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Bill Gates invented the Internet?

February 1st, 2005

Occasional commentator on this blog, Tony Healy, puts on his thinktank hat to criticise my latest piece in the Fin (Subscription required), writing for the (anti-open source) Institute for Policy Innovation. I argued that most innovation on the Internet had not been driven by patents and copyright, but by creative collaboration of which blogs are, for me, the paradigm example. Tony’s response starts with Google, which is fair enough. Although there are lots of oddities about Google’s business model, it’s a commercial product (as are its competitors) and it’s an essential part of the Internet.

His next claim, though, strikes me as simply bizarre. He says

The Internet was an academic curiosity until the (commercial) release in the mid-90s of Windows 95 which, for the first time provided transparent access to the Internet, vastly expanding the population that could access the Internet

I’m a veteran of the Mac-PC wars, and I’m confident that of all the many claims and counterclaims I heard before 1995 “PC users can’t access the Internet” was not one of them. It’s true that setting up peripherals of all kinds has become easier over the years and that “Plug and Play” was a big Mac advantage in general before W95 (and to some extent still is), but if it was as decisive as Tony suggests here, Microsoft would have been out of business long before 1995.

I’ve seen many accounts of the Internet in which Gates played a key role, but the decision they point to is the free release of Internet Explorer, in competition with Netscape. This doesn’t suit the case Tony is making and he doesn’t mention it.

So, I should modify my claim that nothing worthwhile came out of the dotcom mania. Search engines and Google in particular benefitted from dotcom money. This raises an interesting question for my more technically qualified readers. If there were no dotcom money around, could the usual collaborative processes of the Internet have produced something like Google, or would we still be relying on favorites lists and so on?

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  1. Bill O’Slatter
    February 3rd, 2005 at 14:30 | #1

    As with all Microsoft technology, the significance is the transparency. Modems are among the most cantankerous of devices, for hardware reasons and because they’re communications devices. Getting one to talk reliably can be problematic. Getting 10,000 to do this with the click of a button, and without user intervention, which is the Microsoft achievement, is brilliant.
    The more you write the stupider you get Tony. Microsoft has absolutely nothing to do with the way modems talk to each other other than sending them an initialisation string. the rest of what you write is rubbish and just Microsoft advertising. Give it up for chrissakes and stop writing about technology of which you know nothing

  2. February 3rd, 2005 at 15:42 | #2

    Tony H, free models of anything don’t imply dentral funding, merely resources independent of – orthogonal to – whatever it is that they are free of, i.e. not constrained by.

    It’s a common unexamined assumption that the state is the alternative to whatever is being contemplated. This is at the heart of socialist ideas, and wasn’t there in the early days when people really were examining these things. There are non-state ways of resourcing these models even today now that its ground cover plant has taken over so much.

  3. Tony Healy
    February 3rd, 2005 at 18:32 | #3

    Bill O’Slatter, I am a software engineer and have developed significant R&D technology. Modem connections fail in a horribly large number of ways and applications must respond intelligently. The diversity of equipment makers complicates this, even though they nominally conform to a hardware API.

    Darryl, dot.com is not precisely defined, but generally refers to inflated valuations of web companies roughly in the period 1996 to 2000. That’s the way I’m using it. The growth of content on the web was independent of those web companies, which were mostly useless attempts to migrate business services online. Thus I would contend the new content you refer to was not part of or dependent on dot.com at all.

    Secondly, Google was always a solid technology company rather than a dumb web idea. It would have attracted venture funding anyway. The early backers were experienced technology entrepreneurs, not the inexperienced business hacks that fuelled dot.com. The success of its recent IPO confirms this.

    Thirdly, it is perfectly true that dialup networking doesn’t constitute the whole internet, and that the web is different from the internet. Your comments about the role of Netscape and Microsoft in the mid 90′s are interesting and no doubt there is a good discussion in there.

    For the purpose of discussing the role of Windows 95 in internet uptake, MSN is irrelevant. In John’s op-ed, he correctly pointed out that walled gardens like MSN failed. I pointed out that professional media sites thrived. Thus MSN’s demise was not due to it being commercial, but to it being run by media amateurs. Commercial media sites prospered.

    On the subject of tcp/ip in Windows 95, it was present in the normal installation. Out of the box, Windows 95 provided complete and simple connectivity, which was my point. In 1995 Microsoft had an early version of IE, but it was not as good as the Netscape of the time.

