Tim Berners-Lee, to his credit, did not invent the Internet. He did have one good idea. He was not the first person or even the twelfth with the same idea, but he did make it work. Yet most of the underlying work – the bringing together of dozens of communications systems with slightly or wildly varying protocols – was done before him. He just plugged it in, and for that, he gets most of the credit.
The boldest stroke of all
The way the structure is being developed, an E-mail message is, to some extent, a property of the service on which it was composed; it will then be bought, under contractual arrangement, by whatever service the recipient chooses for reading that message. The legal issues are rather complex, so I’ll let Kenneth Murphy elaborate: “Let’s put some real names to this – I’m going to use AT&T [as merely one example]. AT&T Mail and GE Information Services have negotiated an interconnection agreement, which was announced last Monday [23 April]; it means all of their subscribers can send and receive messages to and from all of our subscribers. I haven’t a clue what an AT&T Mail user enters at the ‘To?>’ prompt, in whatever front-end they’ve got; but presumably, they should be able to address me or any of our other subscribers without too much difficulty, as long as they know the correct way to format the address. They will pay AT&T Mail charges, whatever they may be. I, as GE Information Services, will deliver what’s handed off to me, to my subscriber free of charge.“Today, there’s a concept of Settlement of Accounts. The interconnect agreement is a legal, contractual document between the two of us. It covers a lot of stuff, but one thing it specifically does not cover – and this is temporary – is the issue of settlement. Settlement means, I want reimbursement for my cost of delivering a message to my subscriber on your behalf, you being AT&T. Therefore, we need to finish this process and agree on some monetary values for messages, and then we just keep track of those accounts, and at the end of a period of months/quarter/year, we will settle the difference. That is a process that has long been in place for the interconnected postal services, telex networks, telephone networks, public data networks.”…Since there will only be a handful of E-mail services, they may all decide to settle accounts with each other just as GE has with AT&T; so every E-mail provider will be connected to every other – what then? X.25 [the international standard at the time for packet-form communication] will make it possible for a user to make connections with more than one service; but if all of them are interconnected anyway, why should she want to? These are unresolved questions.In fact, at the very minute Ken Murphy and I were talking, an international meeting was taking place regarding these very issues. Murphy told me, “There’s a meeting going on today [25 April 1990] up in New Jersey where the service providers of North America are trying to grapple with the problems, both technical and commercial, of implementing interconnected directory services using the X.500 standard. It’s not going to be easy. Also, there is going to be a meeting in two weeks of the North American service providers, working with the Electronic Mail Association. It’s a working meeting of editors to sit down and publish a user guide that can be distributed throughout the marketplace, on how the heck you get from one system to another, now that these systems are interconnected. What I see at the ‘To?>’ prompt is going to be very different from whatever you see, unless we’re on the identical system. If we’re on the identical system, we don’t need X.400.”