that the Internet was one of the first computing-related "open source" technologies and arguably gave rise to whatever popularity the Unix vendors did enjoy despite themselves. In a world where just about every computing manufacturer came up with its own designs - often several incompatible ones like the DEC PDP-10 and PDP-11, which were based on entirely different architectures - and even multiple operating systems for one machine, the ARPANET community selected Unix because it was the only one that was available for more than one machine, and could be extended by third parties to provide capabilities not even dreamed of by the manufacturer. In the computing world this is still rare, but FOSS technologies, despite all the mud-slinging by the proprietary software dinosaurs, are starting to win. The game's not over, but I think in the end we will win it. It's up to the proprietary dinosaurs to decide whether to join the party or get stuck in the closed-source tarpit. They are welcome to join us, but if they don't they better hope they don't get lost in the mire of the hundreds of other companies that bet the farm on their own company-specific architecture, and lost.

I've blathered on quite enough about this, now, I think, but if you're interested in knowing more I highly recommend the book Where Wizards Stay up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Larry Roberts, Frank Heart and Bob Kahn.


All text in this post is copyright (c) 2006 Jeff Rollin. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

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