    Sean, I appreciate the input. However I would have thought that if the Googlers were prepared to borrow department computers in the early days, they would also have borrowed operating systems? However your point is different from the one I thought you were making.

    Tim, would you be interested in dropping this think-tank funding thing? Your original claim was picked from thin air and you shouldn’t do that.

    You claim that, in assigning responsibility for internet uptake, I’m overlooking the contribution of computer makers. That’s legitimate, but you could say the same about the claim that the internet uptake occurred simply because academics built it. alphacoward makes a similar observation about electricity, for which my response is the same.

    Your reference to MSN is a separate issue, which I discussed above. MSN failed because Microsoft didn’t understand media. Sites operated by professional media have done well on the internet.

    My reference to IBM’s patent activity was to John’s claim in his op-ed. He adduced the release of patents as evidence of IBM’s commitment to free culture ideals. That’s a naive interpretation of what’s occurring. I know it serves IBM’s interests well.

    Tom Giovanetti’s a good bloke.

    PM Lawrence gets back into the cultural side of the issue which could probably be an interesting debate.

    In summary, John presented an interpretation of Lessig’s free culture model which I disagree with. I presented some opposing points. For anyone interested, there are tons of papers on these subjects, mostly pretty boring.

  4. February 4th, 2005 at 00:43 | #4

    1. I did not pluck the funding issue from thin air. My original post is here. I invite anyone to read it and see how wide of the mark your “thin air” claim is.
    2. Your comments about modems are incorrect. Software can and did treat them all the same — an initialization string and ATDT to dial the number.
    3. At the risk of repeating myself, yes IBM is acting in its own interests, but that does not mean they aren’t supporting Opne Source.

  5. February 4th, 2005 at 02:25 | #5



    I’ve refrained from addressing Tim Lambert’s charges about funding for IPI, for several reasons. Oddly, I’m choosing this oblique forum to make comments. Don’t ask me why. I’ll admit it’s odd of me.

    Tim, if you only knew how far off-the-mark you are.

    You’d be shocked to know how many of us in the policy world do what we do out of genuine belief, passion, and conviction. You and your ilk have invented this conspiracy, assuming that the only reason why people do what they do is that they are paid to do it. You’re simply wrong.

    Several points:

    1. We keep our information private because we choose to keep it private. Not because we have something to hide. It’s called a presumption of innocence, and I’m sure you value privacy in your life as well. What if I accused you of using your personal financial accounts to launder money for drug-running terrorists, and if you refuse to disclose to me all your bank account statements, that’s because you must have something to hide? That would be illogical and rhetorically dishonest of me to do to you. Yet that’s exactly what you have done to IPI. Worse yet, you have made your baseless charges publically, in writing. You have mastered the art of implying guilt by association without any evidence. It’s shameful and dishonest. It’s a form of gossip, at the very least, and perhaps a form of slander. It’s unprofessional, and you should be ashamed. But no, we will not be provoked by your shameful acts into violating our own internal, carefully thought-out policy.

    2. Others on this forum have assumed a direct relationship between intellectual property protection and the sale of products, and I need to point out that there is no direct relationship. Plenty of people and companies are willing to give their stuff away for free, or for a substantial discount, yet they maintain their right to ownership of their property, and this is perfectly legitimate. It is perfectly legitimate, for instance, for IPI to give its studies away for free, while copyrighting them. It is perfectly legitimate, for instance, for pharmaceutical companies to give AIDS drugs away for free in Africa, yet aggressively defend their intellectual property. If I own something, I may very well choose to give it away for free, yet fight you from stealing it. If I own it, I may charge for it or give it away for free, yet it remains my patented or copywrighten property. If I own a patent on a drug, I may out of humanitarian reasons give my drug away for free. But I’ll still defend my patent and keep you from ripping off my product.

  6. February 4th, 2005 at 08:22 | #6

    Tom, if you accused me of laundering money for terrorists, I would answer “No, that isn’t true”. I would not have to disclose my financial records to deny the charge.
    And I haven’t accused you of being funded by Microsoft. I asked you if you were and you have refused to answer.
    Other think tanks did answer the question and disclosed the potential conflict of interest.

  7. February 4th, 2005 at 12:58 | #7

    Tom G, I would rather have people with limited selfish ends running things than idealists with unlimited ends. I think C.S.Lewis had something to say on this point, though I don’t recall the reference offhand. Perhaps someone else can remind me?

    Anyway, I am not at all surprised at idealism in high places – I fear it, just as I would if Gough Whitlam rose again.

