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The Internet and My 53 Years Online

With the upcoming celebration of the 50 years of the Internet, I’m trying to figure out how the traditional story misses the powerful idea that has made the Internet what it is—the ability to focus on solutions without having to think about the network or providers. It’s not the web—thought that is one way to use the opportunity. The danger in a web-centric view is that it leads one to make the Internet better for the web while closing the frontier of innovation.

I see a different Internet from what many others see. Today I am working with peer devices with my home network as a test lab for peer connectivity rather than an Internet you access from afar. It’s not home automation as much as trying to understand peer connectivity rather than the web.

When working on home control at Microsoft in the 1990s, I realized that today’s Internet protocols didn’t allow me to do something so simple as turn on a light. More to the point, it didn’t give me a way to define a stable relationship between a light switch and a bulb or a fixture. The DNS doesn’t provide me stable names nor do IP addresses. If we can’t do something as simple as that, then something is very wrong. Those of us who can program around these issues encounter these problems long before others do. What others view as network services we see as meddling we must get past. Thus the telecom best practice of buffering broke TCP, giving us buffer bloat.

This isn’t new. In 1994 I was commuting to Microsoft from my office at home in Boston and learned how to make my home network interconnect with Microsoft’s, so I figured how using techniques like NATs (Network Address Translation) and dynamic address assignment. This meant that instead of paying a monthly fee for each IP address as my provider required, I could use that single connection and connect as many devices as I wanted.

The reason that seems the norm today is that I used my position at Microsoft to make it happen. Otherwise, the norm would have you still paying a monthly fee for each device, as you do with the cellular network. If the phone companies have their way with 5G as they plan, you’ll again be paying a monthly fee for each device.

When Dan Bricklin was faced with the need to do repeated calculations while in business school, he came up with the idea of the electronic spreadsheet. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to do the bulk of the programming. It was another powerful lesson in using software to reduce an idea to practice and share it with the world.

I grew up riding the crest of using software. Networking, as with the Internet, is just part of this larger story.

To understand my perspective, we need to go back to the start of my career. In 1963 I took my first programming class.

In 1966, while still in High School, I was fortunate to get a job working for White-Weld, an investment banking company that was offering the first financial information workbench for its clients. By that summer, I took a terminal home and was able to do what I wanted with the computer as long as I was making progress on my projects. That worked out well because developing software for others to use was what I enjoyed doing—both for the technical challenge for the satisfaction of empowering others.

Though my focus was and continues to be on the software, I also worked with the hardware as needed. I’d run my own wires to connect devices and modify the circuits on my teletype as needed. A key innovation was the modem—the modulator/demodulator—that enabled me to repurpose the entire phone network as a long wire. If the dialup numbers in New York were busy, I could dial into a port in another state. It didn’t matter (other than the cost).

In the Spring of 1973 at MIT, I took a class in which we studied computer networking, and one network caught my attention—the ALOHAnet in Hawaii which was nothing more than a bunch of computers and radios. There was no network as such. It also caught the attention of my classmate, Bob Metcalfe who used a coaxial cable as the ether—hence the term Ethernet.

While Bob Metcalfe had to convince his thesis advisors that the Ethernet would work, I needed no such convincing. The stated speed was 3Mbps (OK, 2.994) but I didn’t care because it was so much faster than the 9600bps (.01 Mbps). It didn’t matter if it was running at a few percents of the stated capacity. It was so much faster than the existing networks, and I could explore the possibilities. I even thought of putting it on the campus cable TV network as a broadband network (the Ethernet itself was baseband in that it used the whole capacity, not an allocated band).

Even before my 1966 job, I had tried building a computer circuit in Junior High though I didn’t worry about getting it to really work because I soon had access to abundant opportunities for writing software and learning in High School. At MIT, the then-experimental Computer Engineering program was in the Electrical Engineering department. Thus I learned about the underlying hardware as well as the software. In today’s parlance, it was a full stack education along with my experience in the business world.

