Thursday Jan 31, 2008

25 Years Online, And More To Come

Today I just realized that it's been over 25 years that I've been online.

25 years...


Things have changed! I feel the need to write down some of the highlights of my online life.

25 years... More or less the same age as Sun Microsystems. “The Network Is The Computer”. I was trying to get that to work back then, without TCP/IP.

My first real computer was a TRS 80 Model I. I bought the beast around 1981 / 1982. My parents helped me buy it (though all of my pocket money that I had earned working during vacation – I was 17 at the time – went into it).

At this time, I was heavily into CB radios. A friend of mine (actually, neighbor, living across the road, called Frank Salomé – hi Frank!) had a TRS 80 Model III and we wanted to exchange information. These machines had audio cassette I/O... so we got that to work, plugging the cassette-out to the microphone IN of our Thomson ERA 2000T (22 channels FM 2 Watt CB radio) and the cassette-in to the microphone OUT of same transceiver. That worked... though not the actual bidirectional networking we would have wanted.

Some time later, a schoolmate of mine brought me a fully populated computer board that his dad had brought back from his office (Alcatel, if I remember well). Wow! What luck. The board had, soldered onto it, all the expensive chips I needed to build the expansion interface of my TRS 80... it had 2 banks of 4116 RAM chips (very fragile CMOS that I unsoldered by blowing high pressure air using my dad's compressor – in the process, pulverizing droplets of soldering lead all over the wall of his workbench – my dad was really pissed off – all that without destroying a single chip). It also had a had floppy disk controller (the famous – at the time – WD 1771 chip).

With my expansion interface came a modem. 300 baud. Unfortunately, it was Bell standard, and in France, we needed CCITT. I hacked the 600 ohm transformer and R/C bridge and I was more or less in business (though not perfect). Didn't use that one much.

Some time later, I got my first PC compatible. An Amstrad. After just a few minutes of having it at home, I realized my mistake. This machine wasn't build to be opened by the user. It was extremely hard to hack into it. I sold it, and got myself a real PC compatible for which I chose the motherboard, the graphics controller, the IDE controller, and... got a big (I think Alcatel, again) modem. 1200 baud. What a luxury compared to my 300 baud on the TRS 80.

With that weapon in hand, I started playing around with BBSes. Found a toll free number that was connected to a research X.25 network, wich was, very conveniently interconnected to Transpac (the French commercial X.25 network). Through that, I would log on to servers around Europe. Mostly in the UK. So many things to download. At that time, I was also a student in university. Got my first official e-mail address. I was 1988.

In school, I was a hacker. Broke quite a few of the systems... sometimes voluntarily, sometimes less. Until the system administrator came to me and said “Gilles, instead of breaking machines, why not help get them to run. We have received a batch of machines from a company called Sun. We have no idea how to set them up, but please come help, I'm sure you'll like it.” I did. That mostly turned me away from the dark side. Though, I remember once bringing down a whole class of students trying to learn LISP by writing a recursive virus that spawned processes on the server until it was saturated. At the time, SunOS didn't limit the number of processes per user in a way that would have prevented it. Took a few hours to bring it back up (fscks, you know) and I had a few system admins and teachers somewhat unhappy at me. Oh well. Live and learn. No more recursive spawns for me.

But I was not completely done trying things online. I had a fun idea. What would happen if I sent a mail to “\*@\*.\*” I tried. At the time, the university was interconnected to USENET through the French node INRIA. And I got a very upset e-mail from the system administrator of INRIA to the effect of “Don't EVER do that again.” No idea if it really got the network down, over there... but certainly attracted attention.

Time passes. I'm still connected with my 1200 baud modem to the rest of the world, in my appartment in Sceaux, near Paris. I'm now working at Uniplex. My e-mail at work is UUCP... bang bang! I'm just about to do my first online purchase. A chap in the UK called Adam Black published the Munitions Shirt. A shirt that has a bar code encoded version of the RSA encryption algorithm. As such, it is machine readable and considered a munition in many countries, including my own, France. Since there is no such thing as the commercial web, and HTTPS / SSL, the only way to place a secure order is to send a PGP encrypted mail. I take the source code of PGP 2.3 and port it to the MIPS RC/3230 of my company since it's not available on this machine and I need it. I place my first order. I still have the shirt (though, as my friends will confirm, it LOOKS its age).

