The Internet is simultaneously a battleground and a triumph of
cooperation. Many businesses are built around the Internet and their
competitive edge is often maintained using proprietary
technology. This results in browser wars, portal wars, search engine wars
and so on. However the most important changes are not single
products from a single company but entire new protocols that create
a new ecosystem for both cooperative and competitive activity.
The bottleneck in the evolution of the Internet is the creation
of these protocols—a breakthrough in the standartization process
will lead to a breakthrough in the rate of development of the global
The Internet and the Web have been built around wire protocol
standards such as HTTP
Agreeing to a common interpretation
of a sequence of bytes enables data interchange and wide-scale
collaboration. However, time and time again wire protocols cannot
keep up with evolution of the systems they are describing and are
becoming in the long term a barrier to true interoperability.
Useful interactions between systems requires complex interfaces; these
interfaces cannot be completely described by a wire protocol,
even an extensible one. Consider any of the existing image formats.
They support simple extensions—for example, new metadata that
specifies camera settings. However, adding a more complex
extension—such as annotating a location of an image—is impossible,
since programs that scale, crop or rotate an image won't know how to
update the annotation coordinates. "Annotated image" must be
described by a new image format, and all applications must be
upgraded to support it.
Typically, the adoption of a new wire protocol is followed by a period of
euphoria as new applications flourish. As the protocol is used
widely, its limitations become apparent. The protocol is extended in ways
that increasingly depart from the spirit of the original; the need for
backwards compatibility becomes a growing burden. Eventually
another generation of standards is produced that better addresses the
requirements at the expense of backwards compatibility, pushing the
infrastructure into a difficult and expensive phase of replacement.
At any given time, you can see wire protocols in every stage of the
lifecycle. Today there is a great deal of activity around Atom, with
new applications built around it. More mature HTML evolved a lot
since the early versions, and the need to be backwards compatible with
old browsers presented a significant problem. The foundation of the
is being slowly replaced by a redesigned IPv6—which
requires an upgrade of the worldwide infrastructure.
As the world increasingly comes to resemble a single large computer,
the need for myriad wire protocols will go away. Already Java and
.NET virtual machines hide details from the application programmers,
presenting only higher-level abstractions such as objects and
interfaces. Wire protocols are used for persistence and for
communication outside the machine; will they always be necessary? If
the system transparently handles persistence, communication to the
outside is not required—if everything is inside the world-wide
computer, then there is no outside. The application developer never
has to care about the proper sequences of bytes.
An alternative to wire protocols is to standardize on programmatic
interfaces implemented using mobile code. For example, image objects
include both data and code that performs operations such as scaling or
rendering to the framebuffer. A document knows how to display itself
interactively, print itself, or convert itself to plain text. The
high-level interface is more compact and easier to get right than a
wire protocol. Since objects of the same type share code, transfer
and persistence can be implemented efficiently, while extensibility is
The development tools must be the first to embrace the new mentality.
Today's standards for describing interfaces and code—traditional
text-based programming languages and bytecode specifications—are wire
protocols themselves, and as wire protocols their adaptability and
extensibility are strictly limited! "Program fragment" is an object
that can be evaluated, edited and transformed—it should be treated by
the system as an object and not as a sequence of source bytes.
Language-Oriented Programming is an emerging paradigm that approaches
software development without exposing wire protocols.
A successful standard for describing interfaces and mobile code
can be compared to the invention of the alphabet. The alphabet
allows different innovations to proceed simultaneously and take
advantage of each other: new words are created from letters
independently of new representations of letters such as fonts or Morse
code or Braille. The move away from wire protocols will lead to
independent development of richly interoperable software components
and faster rate of evolution of the global computing infrastructure as