'Father of the Internet' Reflects on His Creation


Vinton Cerf is widely known as the father of the Internet for his co-development of TCP/IP (Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the fundamental architecture of the Internet: the standard that allows different types of computers in different locations to communicate with one another. He developed the concept while at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in the early 1970s. The Internet was originally a network of large computers at military bases and universities designed to facilitate military communications and promote research.

Dr. Cerf is now senior vice president of data architecture with MCI's Data and Information Services division. He recently shared his views on the Internet with the Monitor.

Some people see you as the father of the Internet. What was your part in creating it?

Well, I'm a little embarrassed by being singled out.... If anybody's going to be named father there should be two of us [Cerf and Robert Kahn]. And subsequent to the early work, thousands of people contributed to making this a success....

I led the research group ... from 1973 to 1982 and frankly became a salesman for the concept throughout the Defense Department and in the vendor community trying to persuade people that it was technically the right thing to do - and in more recent years, that it is also a real commercial opportunity.

Did you foresee the Internet going beyond the military and university applications and becoming a private and commercial network?

I can't really claim to have foreseen that in the way it unfolded. Of course, I'm a science- fiction freak, and I had all kinds of imaginings, you know, but they were all a hundred years from now.... The hundred years came sooner than I expected. I didn't really fully appreciate how this technology was going to take hold in industry as a business tool until about 1989, when I walked into this Interop conference and saw that people had very elaborate displays. I remember asking Eric Benhamou, now head of 3Com: "Eric, how expensive are these things?" and he said, "Well you know, when you get all done with it, it's probably half a million dollars...." And I remember being stunned, thinking, "People are spending serious money on this; it must be real." Until then I had been quite happy to think that the scientific and research community would benefit dramatically from it, to say nothing of the military. I hadn't quite appreciated that the system would become a vital part of normal commerce.

What kind of things did you imagine 100 years from now?

The Internet is ... all software. And there just isn't any boundary to what you can do with software. So I imagined that there would be computers everywhere, that they would be in your car and in your clothing and in the house and in the appliances, and that these computer processes would sort of be there all the time, available to serve your needs - sort of like graduate students, you know.

I imagined ... automobiles that had full controls that were automated, when you ... just told it where you were going to go and it went. A lot of those things are just still experimental, and yet the likelihood of their happening is vastly improved when you have a global network to work with. So I'm actually rather optimistic that some of the crazy ideas that I thought were 100 years away are closer in than I thought.

How do you see the global influence of the Internet?

As I sit here, I imagine myself in 1896 playing Alexander Graham Bell, having people ask questions: Is the telephone going to do anything?

In a sense [the Internet] gives visibility to people who otherwise would be invisible.... I gather that in Mexico the Zapatistas now have a Web page that they put out to try to plead their cause. It's terribly important to realize that our other forms of mass media have very high filters on them, for getting any visibility at all.... Now, the Internet permits much more ready entry of content....

And the Internet has become a cultural repository. People are able to store cultural, historical, and other societally valuable information in local languages, so when you go on the Net you find a wide variety of languages. At the same time there is an increasing appreciation of English as a second language. We will preserve language, history, and culture on the Net in ways we couldn't before, but at the same time we will all be drawn closer, because we'll share English.

But people made such grand predictions for the telephone, radio, and television, and each of those technologies fell short of those projections. How do we ensure that the Internet doesn't become the couch-potato enabler of the 21st century?

Actually I'm not sure you can prevent that. If you look at the reasons the other services ended up where they are, part of it is sheer economics. What will people pay for this, and what will they pay for? People will pay to be entertained and titillated, but they don't necessarily pay to be educated. If anything gives me hope about the Internet not falling into that trap, it is that the creation of content on the Net is within reach of almost anyone. Because of the low barrier to sharing of information, I'm hopeful that for those people inclined to use the Net for educational purposes, that it will always be there for them.

I don't think that that will prevent the use of the Net for entertainment. In a sense, though, we may have to put up with that, because that may be the avenue by which it becomes a fully sustainable commercial enterprise. And it's vital that it be self-supporting. So although I'm sort of steeled for the possible evolution in the direction of television and radio, I harbor this optimism that a part of the Internet will always be a place where people can share ideas and offer their materials for others to take advantage of.

Did you foresee the Internet becoming what the World Wide Web is, with text and graphics?

I certainly did not. I think all of us understood that computer-to-computer communication could include all these modalities, but it's one thing to think about it, and it's something else to see it emerge in the way that it did. I mean, it's just ... impressive. Where will the Internet end up? I think the Internet ... will carry radio, it will carry television, electronic mail, electronic transactions, and financial exchanges, Web applications, and probably other things that we don't yet see, for example, the power companies controlling appliances to avoid brownouts.

And that's why many of us in the telecommunications business are sort of steeling ourselves for the kinds of capacity demands we believe will emerge in the next four or five years as the Internet climbs toward equality in terms of scale with the existing telephone and television systems.

Is there an answer to that bandwidth problem?

Yes, there is: At the moment the answer is spelled F-I-B-E-R. Fortunately the cost per bit per second of this kind of capacity is dropping, so that even though the numbers are huge, they're being multiplied by much smaller costs per bit per second, and so in absolute terms it's not nearly as startling as it might otherwise be.... The people who pay for it are the people who use it....

Are we going to move to a second generation Internet, which the government is working on? And is this going to be government-pushed or commercially pushed?

I think Internet II, to the extent that we understand what it is, is another opportunity to encourage very advanced network design and experimentation. To the extent the next generation Internet effort is to link in the K-12 community in some fashion, I can see that as being very beneficial. I hope the government understands that the use of Internet in the K-12 domain is not just a matter of wiring the schools up, but it's much more deeply a matter of providing good-quality curricular material, and educating teachers so they understand how to apply it, and getting boards of education to encourage the incorporation of the Internet into the normal curriculum.

As I read it, it will have to be a partnership between the government, the research and academic community, and industry.

*Staff writer Laurent Belsie also contributed to this report.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.