What we want from the Internet
Can you address this myth that the Internet was created as a
Department of Defense military project meant to survive nuclear war?
The first project that ARPA funded in wide area computer networking
was the ARPANET. It was often mistakenly given this attribute of nuclear
resilience. The fact is it was designed for resource sharing; it was really
to solve a problem that ARPA had when it was supporting computer science
research. Every single computer science department in the country said, "We
have to have the best machine in the world every year or we can't do
world-class research." ARPA couldn't afford that every year. So the
question was is there any way to connect them together so that everybody
could share? That's sort of where the ARPANET came from.
Obviously, operating out of the Defense Department, there also had to be a
rationale for spending money on this. The answer was computers should be
part of the command-and-control system in the military. ARPANET focused on
the resource sharing aspects of that, and a set of protocols were
developed. Then came the new applications of packet switching to packet
radio and packet satellite, which also had a clear military potential:
ships at sea, mobile units on the ground, in addition to fixed units in the
terrestrial part of the world that the ARPANET could address.
When Bob Kahn, who pursued this at ARPA, realized that he had different
kinds of nets that had to be interconnected, now we had a different
problem. It was clearly an Internet problem. By the time I got involved in
all this in '73 on the Internet side, it was clear that there was a real
mandate to make this technology work for the military. When the Gulf War
was executed, Internet technology played a pretty key role in some of the
communications, and it worked.
I think of you as part engineer, part diplomat. Do you agree that
there's a lot of diplomacy involved in working within standards groups?
Well, I wish that I could do a better job of it than I have in the
past. Whenever you try to deal with a large number of people--especially
engineers with very strong, almost religious opinions--you need a certain
amount of diplomatic skill to make things come together. In today's world,
it's not just engineering passion that drives the debate, but economic
interest as well. Let's face it: Greed is a very powerful force. It can be
used in very positive ways because it potentially drives a very positive
economic engine. It calls for yet a higher degree of diplomatic skill than
anyone, including me, really possesses.
Now that businesses have a serious economic stake in the
Internet, do you think standards are being adhered to well by companies
like Netscape and Microsoft?
All of these companies are building many of these products on
standards that are developed by the IETF [Internet Engineering Task
Force, a volunteer standards body], the World Wide Web Consortium, and
others. In some cases, they're industry-level conventions that just become
common without any formal approval. What typically happens is that in the
course of trying to achieve interoperability, one seeks standardization.
But in the course of trying to achieve product differentiation, one seeks
to become incompatible, to retain customers because only your
software can do something. And there is a true tension there.
I think if we've learned anything as a community in the last ten years,
we've learned that customers want choice, customers want interoperability,
and customers don't like being locked in. As much as I can
understand the Netscapes and the Microsofts of the world wishing to do
things that are special to their products to advance the state of the art,
I think they will ultimately find that their customers will insist that
their products interwork. I think that's been a bedrock for the Internet
community, and I don't think that's going to change.