I’m thinking about this as a look at the upcoming Xconomy celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Internet. However, it conflates the Internet with the ARPAnet. I see them as very different, and in writing an upcoming column (https://rmf.vc/IEEEConnecting), I realized the degree to which it’s not about the network but about the ability to create solutions without worrying about all the complexity and “favors” between the two endpoints. Actually, I do worry about it but in a way that doesn’t interfere with my getting my job done.

This separation between the “between” and what can be done with the opportunity has made the Internet what it is. Decoupling means that any improvements in the common infrastructure (the “between”) benefits all applications and creates opportunities for everyone. It’s a resource, not a layer one depends on.

The “connecting essay” was written before today’s Internet yet it is still relevant because it doesn’t really matter whether the underlying connectivity is the cellular network or a best efforts Internet. It didn’t depend on the services of the cellular network. In fact, the favors such as reliable delivery come a price both literally in the guise of a paywall and in limiting availability to where a provider builds out facilities.

When I read about 5G or a more secure Internet I worry that this spirit of innovation and discovery can be lost because the old guard is looking at the Internet through the lens of traditional telecom and with an implicit assumption that there is an intelligence that can be placed in the path to make things work better and to make the network safer. It assumes that we understand the purpose of the network and only need to make it faster to make it better.

I’ve written about the importance of opportunity rather than solutions. The ideas are counter-intuitive—the less you do, the more you enable others to do. Today’s Internet can scale because it is not solving problems inside the network.

I see a parallel with electronic spreadsheets. While there have been some significant improvements since I first wrote VisiCalc in 1979, the basic spreadsheet is still at its core. When people try to make it smarter, they limit the audience because the secret of the spreadsheet is that it’s simply a tool that reflects the smarts of the user rather than imposing its own. It’s the egoless assistant.

In the same way, the best efforts infrastructure that we call “The Internet” is an enabler rather than a solutions-provider.

It is a fundamentally different paradigm from the concept of telecommunications, which is about transporting messages intact as a service. The infrastructure exists for the exclusive use of the service provider that owns it.

Letting others, like Netflix and Skype, use it creates an inherent conflict of interest since they are taking business away from the other facilities. There is an inherent conflict of interest in relying on these providers for infrastructure.

If we are to make opportunity available rather than selling services, we need to pay for the infrastructure in a way that doesn’t require a rent-seeking structure. (https://rmf.vc/IEEEBBToInfrastructure).

5G is an attempt to return to the time of Ma Bell knowing what we need and building those smarts into the network for a price—a high price since it needs entirely new facilities. It claws the revenue back into the network and puts up paywalls everywhere. Those thwart the kind of innovation that has given us so much and in turn will give us more of what we had rather than creating opportunity.

This is happening just at the time when we are learning how to make things smart. However, those things can’t negotiate past barriers without making prior arrangement and without convincing rent-seekers that it’s worth their while to allow the innovations that threaten their revenue streams.

This was the situation in the 1970s, but common carriage laws forced the carriers to allow packets even though they foresaw the commoditization of their business. 5G fixes that problem for the carriers.

The other issue is the challenge of radical transparency. What happens when we can’t hide behind the village walls? The current in-vogue solutions are higher walls or more authority with an intelligent network provider.

We still have a lot to learn about this new world of radical transparently and some friction in the path might give us a breather, and it won’t provide us with respite from change. And if we rely on the intelligent network provider, we will find our future limited and our present retreating.

We tend to focus on creating solutions and providing services. I think in terms of creating opportunity and discovery. Opportunity works when we can survive the chaos and take advantage of powerful ideas. This is the engine of evolution with the few successes being more than enough to make up for the failures. I see the diversity (AKA chaos) as necessary because there is no fixed metric for success; we can’t know all the contexts and interactions.

The next 50 years of connectivity should be centered on creating opportunity instead of trying to merely hone what we already have.

By Bob Frankston, IEEE Fellow

Bob Frankston is best known for writing VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. While at Microsoft, he was instrumental in enabling home networking. Today, he is addressing the issues associated with coming to terms with a world being transformed by software.

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