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Developing an anti-Internet

Network World, 6/8/98

I'm starting to hear about an Internet I do not recognize.

A number of speakers at the recent Vortex98 meeting (referred to by
Network World Editor in Chief John Gallant in his May 25 editorial)
and some of the speakers at the Second International Harvard
Conference on Internet and Society talked of an Internet that might
have been brought to you by the old Bell telephone system.

Oracle Chairman and CEO Larry Ellison, speaking at the Harvard
conference, described a network computer-based Internet in which the
average user would only have a Web browser. In this Internet, what
is on the desktop is simple - very simple - and is supported by
services in the network.

At Vortex98, three separate speakers from companies that make big
phone switches talked about a future Internet involving some level of
convergence between the current Internet and the current phone
system. The Internet described by these people looks, on the surface,
similar to the Internet of tomorrow that many of us envision: A
ubiquitous connectivity service that supports applications from
browsing to real-time voice and video. But looking a bit closer, one
sees that the vision these speakers talked about is what might be called
the anti-Internet.

The most important feature of the Internet is its support for
experimentation. This comes from the use of common, open,
standards-based interconnection protocols that are used to transport
information for applications.

These applications reside on computers at the 'Net's periphery and
can make use of support services scattered around the 'Net, such as
the Domain Name System. These applications generally can run even
in the absence of all services other than the forwarding of packets.

Things are different in the phone network, where applications reside
on servers that are operated by phone companies. These servers are in
the phone switches and service nodes. The user only has access to a
very dumb node indeed - a telephone. New applications are added to
the phone network by modifying the network's servers. But users
can't do this.

I suppose we should expect that people from the traditional telephony
and mainframe worlds would see the freedom to experiment on the
Internet as confusing to users.

But the Internet of these telephony and mainframe folks is not an Internet that I would be all too happy with. This Internet would result in the same dramatic lack of innovation that we have become all too familiar with in the phone system.

I'd rather keep the Internet we have today. Sure, some things could be better. For example, we could use controllable quality of service, and we at the IETF are working on that. But when you consider the alternative vision being presented, the risk of a little bit of confusion does not look all that terrible.

Disclaimer: Confusion, for lack of a better term, is good at Harvard because it is the unconfused who have stopped thinking. The above confusion is my own.