Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A True History of the Internet

A True History of the Internet
Recent conversations about the
National Program for IT in the NHS or NPfIT, make it clear to me that the public understanding of academic computer science contributions to the world is sparse.

I've been an academic since 1981 (and even before that worked teaching remedial math in High Schools in Toronto, and spent 2 years as a systems/program advisor in North London Polytechnic. In all that time, I've observed that academics in CS like to build stuff. In fact, as part of both teaching and researching computing, one tries things out. Oftem the things one tries out are new (as thats more fun to teach and learn or because its research) - sometime later, you find lots of people using the thigns you built, often unaware of the origins of the stuff- the Net, the Web, lots of Unix stuff, sure, but what about more "commercial" systems? well, cisco, sun and google all started as stanford University EECS department internal projects. Microsoft's first TCP stack was done as a C port of a macro-11
stack that UCL worked on, and then handed via Spider Systems, Mentat and other companies to end up in Windows (since re-written, some of the re-write, e,.g the mobile IP code based on work by microsoft research with Lancaster University. There's a LOT of examples like this - it wouldn't surprise me if a significant fraction of software today didn't start out in a university lectuters spare time project. Some of the really "odd" theory things some folks in cambridge do like theorem proving are done using theorem proving programs. These programs turn out to be quite useful.

Some day, we'll do some cyber-archaeology and trace the family tree of software systems and discover whether my conjecture is even half way right. In the meantime, if you use ADSL to access the Internet, you have more than a 50% chance of using a modem with a chip in it designed by a colleague of mine here in the University. Oh, there's only about 6 million of you in the UK alone:)

Now, do we have the right to call into question whether the NPfIT programme should have due diligence (i.e. progress report/study, etc) done? Not only do we have the right, we have the duty AND the skills. One of the folks who signed the letter
asking for this to be done _invented_ software engineering.
Another, while he has written a quite good book, has also worked _in_ banks IT departments. Qualifications (real world or ivory tower)? well, it seems they wear them on their sleeves for all to judge, which is fine, so what is wrong with asking for another government group to do the same?

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