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Happy 20th, give or take

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Internet was born, a new article in Wired Magazine ( ) makes the case for January 1, 1983. Exactly 20 years ago last Wednesday as a matter of fact.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Internet was born, a new article in Wired Magazine ( ) makes the case for January 1, 1983. Exactly 20 years ago last Wednesday as a matter of fact.

It was not 1961, when MIT uber-techie Dr. Leonard Kleinrock first published a paper on packet-switching.

It was not 1969, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was given the go-ahead from the Department of Defense to create a communication network that could operate in the event of a nuclear attack.

It was not on any of the many milestone dates in the 1970s, a decade that gave rise to e-mail and saw the ARPANET network opened to civilians.

Wired says the crucial date to remember was New Year’s Day in 1983, when the Internet switched its official language from the Network Control Protocol (NCP) to the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

While that may sound like nerd-stuff, from a technology standpoint it was the move that made the Internet of today possible.

In computer-ese, a protocol is a common language that allows one computer to speak to another, whatever that computer’s native language, or operating platform, may be. With several different computer platforms in use simultaneously, a truly universal language was the missing piece of a very jumbled puzzle.

Until TCP/IP became the standard, less than 1,000 computers were connected through the ARAPNET using the NCP. Programmers decided that the main problem was that the NCP language was not general enough to serve the growing number of networks, and as a result it would have been almost impossible to adapt the NCP to all the different computer systems that were in use back then.

The programmers realized early on that a new protocol was needed if the Internet was going to continue to grow as a whole network, rather than a group of isolated islands.

The switch from NCP to TCP/IP did not happen entirely on its own and it wasn’t always voluntary. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Defense Communications Agency had to bully all ARPANET users to switch to the new protocol.

To ensure that the conversion went smoothly for computer users (the protocol was already in use by radio and satellite networks), they picked a common date and time for the switch to take place – midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1982.

TCP/IP co-designer Vinton Cerf remembers the conversion as an incredibly stressful time:

"To get people’s attention, while I was still at ARPA in 1982, I colluded with DCA and BBN to shut of the ability of the ARPANET to carry NCP traffic for one day in the summer of 1982 to convince people we were serious about the cutover. We had to do this again in October 1982 for two days to emphasize that we could shut off NCP at will."

The message got across, and aside from a few renegades almost every computer on the ARPANET network was up to speed by the New Year.

It wasn’t a popular decision at the time because the NCP language was working fine for most users, and people were reluctant to go through the hassle of reprogramming their computers – things were a lot more hands-on in those days, and the switch required a lot of hard coding. "We had to jam it down their throats," remembers Cerf.

By any measure, all of the extra trouble was worth it.

TCP/IP was the protocol that allowed the Internet to expand in size and functionality, bringing us to where we are now – 605 million people online as of September 2002, and user numbers expected to increase to a billion within the next three years.

Which is right about when the next large scale cutover is expected to take place. The new Internet Protocol, Ipv6, will become the next universal standard in 2006, effectively replacing the TCP/IP.

This is a compatible protocol, and as a result there won’t be a rush to convert every computer and network on the planet at one time. Computer users and network administrators will probably be able download a patch for their operating systems within a few minutes.

This will enable the Internet to once again expand in size and functionality "indefinitely into the future," said Cerf.

It’s fitting that, just prior to its 20 th birthday, the Internet came of age in another, more meaningful way.

For years, experts have lamented that the true value of the Internet was not in commerce but communication – the free exchange of ideas and information to the betterment of all mankind.

Yet, until this year, there was little evidence of this intention. The majority of successful Web sites are focussed on entertainment in some way – e-mail sites, porn sites, gambling sites, news and sports sites with scrolling advertisements, file sharing sites that allow people to steal music and movies.

Just when things looked hopeless, like there couldn’t be any more spam or pop-up ads, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they would soon put almost all of their course materials – texts, lectures, lecture videos, study aids and presentations – online where they could be freely accessed by anyone.

The program is called the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) Pilot ( ) and according to MIT President Charles Vest, it has the power to change the way we view and share information with the rest of the world.

"OpenCourseWare looks counter-intuitive in a market driven world. It goes against the grain of current material values. But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT. It is innovative. It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced – by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate," said Vest.

In the near future, people around the world will be able to access MIT’s full range of courses. While they won’t have the degrees to show for it, the knowledge they gain could be put to good use in the fields of medicine, science, technology, social planning and education, to name just a few.

Going against the grain, MIT’s decision proves that the Internet, at 20, is finally starting to grow up.