Lessons From The Internet’s Rise

Lessons From The Internet’s Rise

By Jari Arkko

The Internet continues to generate new innovations and applications at a blazing speed. This in turn has driven benefits and economic growth – and not just for the Internet industry. What is it about the Internet’s design that has driven such success? What, from this, can be applied in other industries?

Open Standards Create Interoperability

Are your engineering constructs usable? The best innovation methods and products fit four criteria: They’re well understood, easily built, maintainable and safe. All large deployments involve many users, operators, manufacturers, and subcontractors. It’s necessary to be able to work together and in competition, complementing each other in the overall system.

The success of the Internet, a prime example of innovation, has a lot to do with its success in those criteria. The open nature of the Internet protocol specifications made it possible for many parties to provide equipment and the focus on interoperability between all this equipment. The standard enforced by at the Internet Engineering Task Force made the overall system work well together.

Permissionless Innovation

But there is an important other aspect that may not be obvious – it’s the strive for “permissionless innovation.” In most cases, when a new Internet innovation was created, no one had to apply for a government permission, request service from the network operators, negotiate with operating system manufacturers or embark on multi-year standards efforts. Permissionless innovation is about the ability for anyone to create new things on top standards-based Internet communication constructs.

The architecture of the Internet was shaped by the “End-to-end principle.” This principle argues that, where possible, functionality should rather reside in the end devices than in the network itself. Indeed, the network components in the Internet perform only the simplest operations. This makes the network inexpensive, and it allows the development of new applications at the end-points without affecting the network. The end-points are often computers, such as the one you are using now, and the web browsers that sit atop them. But that’s not the whole story.

Open Standards On Top Of Open Standards

Another contributing development was the creation of powerful frameworks – further open standards – that allowed arbitrarily complex applications to be built on top of the standards developed by Internet Engineering Task Force. For example, web technology standards – HTTP, XML, TLS, for instance – enabled tremendous innovation by web developers. Here’s an upcoming example: Web Real-Time Communication is a new technology that promises to open Skype-like real-time communications to anyone with a web server – with no plugins. What will it mean when video-chat can be a part of every website? How will it impact industries that currently require in-person exchanges?

The continuing development of standards atop standards has enabled “permissionless innovation” – where new businesses and organizations can build applications for the end-points, creating new levels of benefit for society.

Applying Permissionless Innovation in Other Fields

Much of the above is well understood for the Internet. But could the same principles be applied in other fields? Many common technology fields are based on open-standards innovation on top of common interfaces. Yet, there have often been limits to what innovation can be supported.

Any electrical appliance can plug into a power socket, but each appliance needs to work on its own and has limited ability to work together with other similar appliances. This is a limitation that will be removed when visions such as “The Internet of Things” reach their full potential.

But the designs are still in their early phases and we need to find a model that allows additional applications and innovation – an appliance that syncs with other appliances. In general, on any topic where the power of large number of developers would be beneficial, we should strive for open designs, allowing others to create not just small pieces but systems on top of the infrastructure.

Where do you think open-standards innovation is headed? Does your business apply the standards of open specification in its innovation techniques? Tell us in the comments section below.

This article was coauthored by Caitlin Klask.

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