But This Internet Had Such Promise!


It wasn’t the astonishing and radical new technology of the Internet that transformed my life in graduate school and defined my career, it was the possibilities. To a callow youth with a vivid imagination, the next 50 years of my life seemed instantly visible, so I joined the growing army of people with whom I could work with to pave a new road for communication.

That army was based in research labs, universities, and the military. Instead of pursuit of profit, it was driven by a mix of differing visions of what the world of the future should look like—more of an Internet of dreams than of reality.

The Corporate Politics of Technology

Today, these people are an aging, microscopic fragment of the Net. We call their successors the digerati, or technoscenti. But today’s technoscenti have little power to guide the evolution of the Net, as power today has passed firmly into the hands of corporations, with occasional intervention from governments. Neither the corporations nor the governments are inherently ill-intentioned, but their motivations are less human-centric. Therefore, we still have smart people working on the Internet, but the priorities and decisions are based on profitability, not on human needs.

In the old days, it would have been scandalous to imagine that something as important as Internet telephony, videoconferencing, or instant messaging might use competing non-interoperable protocols. Why can’t a Skype user call a Google Voice user, or a VoxOx user? It’s outrageous—but open standards aren’t always in the corporate interest, especially for the market leader. It’s illuminating to compare some old and new technologies such as email, instant messaging, the web, social networks, and calendaring and scheduling, to see how they have evolved.

Email vs. Instant Messaging

Email was designed back in Olden Times, without any thought of anyone dominating the market for email, or even that such a market might exist. Naturally the idea of “anyone should be able to send to anyone” became a bedrock principle. After a brief period of resistance in the 1980s by the likes of AOL and Compuserve, it became hard to imagine anything but the one globally interconnected email network we know today.

Instant messaging, on the other hand, had strong corporate roots from the birth of the SMS (phone texting) service. Moreover, the absence of early open standards facilitated the growth of proprietary services such as AOL’s AIM well into the commercial era.

The Web vs. Social Networks

The Web was born in a world where the Internet had achieved a kind of critical mass socially, within a global community of academics, scientists, and intellectuals. There were several similar alternatives to the Web that lost out to it, but none were commercial developments. All would agree that the same address and data should work with all software. This made it easy for people to write multiple, independent browsers and servers, ultimately driving the Web’s rapid growth.

The Web was the last massively popular Internet application to be based on an open standard. It made the Internet so wildly profitable that few, if any, subsequent successful applications have been built so openly.

Social networks, on the other hand, are a mess. The last thing a social network business wants is to make it easy for you to see things from other social networks. Instead, they do everything they can to make sure you never leave. If you use more than one social network, you have to make the effort of posting and reading in both places. It’s hard to overstate how much time is being wasted in this process and how an open standard could fix this, allowing people to waste all their time on the social networks themselves.

iCal vs. iCal

The calendaring protocol, iCal, is an interesting intermediate example. It was designed in the ’90s, when the influence of open standard philosophy was waning but still important. The protocol was pushed through the standards process, and multiple vendors use it to claim support for interoperable calendaring.

But the truth is, it has problems and as the role of open standards has changed, it has become much harder to fix them. Most standards need several rounds of revision and adoption, but with the waning influence of open standards, iCal has been left almost frozen in place, just good enough to use, but still bad enough to make you miss occasional meetings, or to get sorely confused about time zones.

The Dream Is Alive

Of course, there’s no going back, but I think we can still get the Internet we deserve if more people understood what was possible and demanded it. I still have Internet dreams—I dream of an Internet where my email address is the same as my Skype ID and my telephone number and if enough people shared my dream, it would come true.

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist at e-mail management firm Mimecast. Based in Michigan, he is the co-creator of the MIME e-mail standard and previously co-founded First Virtual Holdings and NetPOS. Follow @drmime

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