Internets 20th Anniversary Is Not Worth All the Hype

The division between the jobs of TCP and IP was just one part of the Internet phenomenon.

Its easier to chronicle the past than keep track of the present, let alone anticipate the future. Its therefore no surprise that the end of 2002 saw a spate of articles crowing about the 20th anniversary of the Internet, as defined by the cutover from the ARPAnets original NCP to the modern combination of the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP.

At the risk of being a party pooper, this is a fine example of loudly missing the point.

Yes, it was important to move from the monolithic Network Control Protocol to the modular TCP/IP. The fundamental insight came not during a meeting but during a break from a meeting in 1978, when a hallway discussion produced a sketch on a piece of cardboard that led to the separation of "why" from "how"—the division between the job of TCP (breaking up messages to send them and reassembling them at their destination) and the job of IP (getting individual packets from sender to receiver).

This separation made it possible to build fast, inexpensive gateways—but thats economics, not philosophy, and the latter is what really drove the Internet phenomenon.

If youre looking for a defining event, a better candidate might have been in April 1969, when Steve Crockers RFC 1 (distributed by conventional mail, since e-mail had yet to take hold) inaugurated the Request for Comments process, which blazed a trail for collaborative development of technology. Or November 1977, when a joint test of three networks used TCP/IP to connect sites in California, Massachusetts, England and Norway—with one of the sites using a packet radio link from a van in motion on San Franciscos Bayshore Freeway. The rest, one might argue, was inevitable.

Its entertaining, to be sure, to look back 21 years—which sounds much more mature than too-young-to-drink 20—at the comments being made in January 1982 (a year before the debut of PC Week) about what was then considered the daring TCP/IP cutover plan. Those who were forcing the pace were taking a chance, as breathlessly narrated by ComputerWorld, that "an ARPAnet crash would seriously disrupt American research and development in many fields of science and technology."

One wonders if anyone who had then predicted the "seriousness" of a major Net disruption in, say, 2003, would have found himself moved to an office with padded walls.

Rather than popping corks for the 20th anniversary of the cutover, lets focus on the calendar for 2003 and its IPv6 Forum meetings in Bangalore, India; Taipei, Taiwan; Madrid, Spain; Beijing; San Francisco; and Brussels, Belgium. The Internet isnt defined anymore in the labs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the cafes of Silicon Valley but in offices and increasingly in homes all over the world.

Before the Internet can become the pervasive framework that no one could have predicted in 1983, it needs the enlarged address space, the built-in security mechanisms and the other refinements that make IPv6 a long-overdue upgrade—or the Internet can celebrate its 20th birthday as the end of its youthful vigor and the beginning of its midlife crisis.