Back to my home, December 1993. id Software is about to release Doom. The game of the century. Everybody is expecting it. The buzz is incredible. At 1200 baud, it's going to take hours to download. My apartment is small. The bedroom and living room are one. The computer is in the same room I sleep. The download starts during the day... and my communication software PROCOM (anybody still remember these guys) wakes me up beeping after the Z-MODEM transfer has completed (and to think that I still use Z-MODEM every now and then today – my last use of Z-MODEM was summer 2007 to transfer a copy of Linux onto an iPAQ 3600 PDA). At 2 in the morning, I wake up. Doom is transferred to my computer. Time to re-assemble the archive, decompress it, and install the game. I play for about an hour. Jumping every time a pumpkin or an imp attacks... and after that, so pumped up with adrenalin, I am incapable of finding sleep... but I loved it all the way. My friend Jessie Collet shares the same experience.

Uniplex moves to internet style e-mail and I become Welcome to a modern world. Except that when I need to receive or send an urgent mail, I still have to manually trigger the Telebit Trailblazer model to dial and uucp all the messages in the queue... Oh well. After the PGP port, I contribute to another piece of open source, hp2xx by writing the RGIP converter, with my management's approval, and publish it back.

October 1994 I join Sun. It's the start of the commercial internet. Mosaic is the browser of choice. Netscape? Microsoft still has no (public) idea of what Internet is all about. Sun has been shipping systems with TCP/IP for already a decade. One of my colleagues comes and shows me something called LiveOak. A web browser, looking furiously like Mosaic, but with animated things in the web page... supposedly written in a special language called Oak. I send him off telling him that web pages are documents, and as such should be static, not animated. Of course, my first feat of arms as a visionary isn't very successful... in particular as this was soon to be renamed HotJava (the browser) and Java (the platform and language). I've done better since...

It's now been over 13 years that I've been having a blast here at Sun. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attacking worms off the borders of corporate networks... I watched C compilers go from free to commercial and back to free. I watched the Internet, go from a research network to a full blown commercial environment where billions of dollars are exchanged in transactions every day.

So where are we going from now on? Let's see if I can make some predictions... and they'll come back to haunt me in another 20 years or so...

  • COBOL will still be there for the foreseeable future. (OK, this one was easy, but I had to do it.)

  • There will be a need for more than 5 supercomputers in the world. (Ditto)

  • Internet access will be flat fee, unlimited volumes, high bandwidth, regardless of the medium. This means that, yes, you will get flat fee wireless internet access on your phone. It will take some time, but cell phone operators will all have to get to there. We've been telling them that at Sun for ages. It's going to happen. No other way possible.

  • Security will always be an issue. And not just because the guys in Redmond don't know how to architect a secure OS from the bottom up, but because the more interconnected systems, the more value, so the more interest in taking an (illegitimate) chunk of that value. Viruses, worms, hacks will take a more and more commercial nature, people exploiting holes for benefit, rather than for glory. Everybody, the bad guys, but also the good guys will be using malicious techniques to do their thing. Good guys to protect legitimate interests, bad guys to attack you.

  • Open source, collaborative development will become the dominant mode of software (and, to some extent, hardware) project development. Open source will be used as the main source of mission critical software.

  • However much I would like to NOT see that happen, advertisement will be more and more present in our every day life, online or offline. Lucky technology savvy people will block it with technology tools. Others will get the full blast. This will have the advantage of making more and more services appear free (the actual, hidden, cost being “add-time in your brain”).

  • People will be spending more time online then in front of their TV. As such, conventional TV will slowly decrease in audience and advertisement revenue, favoring community media sites where users publish their own contents.

  • DRM will die. Heck, it's almost dead today. It won't be used to control on which player, in which context, how many times you play your media. It will, more likely, be used (through techniques like watermarking) for traceability purposes.

  • My friend and colleague Alec Muffett predicted the 1TB iPod. I concur. We will be carrying massive amounts of storage and processing power in handheld (or worn) devices that will participate in our daily activities. Playing media, communicating with distant as well as close people and entities. We will use technology to favor interpersonal exchanges. Your phone/PDA/media-player/link-to-the-net will tell you somebody whom you might want to meet, or avoid, is near you.

So now that I've layed these out, I'm sure to be proven wrong on a few... but by how much? And when?

You tell me if you think different!




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