David Bennahum: [Some people say,] “Well, who made you king?”
Jon Postel: Exactly. It comes up from time to time.
DB: What do you say to that?
JP: I say, “This is the way it is.”
–Jon Postel, keeper of the Internet’s top-level domain names, in MEME 4.01
Jon Postel died on Friday, October 16, 1998. What follows is the transcript of an interview I had with Jon in 1995. This interview, and its introducton ,was posted to this Web site in early 1998. I have left the rest of the text as it was originally. — David Bennahum
Sometime by the end of 1998 you’ll likely find a whole new kind of Internet address– new suffixes like .BIZ or .WEB or .SEX– suffixes which will mark a change in the way the Internet is governed. In a sense, those who control the names on the Net control everything, because when all metaphor is said and done, the Internet is mostly a big pile of words. Words, like MTV.COM or ALTAVISTA.COM and HARVARD.EDU have become brands with real financial value. And for a long, long time one person controlled the issuance of new words. His name is Jon Postel. The Economist magazine recently called him “God.”
From his office in Southern California, this scientist has been responsible for administering name disputes at the highest-level of the Internet’s naming architecture. It is he who decided whom in a foreign country would be given control of a two-letter code. It is he who held, as Fortune magazine put it, “control of the little black book of Internet addresses that enables the Internet to work.”
When the Internet existed as a collective of mainly academic, governmental and military sites, this system was politically acceptable. Postel’s been involved with the Internet for over 20 years, since the time it was called ARPANET, and his central control of Names was a simple, efficient way of managing what was the Net’s ur-database. But in 1993 when the National Science Foundation transferred administration of sub-domain names, names like MICROSOFT.COM and MEMEX.ORG, to Network Solutions, a Virginia-based company, the old-boy network began to falter. With commercial entities relying on the Internet for commerce and brand expansion, the question of adjudication, control and accountability for the issuance of new “top-level domains” became a matter of great interest. The idea of one man– Postel– controlling a database of increasing value became politically untenable.
In May 1997 the National Science Foundation announced that it would not renew its contract with Network Solutions. In July, the Clinton administration announced it would transition the management of names to the private sector, and called for public input. Swamped with feedback, the consensus-building process stalled. Since then, Clinton has called in Ira Magaziner, a long-standing advisor, to manage the process. Word is that the resulting governing body will probably resemble a Board of Directors, with Postel as a member.
In September 1995, I interviewed Jon Postel. That week, Postel was in the midst of his first big public-relations crisis– Network Solutions had announced it would charge a $50 registration fee per domain– ending years of free registration. Postel spoke candidly about the inner workings of running the very hub of the Internet. What follows is an exclusive transcript of our conversation.
David Bennahum: How are you?
Jon Postel: Frazzled.
DB: I would imagine. Is that a normal, usual state?
JP: No, things are particularly interesting this week.
DB: What’s going on?
JP: Well, the InterNIC decided that this was the time to introduce charging for registering domain names, and there are a few people that seem to think it’s necessary to discuss this. For some reason, they all want to discuss it with me.
DB: Why is that?
DB: Well, I have this impression that you’re somehow deeply involved with these issues.
JP: Yes, I have been… Somehow, being involved in the network for a long time, I have gotten this role of being involved with what they call the technical aspects of the administration of the Internet. And one of them is how to set up these domain names. So in some sense, I’m in charge of what are the top-level domain names. Up until now, everybody has been fairly comfortable with the InterNIC actually doing the work of defining these top-level domain names. But basically, when somebody sends you a message saying “I’d like a new top-level domain name,” that gets handed to me, and I explain to them why that’s a bad idea. Then they pretty much go away and we go on as before. But now, with the InterNIC introducing charging, there’s a lot of suggestions that they are in a monopoly position, and this is not healthy, so that we have to have somehow competing registry services, and that means that there be some other domain names around that are roughly equivalent to the existing ones, so people have some choices about what names they choose and who they do business with.
DB: I don’t really understand how that would work. What does that mean for practical purposes?
JP: Well, suppose there’s a .COM name. Maybe there can be some other domain names like BUSINESS or BIZ or REST or something, and some other company was in charge of doing the registration in the U.S. domain. So then you’d say, “Gee, I’m thinking of getting a domain name. Do I want to get it from the InterNIC, or do I want to get it from New Company #1? Gee, the InterNIC charges fifty bucks and this other company charges thirty bucks. Maybe I’ll get it from this other company.
