Internet pioneers and their influence on the Free Software community

The pioneers of the Internet

The overacting love of open source by certain top Microsoft executives makes many in the community suspicious. Others of us believe that there are no dark intentions, but that it is a marriage of convenience. However, it was Steven Sinofsky, former head of the Windows and Office divisions, who put things black on white. What changed was the software market, and open source is better adapted to the new reality than proprietary software.

This series of articles tries to understand how that change came about and why it is good for Linux. In this particular post we are going to explain what was the influence of the Internet pioneers on the free software communities.

I have to make something clear. History is not a linear succession of events. It is reasonable to think that people who chose the same profession, studied it in the same books and faced the same problems, would work on similar solutions in parallel. It is known that there were many institutions in the United States investigating how to connect computers, and, almost certainly, they were also doing the same in the Soviet Union and Europe. But, the general consensus is that the immediate origin of the Internet is in the Advanced Research Project Agencies Network (ARPA).

We had left the previous article in the first successful connection test between two remote computers. Let's see how the theme continued.

To allow the connection between computers, it was necessary to develop what was known as the Internet Message Processor. (IMP) The function of the IMP was to receive the data packets (remember that to guarantee the transmission of the information it was divided into a length of fixed size) reassemble it in its original form and pass it to the central computer. For each central computer or node there should be an IMP.

By the end of 1969 there were already four interconnected universities; UCLA, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara and University of Utah.

The story goes that the first message (not to be confused with data) that was sent was the word Login. But, as the system fell, they could only transmit Lo. It took a few hours to reboot the UCLA mainframe and send the full word.

Internet pioneers and their influence on the free software community

One of the problems to be solved was how to make devices produced by different manufacturers able to communicate with each other in an organized way. Beyond the technical answer, the story is important to us. The chosen work methodology would be adopted decades later by the communities behind the majority of free software projects.

Surprisingly for a state body, ARPA did not set up a bureaucratic structure for the task of developing communication protocols. The task was carried out by some graduate students working in different units of the Department of Defense.

As they did not have a formal structure to contain them, they decided to collaborate informally with each other.s and publish its recommendations on protocols under the title Request for Comments (RFC).

This title was chosen as a way to increase participation and free discussion of content.

The RFC that would have so much influence on the development of Linux and free software had a humble beginning. It was written in a bathroom because its author did not want to wake up his roommates.

The de facto leader of the group, Steve Crocker, wanted written communication between participants (everyone who wanted to be) to be through informal and temporary memoranda. The end goal was to reach a general consensus and write code that worked.

Not that there was a vote counting system. The topics were discussed until they got something that everyone agreed on.

This work methodology had two objectives:

  • First, written documents are often seen as definitive and what the group wanted was to use the RFCs as a starting point, not as a restriction.
  • Secondly, it was sought to avoid the tendency to seek perfection that often causes doubts when publishing something.

The first RFCs they established the principle that no text should be considered a dogma, and that it would not have a definitive edition. They also implied that authority was derived from merit and not from a fixed hierarchy.

Crocker and his companions cThey created a work methodology that allowed defining the protocols that govern practically all data exchange on the planetto. The first technical fruit of his work was the Network Control Protocols that allowed communication between computers.

However, His most valuable legacy, that of open collaboration, will continue with us when the Internet is only a memory of the past.

This story will continue…


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