[ih] "How Gopher Nearly Won the Internet" Re: The Rise and Fall of the Gopher Protocol

Jack Haverty jack at 3kitty.org
Wed Sep 7 21:38:16 PDT 2016


Well, I guess I have a view of that era of history from a different 
direction.  So, as another input for the historians, here's what it 
looked like to me back then.

In the 90s, I was "Internet Architect" at Oracle, and wasn't paying much 
attention to the "lower layers" anymore, except as it applied to 
building and operating our own internal corporate intranet.  Our 
customers were database users, with a focus on business processes and 
not much awareness of the communications layers.

I knew about Gopher, WAIS, et al, but they didn't seem particularly 
useful to our customers.  As you might expect, the focus was on data, 
and all of the data was in an Oracle database.   There wasn't any 
obvious way to use Gopher or WAIS.  They were designed to help someone 
find existing documents.  Databases typically create documents on the 
fly - you specify in SQL how you want to look at your data and the 
results are formatted and displayed on the screen or printer.   Apps on 
your workstation/desktop/etc might connect to a database over a wire, or 
a TCP connection, or a Novell SPX, etc., but that detail was mostly 
hidden from the business users.

When I first encountered the Web, somewhere around 1992, it immediately 
struck me as a new idea with lots of promise.  We had all been waiting 
for a long time - 20+ years - for the next "killer app" to complement 
the Telnet/FTP/Email workhorses.  The Web looked like maybe, finally, 
possibly, "it".

I showed the web to everyone from the Chairman of the Board to the 
receptionist in the lobby.  The ease of downloading the software made 
this easy.   If we had to negotiate a license agreement, it never would 
have happened.

The Web had two key features from a database perspective.  One was the 
ability to have documents that "linked" to other documents in a very 
unconstrained way.  So a report could have links to more detailed 
information, related reports, etc.

But the most important ability was the CGI (IIRC that's what it was 
called), the API and protocol which allowed a "document" to be retrieved 
by calling some back-end program in the server, and even supplying 
arguments to the call.   This meant that a "document" could also be 
created on-the-fly by a clever program -- a perfect match to how 
databases worked.

Of course the "forms" interface also meant that the user could become an 
active participant in a session, with the ability not only to read data 
presented from a server as documents, but also the ability to input data 
and control the servers' actions.

As far as I remember, there was no such capability with Gopher or WAIS, 
or maybe I just hadn't found it there.

In any event, these features meant that the Web, instead of just being a 
clever way to organize and find documents, was also a new GUI (Graphical 
User Interface) to interface to all sorts of database-backed 
applications: order entry, billing, inventory control, etc., etc., etc. 
  This was, to a database denizen, far more interesting than just the 
ability to find previously prepared documents.

So, we built an interface between a web server and a database server, 
and did *lots* of training to show anyone who would listen how to use 
this new technology.  Most of the action at first was on customers' 
intranets, so you probably didn't see it on the public Internet until 
they got comfortable enough to put web servers online for their 
customers, suppliers, etc. to use.

Oracle had a pretty broad reach even in the 1990s.  We joined W3C 
immediately to have some influence on the technology.  I don't think 
there was much interaction with the traditional Internet crowd (IETF 
etc.) since they were focused on the lower layers.

Lots of trade shows, users' groups, and other venues in the database 
universe got the word out.  I recall giving lots and lots of talks/demos 
to various customer groups and it was pleasing to see the "light bulbs 
go on" as they understood what they could do with this new technology in 
their *existing* business systems.

Nobody ever even mentioned Gopher...

The rest as they say is history...   I have no idea how much this 
activity affected Gopher's fate, or the Web's.  Some historian may 
figure that out someday.

But it was a lot of fun...

Hope some historian finds this useful,
/Jack Haverty


On 09/07/2016 06:49 PM, John Levine wrote:
>> ​Provocative quote in big letters:  “If it weren't for Gopher, the web
>> probably would have died.” ​
>
> Nice try.
>
> Gopher was pretty cool for the early 1990s, but even if it hadn't had
> a self-inflicted fatal wound when U of Minn wanted license fees, the
> web would have won anyway.
>
> When I wrote Internet for Dummies in 1993, I had roughly equal sized
> chapters on Gopher, WWW, and WAIS.  At the time I thought WAIS was the
> future, because full text search was so powerful.
>
> I was right about search being powerful (see Google) but what I didn't
> realize was that the web was general enough that it would absorb the
> links from Gopher, the search from WAIS, the software archives from
> FTP, and everything else.
>
> R's,
> John
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