DB: But the cost is so low, it doesn’t really matter.
JP: It’s really quite bizarre, because it’s more of a perception issue than a practical matter. For anybody that’s really serious about having a network connection, paying something like fifty dollars a year to have a domain name is, like, not really a problem. You’re really only talking about the really top-level names, which are presumably the things that get these to big companies or universities or big organizations where they would spend more money thinking about it to write the check than actually writing the check would cost.
DB: I guess part of what’s happened is that the InterNIC has, in a way, become part of big… There’s some big business now involved with it that wasn’t there before.
JP: It’s been big business for a year. I mean, I was talking to somebody else, and they were saying, “Well, do you think this is a place where the research community and the business community will go parting their ways and go separate directions?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, because the business community has already taken over the Internet.” You know, maybe there are these vestiges left behind of some academic influenced interests, but this is just a step on the transition of making it all a business oriented situation.
DB: And that’s changing the rules of the game, I guess, to some degree.
JP: Yes, the rules of the game has gradually changed. Domain names are free; domain names cost money. That’s one of the rules changes. There really isn’t very much argument that charging for domain names to at least recover the cost of doing the job is a problem. There’s really nobody arguing that fifty dollars is too much in principle, or that it’s wrong to charge for domain names. But there are people who are saying, “If fifty dollars is more than it actually costs to provide the service, then having only one company being able to do this puts them in a monopoly rip-off position, and this is bad.”
DB: What company is that?
JP: Network Solutions.
DB: Network Solutions, yeah? How much money can they really be making off of this?
JP: Well, there’s very wild speculation. There’s a data point that’s about a hundred thousand names in the system now, and $50 a year, a name — that’s $5 million a year. Does it really cost $5 million a year to run the Internet?
DB: Probably not.
JP: And maybe, maybe not. Okay? What happens in the future? If more names become… Okay, that’s a… If all the people who just have names now, just current names, and that’s $5 million a year, every year, for all time, okay…?
JP: What about all the additional people? If there’s doubling every year, then there ought to be 200,000 names next year. SO that’s $10 million.
DB: Then it will become serious.
JP: So suppose it did cost $5 million to run it. It probably doesn’t cost $10 million to run it, even if there are twice as many names. So should the price go down over time? Or something. So there’s a lot of speculation there about is this the appropriate amount of money, and who is going to do what about keeping it under control, and is it in a position to make a huge amount of money over the next few years until somebody thinks of another system.
DB: Is InterNIC actually owned by Network Solutions?
JP: The InterNIC job is a… Well, it’s a little complicated. There’s a perceived need to have something like an InterNIC. So there’s this job role or function that needs to be done to the network. In ancient times, it was done by different organizations, funded by the Department of Defense, when back in the early days, all of the network stuff was developed under the Defense Department. Several years ago, when we said, “Okay, this is transitioning from a defense situation to a generalized, government-sponsored research thing,” NSF [National Science Foundation] stepped up to say, “Okay, we’re going to fund this network, this NIC function, and we’ll call it InterNIC.” So they put out a solicitation saying, “People who would like the InterNIC job, please send their proposals and tell us how you would do it.” And that resulted in NSF picking Network Solutions to do the InterNIC job, this registration job. So there is an agreement between Network Solutions and NSF that, for some amount of money from NSF, Network Solutions will do this job. Then, this was before the major growth of the .COM domain. So the amount of money involved per year from NSF was probably not enough to do the job that needed to be done. But also at the time of the solicitation, there were some comments in it that your proposal should have a plan for how you would make this InterNIC job self-supporting by charging fees. So even back several years ago, when this was put in place, the notion that fees might have to be charged was already in people’s minds. Now, it turns out that the way NSF runs these programs is that they just start them off and let them run, and without a whole lot of busybody meddling and by micro- management. But then about part-way down through the contract date, they invoke a review. NSF goes off and finds ten or twenty people from the community, whatever they think the community is, that broad spectrum of techies and users and company people and university people, and just a whole variety, lots of different points of view represented, and they have this review where the contractor comes in and explains what they’ve been doing for the last whatever it is, 18 months, and what they’re planning to do for the next 18 months, the problems they have and what solutions they have and what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve failed to accomplish,. And then the review panel goes off in secret, and cooks up a report, and sends the report in to NSF, and says, “This is what we thought of your project, and this is what we think you ought to do to make it better for the next time period.” So they had a review of the InterNIC back in December . And one of the really strong recommendations by the review panel was, “These guys should be charging for these commercial registrations; NSF shouldn’t be paying for that.” So here it is nine months later, and they’re saying, “Okay, here’s our charging plan.”
