Bali, Indonesia, October 29, 2009.
Today is the 40th Anniversary of the birth of the Internet. 1969 was a very big year for technology. Governments led the space race, resulting in the first weather satellite, the first communications satellite, the first planet landing (Venus), the first spacewalk (the moon).
Universities gave us the first optical ID of a pulsar, the first human eye transplant, the isolation of a single gene and the creation of the Internet. Commercial enterprise gave us the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and the Concorde broke the sound barrier.
Of all the technology marvels of 1969, the Internet has been a late bloomer. Email was introduced in 1971, but it wasn't till 1990 that Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) with the help of Robert Cailliau and a students at CERN implemented the first successful communication between an HTTP client and server via the Internet -- thus creating the World Wide Web. Again years passed by with no real adoption until March 1993 when Mosaic, the first accessible browser became available. The week Mosaic was released I was so excited I asked my family to crowd around a home computer to see the innovation that I knew could now finally change the world.
Reflecting back, I got my first "real" job in 1977, working at Bell Northern Research. I was part of a team of technologists and social scientists whose task it was to understand what was then called "The Office of the Future." Our group was researching how multi-function workstations connected to a vast network of networks (back then called the Arpanet) would change the nature of knowledge work and the design or organizations.
As part of my job I traveled around the world trying to meet anyone who might know something about how emerging technologies would impact business. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with some of the pioneers of the digital age like Stanford Research Institute's Douglas Englebart. I'll never forget him showing me his "augmented knowledge workshop" complete with hypertext, collaboration tools and a strange device he called a "mouse."
In the late 1970s at Bell, we had a pilot of 50 managers and professionals (including our CEO) using workstations, that had similar functionality to today's laptops - only we were using dumb terminals connected to mini-computers in turn connected to the packet switching network. We used email, word processing, time management, document handling, "computer conferencing" and other applications that are the bread and butter of knowledge work today. We even co-authored documents from multiple sources, a precursor to today's wikis. But for years people said computer networking would never go anywhere. The reason? "Managers will never learn to type."
In fact, the first 25 years of the Internet story has little commercial fingerprint other than the fact that packet switching and email were key to keeping early users like myself connected. Leonard Kleinrock, one of the best known of the Internet creators, tells a great story about AT&T taking a pass on his invention of packet switching because they didn't care about data transfer, only voice. Kevin Kimberlin, the angel investor behind wave division multiplexing, also tells a great story about the inventor David Huber being fired by his telephony employer because his bosses couldn't imagine any use for high speed transfers and large file capacity.
When it came to the capacity of the Net, academics, Defense Department employees and researchers like me had effectively a small, private lane that limited everything. Then, over a period of just 6 months in the mid-1990s, two events occurred:
1. The Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996 opened monopoly telecom systems to competition.
2. Sprint commercially deployed WDM (Wave Division Multiplexing) which made possible the transmission of multiple "lanes" of information simultaneously over a single fiber.
These two things combined to allow "full utilization of the data superhighway," as Kimberlin wrote in that initial WDM business plan back in 1993. During the subsequent decade, communication costs dropped ten thousand-fold. Today this low-cost backbone is the foundation for the digital community, which includes one fourth of the human race.
The 40 year history is rich with so many lessons. We have a story where leaders of old paradigms were blind to the potentiality of the new. We have a story where federal and academic spending profoundly change the economic landscape for the better. We have a story where individuals with a technology vision do not take no for an answer, and prevail.
So Happy Anniversary, Internet. May the creativity, the collaboration and the passion that combine in your life story also characterize the decades to come, and may the year 1969 reinvigorate in us our competitive and collaborative best.
I have a small present for you. I'm going to make a donation to http://www.tigweb.org/ - a not-for profit network of millions of young people who want to improve the world. I'm hopeful that others will send you similar presents as well.
Follow Don Tapscott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dtapscott