  8. Bill O’Slatter
    February 4th, 2005 at 13:41 | #8

    In an effort to be fair to Tony” Microsoft Certified SOftware Engineer” Healy I googled for references to Microsoft’s ( unlikely) infleunce on modem design.
    As mentioned by myself and Tim Lambert big deal abut the software interaction. Have you heard of the seven layer OSI network model ? The modem is at the transport layer .this is not genrally what Microosft is interested in. It is also not interested in standards e.g. from the ITU on v.92
    see Wikipedia . If you can prove me wrong feel free to provide evidence : I couldn’t find any.
    I would still fart in your general direction.

  9. Bill O’Slatter
    February 4th, 2005 at 13:59 | #9

    Errata : in the OSI model the modem is at the physical layer not the transport( TCP/IP stack) layer – see Wikipedia .

  10. Tony Healy
    February 4th, 2005 at 15:39 | #10

    Bill, I detest MCSE’s and assorted industry certifications.

  11. February 7th, 2005 at 10:14 | #11

    The central contention of this thread seems to have been decided by the following field evidence.

    Sun Microsystems has anounced that it will open source its Solaris operating system. This is being done because Sun is losing big time to Linux and has decided that the open source model is the future. Either way Solaris is a dead OS walking you’d think.

    Sun Solaris runs thousands of the biggest corporate applications globally.

    Propagandists dissing the open source model are involved in a rearguard action to protect the business interests of the last standing opponent of Linux.

    Microsoft with Windows can certainly delay the day, and in the process earn a few more well-deserved fortunes but they know as well as everybody else that it is a question of time.

    One of the core taks for computing in business is communicating. Communication is highly susceptible to breakdown in systems incorporating closed-source components. The open source debate has little to do with the philosophy of IP, social equity etc etc – it has to do with the mechanics of IT based communication. The internet demands an open source approach. Technically.

  12. Tony Healy
    February 7th, 2005 at 12:05 | #12

    No wbb. It was a rebuttal of the claims of the free culturist movement. My observation about the role of Windows 95 was only one of many. I pointed out that IP thrives on the internet. That newspaper sites are the most successful sites. That Google is a child of IP. I don’t believe anyone has disputed those points.

    If you open source fruitcakes would like to stop and think for a minute, you might ask yourself why I would be enthusiastic for Google, which poses a more significant threat to Microsoft than does public software (open source to you.)

  13. February 7th, 2005 at 15:36 | #13

    Sorry, Tony. I hadn’t actually read your article. Was more responding to content in this thread.

    About Google, sure they have some IP loosely defined in their search algorithms, db design, load balancing. Their sucess is more due to their business ability than any software they’ve written. Writing a search engine is 101 computing. Investing and maintaining in sufficient plant and staff to run a globally capable engine is where the sheep are separated from the goats. Google don’t sell anybody their computing software. They sell services and applications. Much like IBM in part does.

    But the actual products they use to build with have large open source basis. It’s neither one nor the other. OS and DB software is becoming commoditised and thus will end up open source and generic.

    The biggest player in open source today is IBM. For the simple reason that they expect to make money with it. They have announced they are no longer ogin to port their middleware software to x86 Solaris for example. Their customers don’t want it . They want Linux. The reaons that the free culturalists may be spurious but the thing they advocate is becoming a reality thru traditional market forces.

    Newspapers are users of software – whether open source or not. Their IP (news, ads) is irrelevant, I suggest, to software development debate.

    To measure what percentage of business useful software was developed as open source and what part was developed while IP protected would be impossible and not that helpful. What matters to business is to choose the software that will not hinder them down the track from further integration with and complying with evolving standards of what is a public utility in all but name.

    In the Operating System space, linux is the only viable choice long-term. Nonetheless Microsoft customers need not feel silly if their view is less than a decade hence and they do not have high requirement for integration with the wider world. However for larger companies with high infrastructure and staff costs it is about time to finally make the shift from old-fashioned proprietary software. For one thing graduates will be less productive if you put them on anything other than open source. ie what they know, own and learned on.

    Traditionally of course IP only lasts for x number of years. There was a reason for that. After a time IP is obsolete or doesn’t serve its purpose of rewarding the creator. With software this lifecycle is much shorter even in some cases to zero. An idea can be brought to market by about ten people at the same time. By the time any one of them has managed to get IP recognised legally the product has either been incorporated by everybody or the product is even obsolete.

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