DB: Right. And that opened up a whole new can of worms.
JP: Right. And then people say “That’s like you’re changing the rules. We’re going to argue about it.” I mean, any time there’s any rule that gets changed, there’s a whole bunch of people that jump up and say, “You changed the rules; we’re going to argue about it.”
DB: What’s interesting now, I guess, is that at least back then, and even as of last December, the NSF had some role, but now my understanding is that NSF is basically gone.
JP: No. NSF is still…they still have this cooperative agreement with Network Solutions, and it has another year or so to run. There’s still a relationship there until that agreement runs out. Whether or not NSF is now putting as much money into Network Solutions as they have been in the past is an open question. I suppose it would be a matter of record, and you could get that information from the government eventually. But I don’t know that anybody is saying too publicly what their current financial arrangement is.
DB: But in a way, NSF is the nominal authority, right?
JP: You know, following the Golden Rule. They’ve been paying for this operation, and then having something to say about how it’s done. That’s very prudent.
DB: But once the operation was paid for by the public, then I wonder who is in charge.
JP: Right. Well, that’s like the next thing to get worked out. What’s going to be the plan when the cooperative agreement ends? And what is going to be the… Right now, if you said, you know, “Network Solutions is really screwing up and I’m really upset about it; I want to go talk to their boss and get them straightened out,” well, you would go talk to NSF and raise the issues there, because NSF is paying them. But when that agreement runs out, what is the oversight committee for Network Solutions?
DB: Right. It would seem like there isn’t any, in a way.
JP: Right. So I think that’s an important problem. So I think that something will be developed in the next year, before that contract runs out, to create an oversight body for Internet registries in general. And then that could answer… And that might be in parallel or part of the project of looking at, “Well, how do we set up another registry?” since there is some competition in this game. So I think that the whole process has to be developed here for saying, “Okay, this is the way that these registries get chartered and set up. This is the way that oversight is done. This is how we can put some registry out of business if they’re screwing up too much.” So there’s a whole process plan that has to be developed fairly quickly now, to (a) enable us to put in a competing registry, and (b) to be the ground rules for what happens when this agreement runs out.
DB: I guess for the first time, when that agreement runs out, the Internet will be really out of the hands of the government completely, in a sense.
JP: Well, an important part of the whole thing, yeah. I mean, everyone has been very good about this. They got this whole thing started. They put a lot of money into it, all the up-front costs of getting it all started. And they’ve gradually let go of pieces here and there, but not like dumping it all at once. So they’ve been very supportive and they’ve been careful about turning it over to the community to manage on its own, or turning it over to commercial businesses to do parts of it, you know, in a style that keeps it running. The government doesn’t want it to crash, because they depend on it. So they don’t want to just slash everything off all at once and have a big crash. Because they care about it. They want it to start working. But if it’s mainly a commercial business, then they want it to be supported by the commercial world.
DB: Do you have a main undermining concern as this transition takes over? like your worst-case scenario?
JP: Well, I guess I’m concerned about creating this process for creating and controlling and overseeing registration. I guess that’s the thing that I think is missing and is needed right now. But I think it can be developed. I mean, it can be done. I guess my one concern is that some crazy people will go off and do something stupid in the meantime.
DB: Such as?
JP: Well, there has been some talk about just going and setting up an alternate registry without working up a plan.
DB: Mmm. How could you do that, really?
JP: Well, of course, it’s difficult.
DB: Has it ended up that flexible that someone could just go off and do this right now?
JP: Well, not really. I mean, technically it’s conceivable. But for it to be effective, you’d have to get a large part of the community to follow you, and I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
DB: So your role now from the technical side is that you had for a long time been the final arbiter of a lot of these domain name issues. What does that mean? Like, someone would say to you, “There’s a conflict. I have this name, this person has it already or wants it…”
JP: But only for the top-level names. I’ve really been very careful to delegate all of the secondary issues and all of the lower level names for other people to worry about. It’s their problem.
DB: What’s an example of, like, a top-level name?
JP: .COM, .EDU, .ORG are top-level names. But also country codes, like France is FR and Germany is DE and…
DB: So did you come up with those?
