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