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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The Internet — It’s all Grown Up!*

In case you missed it, the Internet is now 30 years old (for more information, see Happy birthday: The Net turns 30). It seems only yesterday, that this network was just a gleam in a programmer’s eye. We’ve watched it develop and grow into a fully mature set of technologies. Not surprisingly, it has only come into its own and fully matured in the years 25 through 30, but its development and formative years were influenced greatly by a number of siblings who, sadly enough, never made it to full adulthood.

I think that in honoring the Internet’s thirtieth, we should remember and pay tribute to those network technologies that didn’t have a chance to make it as far as their now famous sibling. Some have had a lasting and visible influence on the Internet, while others are only a memory recalled when cleaning out old files. We sometimes forget that the ubiquitous Internet of today started as a inaccessible research network. During its development, there were rivals and cohorts that seemed as important then as the Internet does now.

Remembrance of BITNET

It has been such a short time since its demise, and yet BITNET is just a fleeting memory. Established in the early 1980s as a way to inexpensively link computers at universities and colleges around the U.S., at its zenith it probably had more subscribers than the developing Internet at that time. BITNET was interlinked with similar networks around the world. BITNET was a store and forward network which allowed the transfer of mail, files, and interactive one-line messages. This lead to the development of several network applications which are still in use on the Internet today.

LISTSERV was a BITNET creation. Mailing lists in general were one of the most popular uses of BITNET and the development of LISTSERV by Eric Thomas was one of the driving factors in making mailing lists so popular. LISTSERV made it easy to manage and subscribe to mailing lists and it is still the most popular of its class still in use on the Internet.

Ever heard of IRC (Internet Relay Chat)? On BITNET, the RELAY network allowed people from all over the world participate on chat channels which covered a wide range of discussion topics. You could also send interactive one-line messages to anyone else logged onto a BITNET-accessible computer.

BITNET’s downfall was the popularity and utility of the Internet. The Internet is a direct-connect network which allowed continuous sessions with remote computers. This made possible things like interactive file transfer (ftp) and remote terminal sessions (telnet). The same technology supports other useful Internet applications like World Wide Web and e-mail. Still, every time you use LISTSERV you should think of BITNET.

The Gopher Phenomenon

The World Wide Web has been around for a long time. At its inception, it was a way to organize online information, but it had tremendous overhead, requiring the use of hand inserted tags. It could mix text and graphics, however, there was no generally available client software which could display both at once. At the same time, colleges and universities were looking for a way to organize and present information on a network. The idea of a campus-wide information system became popular and there were a number of solutions which were offered.

The University of Minnesota (the "Golden Gophers") came up with an idea that took hold. It was a client-server protocol that allowed a server to present a simple menu organization and provide text files over the Internet. Gopher was exceedingly easy to manage. Your directory structure became your menu structure. Text files needed no special interpretation by the server or the client. Gopher caught on and rose up in a blaze of glory.

Gopher was searchable by server and searchable as a worldwide network. Gopher could be used as the entree to other Internet services. Gopher supported searches of anonymous ftp servers. Gopher could link to a telnet session which might open a connection to a university library card catalog. Gopher supported searches of indexed text (remember WAIS?).

One day, a research center called the National Center for Supercomputer Research (NCSA) came up with some software named Mosaic. Mosaic was the first generally available graphical World Wide Web browser and it served as the basis for the program we now know as Netscape. All of a sudden, WWW became worth the trouble it was to maintain. Here was a way to mix graphics and text on the same page served over the Internet. Gopher was still limited to a rigid menu structure and every item, text or graphic, appeared as one of the menu elements. "Phhht!" went Gopher’s rising star.

Gopher is now mostly just a memory. There are gopher servers still in operation, but its days as a useful network technology have been numbered for quite some time. Web browsers can display information from a Gopher server, but it’s been quite some time since I have stumbled upon one. Gopher did, however, provide the proving ground for a number of ideas, the basic one being that online information was a useful and worthwhile endeavor.

The Also-rans

Over the last 20 years, there have been a number of networks that have provided national and worldwide connectivity of one type or another. Before there was an Internet backbone dedicated to the transfer of online information, the simple telephone network was the primary resource to transfer data. Since it was expensive to maintain telephone connections over long distances, distributed networks that would make short and often local phone calls were quite popular.

UUCP stood for UNIX to UNIX Copy. It supported a network of UNIX systems that could make a telephone connection, usually at night when the system was less busy, and exchange various types of information. UUCP supported file transfer and e-mail. Network newsgroups were largely a creation of the UUCP network named USENET (as in "USENET News").

A similar idea took hold in the world of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs, remember them?). It was called FIDONet and was one of the first distributed networks in the U.S. widely used by people who were not associated with colleges or universities. You could even send e-mail to someone if you know their FIDONet address.

Freenets were internet systems that provided various kinds of information and online resources as a public service. The demise of the Cleveland Free-Net this year marked a sad chapter in Internet development. The Cleveland Free-Net was the first to make the text of U.S. Supreme Court decisions as available as a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. There are plenty of free sites on the Internet, but few with the public service orientation that the freenets adopted.

The Prospects

As it heads towards middle age, this Internet development shows quite a good prospect to develop and mature. Certainly, you can’t argue against the impact that the Internet is having on the operation of our business, education, and cultural environments. Yes, this Internet celebrates a quite happy thirtieth birthday, but as all of us who have passed that mark can concur, there are challenges and struggles yet to come.


* A "slide show" on the history of the Internet can be seen here: http://web3.foxinternet.net/mwilder/basics/hist1.html Other sources on Internet history can be found here: http://www.elsop.com/wrc/h_web.htm

Comments, Questions? Send them to Philip Baczewski.