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December 17, 2012 | 0 comments

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Phil Zimmermann was a Colorado peacenik with a half-written program that he swore would one day let people exchange messages without Big Brother peering inside. The problem was, with a freelance job and two kids, Zimmermann could never quite find the time to finish the damn code — until Joe Biden came along.

Then-Senator Biden inserted a few words into an anti-terrorism bill that might make it easier for Big Brother — or, at least, Uncle Sam — to do exactly the kind of snooping Zimmermann wanted to stop. Zimmermann had a reason to finish the program. He worked day and night for months on the thing. All his half-formed plans to build a business around the software, he put aside. “When the Biden bill hit,” Zimmermann recalls, “we knew we had to change the facts on the ground.” He felt he had to get people communicating secretly, before Congress did something to make secret communications exceedingly difficult.

Finally, in June of the 1991, Zimmermann introduced a program called Pretty Good Privacy, which really did allow ordinary folks to make their e-mail all-but-unreadable to outsiders. Zimmermann made PGP available for free, and it spread like a bad weed, eventually enabling millions to communicate in private.

 For bringing cryptology to the masses, Zimmermann was inducted earlier this year into the Internet Society’s Internet Hall...

December 4, 2012 | 0 comments

The internet wasn’t built by money-hungry American corporations and Silicon Valley startups. It was built by a worldwide community of government researchers and academics who were primarily interested in spreading the benefits of computer networking to as many people as possible. It was built by men and women like Tan Tin Wee.

Tan Tin Wee is a molecular biologist in the medical school at the National University of Singapore, and that’s been the case for more than 20 years. But when he first arrived at the University in the early ’90s, he tapped the internet as a way of facilitating his biochemistry research, and he quickly developed a shadow career working to bring the net to the rest of Singapore — and so many other parts of Asia.

He had studied in the West, and he hoped to raise Asian computing technology to the levels he had witnessed aboard. “Coming back to Singapore, it was a computational wilderness. If the place where you worked didn’t have the infrastructure you needed, you had no choice but to roll up your sleeves and really get down to building that infrastructure yourself,” he says. “So I made a little excursion into the internet community — and the rest is history.”

Over the next 20 years, even as he was building an academic career in biochemistry, Tan oversaw Singapore’s first internet service provider. He helped launch the first...

November 21, 2012 | 0 comments

Linus Torvalds created Linux, which now runs vast swathes of the Internet, including Google and Facebook. And he invented Git, software that’s now used by developers across the net to build new applications of all kinds. But that’s not all Torvalds has given the Internet.

He’s also started some serious flame wars.

Over the past few years, Torvalds has emerged as one of the most articulate and engaging critics of the technology industry. His funny and plainspoken posts to Google+ routinely generate more comments and attention than most stories on The New York Times — or even Wired.

Linus, you see, has the gift for the geek gab. Some of his gems — “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” — are the stuff of T-shirt slogans. Others — such as his portrait of the hard drive as the new Satan or the F-bomb he dropped on Nvidia, “the single worst company” the Linux developer community has ever dealt with — have a certain knack for keeping marketing people up at night.

Torvalds can say what he wants because — unlike most of the world’s best-known software developers — he doesn’t work for a big technology company with a public relations department. If he worked for IBM or Red Hat, he’d probably be clamped down. But Torvalds is a free operator, his salary paid by the non-profit Linux Foundation. So whenever he needs a break from code-wrangling the Linux project, he fires...

November 13, 2012 | 0 comments

It is a bit of a surprise when Danny Cohen sits down at the table in his Palo Alto flat with nothing but a few sheets of paper, and a lovely vintage Mont Blanc fountain pen. As someone who built some of the foundational technologies we use today, you expect a flurry of gadgets to accompany a conversation about his journey through the inspiration and insights related to flight simulators, conference calls and chip making. Turns out a pen, ink and paper is more than enough to sketch out a lifetime of big ideas when wielded by the man whose curiosity and creativity yielded them.

Cohen, born and raised in Israel, had a friend in his days at the nation’s leading engineering school who was a fighter pilot. This was when Israel was still battling Egypt, and Cohen’s pilot comrade would tell stories about combat in the skies above the Sinai desert. Cohen became interested in flying, not just as skill to master (he would later become an accomplished pilot), but also as a problem to represent graphically on a computer. Here’s where the fountain pen ink starts to fly.

“The biggest problem in drawing this kind of thing, is there is a line that starts in front of you and ends behind you,” Cohen says, drawing out a simple flight path in blue ink. How do you represent that line, that mountain, enemy plane or runway as a feature that behaves like 3-D...

October 15, 2012 | 0 comments

One January day in 1998, Jon Postel emailed eight of the 12 organizations that handled the address books for the entire internet. He told them to reconfigure their computer servers so that they pulled addresses not from a government-backed operation in Herndon, Virginia, but from a machine at the computing facility he helped run at the University of Southern California. And they did.

According to news reports at the time, Postel made the switch without approval from anyone. Some said it was merely a “test” meant to show that the internet’s directory infrastructure could be repositioned as needed. But others said that Postel was making a statement — that he was trying to show the White House that it couldn’t wrest control of the internet from the widespread community of researchers who had built and maintained the network over the previous three decades. The White House was just days away from revealing a plan to reorganize the way the internet’s directory system was governed.

Whatever Postel’s intentions, the incident shows what a key figure he was in the rise of the internet. In 1969, he was part of the team at the University of California, Los Angeles that set up the first node on the ARPAnet, the research network that eventually morphed into the modern internet. He helped define the protocols that underpinned the network. And for years, he was the network’s primary...