JP: Well, that list… We were very clever, accidentally very clever a long time ago, in that somebody said, “Well, what if I want to use my country as a top-level domain?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know…” It turns out that there’s a list maintained by ISO, the International Signage Organization, of two-letter codes for countries. And I said, “Okay, we’ll use the two-letter codes from the ISO Document 3156 list for country codes, and if you’re not on that list you don’t get a country code.” [SENTENCE DROWNED OUT BY SIRENS ON THE STREET] …what people come on to. “We think we’re a country, and we want a country code.” “Are you on the list? Yes or no? If you’re not on the list, you don’t get a country code. If you’re on the list, and you’re in that country and nobody else has got it first, then here you go.” So it made it much tougher.
DB: So you’d only get involved with these issues at that high level.
JP: Right. Now, one of the things that does come up is, supposing somebody in Jordan, say, says, “I’d like to have a country code for Jordan,” and we look at his credentials, and he says, yeah, he really lives there and he has a domain name server and everything is cool and he can actually do the job — then we allocate the Jordan country code to this particular individual. Then, you know, a few months later, somebody else comes along and says, “I’d like the country code to Jordan.” I say, “Well, we already gave it to this other guy.” And he says, “Oh, that guy’s a real jerk, and besides that, I’m from the government, and I should have it. So then I get involved in trying to sort that out. Usually we say, “Why don’t you two guys meet and agree between yourselves who’s going to do it, and tell us the results.” Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s sometimes dragged on for months and months.
DB: How can someone actually have a country code to themselves? It would seem that would be something that no one could get hold of, that they’d have to get a sub-code within the country?
JP: Well, basically we delegate the country code to someone to manage the path of that country, of that community. Then they set up some structure where maybe within the country they have, you know, a branch for education and a branch for commercial use and a branch for something else, and they delegate those to somebody, and then somebody manages that. Or like, in the U.S. what was done is, they said, “Okay, we’ll use geography as the basis.” So in the U.S. there’s a branch for each state, and then in each state there’s a branch for each city, to delegate it out. If somebody manages Boston, Massachusetts, then anybody in Boston who wants a domain name under that structure just calls up the guy who manages Boston. The whole domain name system was really intended to try to put a lot of structure into the names so that you could deal with somebody fairly local to you to get a domain name, if you were just an end user.
DB: Which has worked out pretty well in the end.
JP: Well, where there is structure, it’s worked out pretty well. But that’s the problem with the COM Domain, is that it’s basically flat, that every company in the world decides that they ought to do something about COM. So there’s this huge file.
DB: But you don’t really deal with that, because it’s below your level of…
JP: Yes. That’s InterNIC’s problem.
DB: So it’s constantly dealing with competing claims over…
DB: I see. So there must be some… These companies are probably accustomed to working under a legal framework or something…,
DB: …so there must be some frustration on their part that there’s like this bunch of guys that sit around that just decide everything, and, like, they say, “Well, who made you king?”
JP: Exactly. It comes up from time to time.
DB: What do you say to that?
JP: I say, “This is the way it is.” And I really think, in the whole thing about trademarks and domains, it’s an example of this whole different scheme of naming runs into… It goes along for years and years, and everything is fine, and then as it becomes much more commercial, it runs into the realities from another world. It’s really difficult, because it turns out the trademark world is not all that clean, and two different companies can have the same word trademark, just they’re in slightly different businesses. So you can have the Acme Moving Company and the Acme Laundry or something, and they can both have the word “Acme,” but they’re in different businesses so it’s okay. Then you go look at the domain name system, and you say, “Well, they were both registered in COM, and so they can’t both be ACME.COM.
DB: Right. That’s a problem. I’ve read that, like, Procter & Gamble had taken out BADBREATH.COM and HALITOSIS.COM…
JP: Well, that’s silly, but that’s their choice. If they want to pay fifty dollars a year to keep all those names, then I suppose we’ll be happy to have their money.
DB: What is your typical day like? Is it involved mostly with the management of the Internet?
JP: My typical day is to go to try to keep my research projects running. I mean, all this domain name stuff is supposed to be about 10 percent of my time.
DB: And is that still the case?
JP: Well, this week it’s not.
DB: I can see that. But normally I guess it might be, because it’s pretty self-automating at this point.
