Calit2’s Larry Smarr on the Origins of the Internet, Innovations in IT, and Insights on the Path Ahead (Part I)

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university research as a crucial source for technology innovation—if not the source.

One anecdote he tells involves a presentation he gave in early 1994 to 50 chief information officers of major U.S. corporations like Wells Fargo and Mastercard that included one of the first live demonstrations of Web-browsing. Because there were only a few hundred websites in the world at that time, Smarr says his Web tour included the dinosaur museum of Honolulu Community College and a coffee pot at Cambridge University in the UK. A camera connected to the Internet took a picture of the coffee pot every few minutes so the university’s Web users could see how much coffee remained.

Smarr says the corporate technology gurus told him afterward: “You crazy academics. We can guarantee you that there is no business use for this World Wide Web of yours.” He adds, “Now that is a pretty interesting statement, because we tend to think that innovation comes from the private sector. But in fact, innovation typically comes out of the universities.” He contends that technology innovation is transferred from universities into startups, where it is distilled for adoption by larger companies into products.

NSFnet Internet

NSFnet Internet

Smarr says he saw three key modes of innovative technology transfer from the University of Illinois during those years: “One was that the people left and formed a startup called Netscape. The second was that Microsoft licensed [the Mosaic browser] and formed Internet Explorer. Just look at the ‘about’ box on your Web browser,” Smarr says The third method of technology transfer came through open source development. “Apache took our NCSA Web server and created the Apache server, which is the most widely used Web server today.” He estimates that a trillion dollars’ worth of technology innovation came out of the university during the 1990s.

“At the end of the day,” Smarr says, “I didn’t invent anything to do with the World Wide Web, but I did create an environment in which it could flourish. The most heavily hit website in the world in 1994 was NCSA in East Central Illinois. We invented the parallel Web server, which has now grown to scales of Google and everything else.”

In the beginning, however, Smarr says he was … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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