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A Thin Wire Is Loaded With Immense Import

Data Transmission Method Makes Internet Crackle To Life

June 30, 1997 | By James Coates, Tribune Computer Writer.
Staff writer Jeremy Manier contributed to this report.

The article from chicagotribune.com site can be read here.

The best place to start grasping how and why the great global system of computer networks called the Internet works is to pause and think about a piece of wire about as long as your index finger.

Wire was around for a long time before some genius figured out that if it were bent in just the right series of loops, it would be much more than a mere piece of wire.

It would be a paper clip.

Or, if you bopped it with a hammer to flatten one end and then bent it in half, it would be a safety pin.

The world will never be the same as it was before we learned how to bend wire into paper clips and safety pins.

And so it is with the Internet, which now gives every sign of being the biggest business revolution to hit America since the advent of the first IBM mainframe computer — not to mention the advent of the first paper clip.

The piece of wire that gets bent to make the safety pin called Internet is named TCP/IP.

It is TCP/IP that lets the Walt Disney Co. put the huge content of its movie studios, television networks, magazines and other holdings on the Internet, where an estimated 40 million users worldwide can tap into clips of Mickey Mouse or archived commentaries by ABC’s Peter Jennings.

On Tuesday, TCP/IP will let Illinois Comptroller Loleta Didrickson put on the Internet, and thus a mouse click away from every modem-connected computer on Earth, the huge databases listing every check the State of Illinois has sent to or received from every casino, every nursing home, every law firm and every construction company doing business with the state.

TCP/IP is the trick that lets United Parcel Service tell customers who visit its Web site the exact location–as best UPS knows it–of every parcel in the system.

John Patrick, chief of Internet strategy at International Business Machines Corp., said during a visit to Chicago last week, “This company is undergoing the biggest revolution it has seen in 30 years, as our customers and the rest of the world come to realize that this strange thing called TCP/IP is utterly changing the way we look at our computers and at how our businesses talk to customers.”

TCP/IP, Patrick said, is “as clean and simple a concept as the safety pin.”

It is not itself a wire but, rather, a way to make information move down all the wires in the world that make up the global telephone networks.

TCP stands for transmission control protocol. It was developed in 1974 by the Pentagon as part of a project to enhance security in moving research documents back and forth among weapon scientists.

It broke down each document into small bits, called packets, that then could be sent across the enormously complex global phone system in bursts each lasting fractions of a second.

On the sending end of a message, TCP lets each bit of the overall message take whatever route was open at the precise second it left the sending computer.

At the receiving end, TCP collected all the packets and reassembled them into the original message. If a packet was missing, the receiving TCP machine would tell the sending machine to send that bit gain, over a different route.

This bomb-proof system worked great for sending documents among organizations that knew each other’s procedures, but it needed refinements to make a system where far more diverse material could move about helter-skelter.

The Internet protocol, or IP, was developed in 1978 to work in concert with TCP, and thus the network became TCP/IP.

Among the things that became possible with the addition of IP were the first really workable e-mail applications with SMTP, for simple mail transfer protocol.

The later additions that worked through TCP/IP included two that were developed at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana campus–Telnet and Mosaic.

Telnet lets anybody with a computer anywhere on the Internet link up with any other computer on the Internet, including huge IBM mainframes, and then permits the remote operator to issue commands to the host machine.

The most common use of Telnet was to let students at remote computers log on to the big machines holding library card catalogs and other large academic databases.

Mosaic was the stroke of genius that took yet another protocol called HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) and allowed computers to display all the content moving on the Internet as graphical screens filled with pictures and clickable icons known today as the World Wide Web.

“This World Wide Web use of TCP/IP was a very big deal. No, it was a huge deal,” said IBM’s Patrick.

“It lets anybody anywhere on Earth with a computer call up all the great databases of the world and use them just as we used to do with terminals in offices.”

It has taken American business leaders a long time to see the potential here, Patrick said. They are beginning to realize that they can use the Internet to put their customers in reach of their products, services and information by letting those customers use the same machines that once were the sole domain of data-processing personnel.

Thus UPS always had terminals within its own ranks showing where each package was in the system.

It was “ridiculously easy,” Patrick said, to simply use TCP/IP to wire customers into the same data via Web browser software that’s commonly available to home computer users.

“Corporate leaders were pretty slow to grasp this aspect of the Internet,” he added.

“Until they realized that the Web could be a window on business processes, these companies tended to see the Web as just another way to do advertising. They would call up the marketing department and say, `Do us a Web site,’ without realizing just what a powerful tool they had to reach their customers.”

Patrick credited an IBM project, putting virtually the entire content of the U.S. Patent Office files dating back to 1971 on-line, with showing corporate players how they can hot-wire their own databases to the Web and reap the benefits of instant communications with customers.

The Web site uses IBM equipment to allow anybody who logs on to search an enormous database of the content of 3,000 CD-ROMs that hold every patent issued since Jan. 5, 1971.

“This information was being searched inside the patent office as a matter of routine by clerks every day, and adding the Web just amounted to allowing the public a way to sit down themselves and read public information,” Patrick said.

IBM faces stiff competition from players like Oracle Corp., which specializes in creating software to search huge corporate databases and relate the various bits of information each contains.

Likewise, companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Inc.’s Claris Corp. subsidiary have released many products that allow much-smaller businesses and even individuals to build Web sites that can search databases created in products like Microsoft Access and Claris File Pro.

While describing last week the Illinois comptroller’s efforts to put her databases on the Web, Jerry Mechling, director of the Strategic Computing in the Public Interest program at Harvard University, said, “Up to now, the prevailing model of getting information about government has been to go to someone’s office and ask.

“Now,” he added, “all anyone has to do is get on a network, any time of day.”

And that network has a name. It is called TCP/IP.

You can look it up on-line at the patent office at www.ibm.com/patents. It’s number 5535199.