JP: I mean, at the level I’m involved at, at the top level, there’s years that have gone by and there’s been no top level domain, and like new country codes maybe two or three a month or something. And I just check a couple of things and say, “Yeah, it looks okay” or “No, they need more information.” That’s about it. So at that level, this job of managing naming the top level domains is really pretty simple. But when something like this situation comes up, then it gets to be pretty intense. So it’s lumpy.
DB: What are the research projects that you’re involved with?
JP: Oh, we’re doing research on high speed networks and distributive systems, just things like that. Computer science things.
DB: Who’s the “we”?
JP: Well, I work for the Information Sciences Institute .
DB: What is that, actually? I’m not familiar with it.
JP: It’s a research institute that’s part of the University of Southern California. Basically, we fit as the institute that projects here… Somebody who comes up with an idea for some advanced computer science thing, we go find a sponsor for that research, they send us money, and we do the research.
DB: So you’ve been involved in networking for a long time now.
DB: Is that your entire professional career, basically?
DB: When did you start out?
JP: Well, I started out as a student at UCLA when the ARPANET was first created. So I got involved in the ARPANET project at UCLA, and I’ve been involved in network-related things ever since.
DB: And how old were you at that point when…
JP: That would be telling.
DB: Is that okay? Are you bashful about your age?
JP: Well, I’m 52 now. So it was a long time ago. Last October, BBN put on… BBN built the IMPs [Interface Message Processor, allows any computer to communicate to another on the Net through an IMP, thereby solving the problem of multiple translation tables between different computer systems] components for the ARPANET, and they put on a 25th anniversary of the ARPANET party.
DB: In Boston, right? Yeah. And how was that?
JP: Oh, it was great. And it was good to see a lot of the people that were involved at the very beginning and see what they’re doing now. And it’s interesting, quite a few of them are still involved in networking related things.
DB: Are you part of a community?
JP: Oh, yeah.
DB: I mean, understanding a general trend in terms of how people’s lives have…of the people involved… Are there any common themes in terms of the path they’ve taken, or not really?
JP: No, not really. a whole variety of things have happened to them.
DB: But looking back at this whole period, from the beginning to the end, did you think that it was going to lead to this, that the Internet would become this kind of…
JP: Well, I think at the very beginning, we didn’t have much thought of what it would grow into. I mean, in the early days of the ARPANET, I’m pretty sure that most of the people thought, “Okay, we’re doing this as network for ARPA, and it’s going to have basically the key universities that are doing ARPA-sponsored research, and that’s probably pretty much it.”
DB: At what point did you begin to see that maybe this was becoming bigger than…
JP: Well, the program basically started saying, “We’re going to connect up these four sites [in 1969] and do some experiments and see if it really works, and we’ll connect up to 15 sites over the next year, and that will be it” — and was the original plan. So then it stayed 15 sites for a little while, and then they started saying, “Well, there’s these other people that want to get connected.” And basically, when they started connecting at military bases, because the military wanted to use this network for their normal communications, we said, “Mmm, now we’re getting people who are users of the technology and not people who are fundamentally experimenting with it.” So we could see that it could like keep growing for a long time. I don’t know that anybody really said, “Okay, well, in 1995 we’ll have 50 million users or something.” I don’t think anybody had that in mind. But I think that actually fairly early on, you could see that this was going to be a growing thing over the long, long term, because there just kept being additional things to be connected.
DB: You bring up this distinction between experimenters and users.
JP: The first set of people that got connected or really involved, as it were, are people who were computer science researchers and trying to do new things for operating systems or do things for communications technology, or maybe new programming language or something, but they were computer science researchers in some sense, and using the network as part of their research was part of the game plan. But then after a while, you got people who said, “Well, my main problem is I’ve got this database over here, and I need to access it over there, and I don’t care how your network works; I just want to get my questions into the database and get my answers back.” So I guess I would characterize that as a user view.
DB: I guess originally with the experimenters it was self- running or self-governing in the pure sense, because they really manage their problems themselves.
DB: How did the influx of users impact on the network in terms of the way it was run?
JP: Well, that had some effect, because in the very early days, there was like this thing about, “Well, on Tuesday morning don’t expect things to work, because there’s a tryout of the new version of the IMP code. So okay, fine. Now we have users on there who are saying, you know, “on a 24-hour-a-day basis I want to be able to access my database, and I don’t care about your experiments with IMP code.” You just have to say, “Well, gee, I guess we have to have a back room network or something to do our experiments on and be pretty sure it’s going to work before we put it into real time!” There are other things, like you need to have a place to call when you think it’s broken, and things like that. So other things for the users to call up and get information about what’s happening. So you get into those kinds of things.
