Open and Closed Standards
Open internet standards refer to the non-proprietary mechanisms that are used to develop modern internet protocols that serve as the foundation of the internet. The most notable open standard relating to the formation of the internet is TCP/IP. This standard was made available by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project (DARPA) which allowed these specifications to be made public to further stimulate research in the field of information technology. At the time the practice of openly publishing such specifications was not common as companies sought to protect their proprietary techniques from the public. This was an attempt to control access to digital resources by forcing users to purchase specific vendor technology to connect to the internet.
The use of open standards allowed for any computer from any vendor to establish a connection to the internet. This decision allowed for much greater variety in vendor technologies users could choose from, each able to access the internet using open standards. This decision, first made by DARPA and adopted by other organizations essentially democratized the use of the internet. Not only did this make the internet more accessible but it also allowed for greater ease when setting up information technology (IT) departments within organizations. The open standards allowed for users to arrange a multitude of technologies from various vendors to form their IT infrastructure.
Under the model of closed standards users would need to purchase proprietary technology in order to gain access to the internet. This would force users to purchase all of their technology from one vendor and would not allow them to connect to computers from a different vendor. This would make it much more difficult place to communicate across different platforms. This would then allow one organization to monopolize internet access or greatly restrict the interconnectedness that we enjoy today.
Cisco Systems and Digital Equipment Corporation
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was an early computer company founded in 1957 our of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). DEC was known for creating AltaVista, an early search engine and something called the minicomputer which was an alternative to expensive and bulky computers that dominated the market. DEC became a fortune 500 company in 1974 and was on its way to becoming one of the industry leaders in the computer space. After years of annual losses and a series of strategic setbacks DEC was acquired by Compaq in 1998. Compaq failed to revive the company after the acquisition and was later bought by Hewlett-Packard in 2002.
In the early 1970’s DEC developed a networking protocol called DECNET. The phase one version of DECNET was a proprietary mechanism for communicating between computers that was only available on DEC technology. The strategy to use a closed system was likely an attempt to control more market share for this new technology. Later on DECNET phase two and beyond were made as open standards available to the public. This is not the reason why DEC failed but it may be indicative of their resistance to change and innovation that ultimately lead to their collapse.
Cisco Systems is a technology company that was founded in 1984 out of San Fransisco, CA. Cisco produces a variety of computer networking and telecommunications products for the civilian market. Cisco based its products on the TCP/IP open specifications and became quickly known for their powerful routers and network technologies. It does not appear that Cisco ever tried to create a proprietary networking protocol but rather built a strategy based on supplying customers with powerful tools to use existing open standards. Today Cisco is a globally recognized technology company with annual revenue of $51 billion in 2022 and more than 80,000 employees.
It is hard to say whether or not the adoption of open standards is what lead to the success of Cisco Systems in comparison to DEC. It may be that Cisco Systems was a newer company and adopting the latest methods of the industry was an inherent aspect of this fact. In contrast DEC may have held on to an older model of business where consolidation of the market clouded out the vision of the future causing leadership to not accurately spot growing trends in time. These two examples provide an interesting and informative look at the development of the internet and early networking technologies.