Dr. Vinton Cerf is often called the “father of the Internet,” and there’s no arguing that Cerf is one of the few who were there at the beginning and is still active in the field – he’s served as Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist since 2005.
Soft-spoken and insightful, Cerf wears his mantle well as one of the elder statesmen of technology. A few lucky journalists were granted an audience at a media roundtable with Dr Cerf during the APRICOT event held in Hong Kong in February.
What’s your feeling on Asia today in the tech sphere?
Asia is critical to Google. There are simply more Asians than any other population sample today, and increasingly, that population is getting online – for example, they’re using mobiles in creative and challenging ways.
We’re very interested in participating in this evolution, and we believe that Internet technology, atmosphere and environment will be strongly influenced by Asian culture, languages, styles of work and styles of living.
I’m personally interested in learning more about what’s happening here – not only in Hong Kong but in the Asia-Pacific region, in the use of the Net, simply to understand and maybe guess at what will evolve out of this growing population
What do you think is helping drive this evolution?
The Internet has survived and grown – in Asia and elsewhere – because of its open nature. The standards are open, they’re free of any fees or restrictions on use. The system itself is also open – you don’t need permission to invent a new application.
Probably one of the smartest things that Bob Kahn and I did in the design of the Internet was to not design it for anything in particular. It was designed simply to carry digital packets from one place to another without knowing anything about how they were being carried or what they were carrying.
The consequence of this means that application-invention is not dependent on the Internet – there are limitations such as bandwidth, but even in the 70s we were experimenting with packet-audio and packet-video.
The backbone-speeds didn’t allow much success at the time, but we knew that this ability to transmit information via packets that had no significance to the network itself would allow us to mix various media in the network, with only the software at the edges of the Net which would interpret what these packets meant.
That’s quite an experiment from the past. What about the future of the Net?
It’s in the applications – the software. There are no limits: you think of what you want to do and write software to do it, it’s all a matter of programming. That isn’t necessarily a simple thing . . . but it’s an endless frontier for people who are willing to invent new programs.
I’m expecting great things from the Asian region. There are a lot of you, and you’re smart, and you should be able to invent some applications that others haven’t thought of. So I can hardly wait to see what you’re gonna do.
In the early days, did you ever foresee a commercial future for the Net?
Not really, although some vendors like Cisco did in the mid-80s.
But I felt I had better find a way to allow the general public to get access to the Net, to allow business to get access, because at that time commercial traffic was not allowed to flow on the [US] government backbones. So I went to the Federal Networking Council in the US, a government agency, and asked for permission to connect the MCI Mail commercial email system which I’d built for MCI in 1983.
I wanted to see what would happen if we had this commercial e-mail system trying to talk through the Internet protocols. But I also wanted to break this policy-barrier [of keeping commercial traffic off the government-run network].
And they [the FNC] gave permission to do this. So we brought up a gateway between the commercial MCI system and the Internet, and as soon as we announced it existed in 1989, all the other commercial e-mail providers like CompuServe wanted their connection too, and got permission to do that.
Because all these e-mail providers could talk to the Internet, they could talk to each other, for the first time. Before that they had incompatible protocols, but now that they had to work through this Internet-thing, they had to become compatible. So suddenly they were interconnected, which they’d never achieved before.
Also in 1989, three commercial ISPs started in the USA. This broke the policy “logjam,” and there was legislation later allowing commercial traffic in general to go onto the government-sponsored networks. While the genesis was slow in coming, after this time – and especially after Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web and Netscape Communications was founded – we saw a very rapid dotcom boom in the 1990s.
It’s also worth noting that the dotcom “bust” was really a venture-capital bust: the network kept growing by a factor of two each year. This indicates that people were investing in businesses that just didn’t make sense. They didn’t have business models, they were just somehow related to the Internet, and people were throwing money at them.
But while the Internet continues to grow, it still needs to grow more, because it’s only 30 percent penetrated. So I’m eager to see new ways of getting Internet service up and running everywhere.
China has had its differences with Google, and they’ve also develop alternatives to globally popular tools like social media, VoIP and IM. As they have such a large online population, they’re not as concerned with compatibility.
This is an interesting angle, but perhaps better answered by people with a better sense of history and politics than myself. But on efforts to suppress people’s access to the Internet, I’d like to use a biological metaphor.
In hospitals today, there’s a staph bacillus called MRSA – don’t bother to write down the name, just Google it (journalists laugh). Here’s how it came about: when you treat people with antibiotics, it kills off some of the staph bacilli, but the ones that survive become resistant to the antibiotics.
I think that the more you try to suppress people’s access to the Internet, it’s like feeding antibiotics to the staph bacillus: if it survives, it does so by learning how to defeat the antibiotics, so it becomes stronger.
So the more you try to suppress Net access, the more incentive and motivation they have to find a way around it. And I’m confident that the creativity of individuals is very powerful, so I’m confident that, over time, the Internet will become increasingly accessible.
What important technology do you see emerging in coming years?
Several things – mobile technology that can deliver information to people no matter where they are. The idea that your “information-window” is [worn on] your hip is very cool. Another is the adaptation of optical fiber to high-speed communications.
And finally, the invention of computer chips with more than one computer on every chip: “multi-core” processors. They’re impressive, but they have a weakness: getting information on and off that chip is turning out to be a bottleneck, so there’s room for new architectures for computers that have yet to be invented.
I’m excited about the potential of technology to change the way the Internet works, but I want to emphasize again that it’s the software that makes things most interesting – the ability to create new software that is really going to drive what kinds of applications we see on the Net in the future.