DB: One thing that is impressive about the Internet’s history was the way that management was handled, that something like that was able to do in this collaborative way. It seemed like it was very easy, I guess.
DB: Is that true? I mean, easy to set up the structure that managed the thing, it looks like.
JP: Well, I think we’ve been pretty fortunate that people have been so cooperative. I think part of it is that people who use it, find it so valuable that they are willing to cooperate in ways that they might not be in another environment. If they say, “Well, what do I get by cooperating and doing things maybe slightly different than I would prefer, but going along with the group?” versus, you know, “What would the outcome be if I demanded my rights here and demanded we do it my way?” — I think most people have seen pretty quickly that they get a lot of value by cooperating and they get almost nothing by insisting on having it done their way.
DB: Right. But I guess that collaborative structure is under stress now, in a way.
JP: It’s been under stress all along.
DB: If you look back at this period of time what are the points that stand out as being particularly crucial ones in terms of how this thing developed? Real forks in the road, as it were.
JP: Well, certainly the key thing was the transition from the ARPANET to the Internet, and coming up with the TCP and IP protocols that are network technology dependent. The early ARPANET protocols knew a lot about how IMPs worked, and therefore, we not generalizable across the system…you know, from ARPANET to Internet to satellite networks and so on. So the idea that there was going to be several networks of different kinds of physical technology and different kinds of layers really drove this creation of an Internet protocol. And making this Internet protocol so simple that essentially any physical network could do it was really very important, in that… So now we have an Internet that originally ran on ARPANET and Ethernet and back to satellite networks. And the ARPANET is gone, the satellite network is gone, we have Ethernets, but they’re somewhat different than those original ones, and we have new kinds of hardware networks –and the Internet keeps rolling along. There’s nothing changed there. So I think that was a key step in the network evolution. And the actual… And in terms of management significant events, the transition from people using the old ARPANET protocols to using Internet protocols on the ARPANET was a very difficult transition, and a very significant amount of management effort went into that.
DB: In terms of an the development of TCP, is there anyone that would stand out to you as being a main contributor to that?
JP: Well, I think you have to give Vint Cerf a lot of credit for that, in that he and Bob Kahn developed the overall protocol idea, and then Vint was a professor at Stanford University for a brief time and had a group of students there that were there with him to develop the first program, the first code version, and documented that. So that was an early version of it that was the basis for lots of later development experience.
DB: There’s something that I find interesting in terms of the Internet as a model. At this point today, in the mid- Nineties, Internet is seen as the most exciting part of computing in the public’s eye. But it’s something that was basically created not by private companies but by a consortia managed by government. I’m wondering if there’s a lesson to be learned there, that there are times when these things are worthwhile, these consortia.
JP: Oh, yeah. I think so. A lot of these things that are actually effective were developed by a fairly small group of people, and then popularized through a very large group. I think the current World Wide Web activity follows that model. I mean, basically, this one small group led by Tim Berners- Lee in Switzerland developed the Web’s structure, if you will, of the technical mechanisms that would make it work, and this group at Illinois and NCSA developed a really good user interface tool [Mosaic]. And that pair of things, developed in small little groups, but then made available to everybody, made a tremendous difference and made this really interesting application. And now what’s happening is that people are very concerned about working and making products that have a consortium to make the next version. I think that’s a reasonable model of how some of this stuff works. This particular venture is not too strongly managed by the government, although there’s some oversight.
DB: But I guess what it did is, it created a level playing field, in that the base infrastructure wasn’t owned by any one company.
JP: Right. But I think that the really key thing to look at here is that both, let’s say, in the TCP situation and in the Web situation, there was essentially a version of a system that was completely freely available, that wasn’t tied to any particular company. I think that was very important in terms of the development. In the TCP situation, the specifications were publicly openly available, first of all, in that the government had sponsored the programming of it at Berkeley in the UNIX environment. And that code was fairly freely available. There was some funniness about licensing, but it was pretty easy to get. So that made it fairly easy for a company that wanted to go into business with a TCP-based product to bootstrap off of that code and do something. I think that the same is true with the Web situation. The Web browser code was pretty easily available, the data structure was publicly documented. That open public availability not tied to any particular company I think is a tremendous advantage for getting some good technologies spread around.
