Untold Internet: The Internet-OSI Standards Wars

November 12, 2015

The 1973 paper by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn describing TCP/IP represented the start of the ‘Internet Age.’ By 1987, key developments in the U.S. planted seeds for the global Internet: adoption of TCP/IP by the ARPANET, and two TCP/IP-based, National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded community networks. These were CSNET (the Computer Science Network) and the NSFNET.

What is often overlooked is that this U.S. activity was not emulated elsewhere. Governments of almost every country actively opposed Internet adoption. They viewed the Internet as a non-standard U.S. technology. They favored a collection of protocols, commonly referred to as OSI (Open Systems Interconnection), being developed by the world’s standards bodies (such as the International Organization for Standardization). In Europe, most national governments and the European Commission would not fund Internet R&D.

In the U.S., there also was anti-Internet pressure. The Commerce Department supported the GOSIP (Government OSI Profile) directive requiring that OSI be included on U.S. government computer purchases. And many U.S. companies preferred OSI to TCP/IP.

So why did the Internet prevail? The OSI standards, designed by committees, were a hodgepodge of functionality. There were built-in barriers to interoperability. Some were never fully implemented. Standards adoption took years. The effort essentially collapsed as a result of its cumbersome processes. Conversely, Internet development was lightweight, depending on iterative open community-based design and continuous testing of prototype code for correctness and interoperability. And throughout the 1980s, NSF and DARPA did not waver in their support of the Internet.

As a result, by 1990, the Internet had won. This competition had cost the non-U.S. world dearly. Billions of dollars were wasted and, perhaps more important, the result of government interference was that the commercial benefits of the Internet largely flowed to U.S. industry.

Authored by Internet Hall of Fame inductee Lawrence Landweber ([email protected]), this is the second in a three-part series, the 'Untold Internet', exploring some of the more unfamiliar aspects of Internet history.  



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