DB: As you look at the public’s perception of all this, do you feel there are some huge misconceptions, the way that people have about the Internet?
JP: Well, there has to be. And one of the things I’m beginning to be more conscious of is that when you get into an environment where you say the number of users doubles every year…
JP: Right? Let’s say that in two years, three-quarters of the people are new, and they’ve only been there for on the average a year. So they have no history. They have no context for what went before. And so, it’s very easy for these people to have misconceptions about how things got to be the way they are. And there’s not a lot of history books out there. There’s a lot of books about, you know, How To Use The Internet For the Complete Idiot thing. But there’s hardly anything that teaches historic development of it. Or very few of those people are actually interested in reading anything about it. So people will see something that looks a little odd, and they will invent a reason for it (people like to have reasons for things), and then somehow that gets locked into their head. And you get into some conversation with somebody later on, and they say, “Well, this was done because such-and-such.” And you think, “Well, nobody ever thought that.” It’s really very strange. So I’m sure that a lot of the users out there have a lot of misconceptions as to why things are the way they are. Because there’s just no…
DB: They have no context.
JP: Compared to the however many million users there are, hardly any of them were around five years ago when it was being decided.
DB: Exactly. If you had a particular message or something that you wanted to tell us about new-user, what would it be?
JP: Well, there’s an interesting question. Well, I don’t know. Maybe the answer is do your homework. Before you go off too excited about the brilliant brainstorms you’ve had, or arguing about why things are the way they are, maybe you should do some digging to see if you can find a document that will talk about it in terms of why the decisions were made.
DB: I think one of the ironies of all this stuff is that as we simplify it and make it easier for people to use, in a way we make it more complex. Because the people have no sense of history, they have no sense of how it came into being, and in a way, therefore, it becomes harder for them to understand.
DB: Because it’s hidden behind all these pretty icons and stuff. Then it creates two classes of people, it seems, those who know how it works and the vast majority who don’t.
JP: Well, that’s true in every other field. How many of us actually know how the electrical system works, how a distributional system works. We think we know there’s these big wires that come from someplace where there’s the hydroelectric plant, and there are transformers that are linked to our house, and then other things happen. I’m sure it’s a lot of more complicated than that!
DB: As this continues to expand outward at this dramatic rate, do you have certain concerns about how it’s growing? Not necessarily technical concerns; maybe social concerns.
JP: Well, I certainly do have some concerns about, you know, there being haves and have-nots, between people who know how to use it and other people who don’t. I do share concerns that people have about the potential for there being haves and have-nots, people who are way up to speed with this stuff and use it all the time and people that are not involved in this world at all. I don’t really know much about what to do about that, but I think that it would be good for society to look for ways to make sure everybody had access to this.
DB: The implication there is that it’s important to have access to this.
JP: Yeah. Especially as more government functions are put on the Web so that you can access information about legislation or city services or whatever by Web… I guess what I would imagine is something like public libraries maybe should have a whole row of workstations as webstations, that people could go into and do whatever they want to do on them, and maybe there should be other places to do that.
DB: I guess on the other extreme of the have-nots is the… I actually spent yesterday reading the Unibomber Manifesto, all 35,000 words of it. I’m probably one of like twenty people that did. But there’s clearly a cry of rage from this person about technology. I mean, obviously he’s got problems, because he also kills people. But to some degree when I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I’ll bet you a lot of people feel the same way he does.” Just “I’ll never understand this stuff. It’s magic. And I’m a have-not.”
JP: Yeah. Well, that’s why I think things like the Web are important, and to the extent that we can make it, in some sense magic, but something that people can use by, you know, point-and-click stuff, I think we’ll be… Society can be better if everybody can have access to it and it would be easier to use. In Santa Monica, which is right here in the L.A. area, they have had a project for a long time on computer access to city functions and information. They put up a bunch of hardcopy or scrolling teletype E-mail kinds of things mostly, a little server, that stuff. And they put a bunch of workstations and terminals in their public libraries, and they got quite a lot of interaction with a few homeless people coming to the library and would sit there and interact with the city government people quite diligently. I think that was a big surprise to a lot of people.
JP: Well, I mean, it wasn’t part of their thinking of how this would be used. So I think there is some potential there. By providing free access to it in some places, I think there is quite a lot of potential for having people who might otherwise be considered have-nots to participate.