On the shoulders of giants

Expanding on a late-night Twitter thread about building technology.

Last night, I played a video on my TV from my phone. It was a bit loud, so I turned it down. That might seem unremarkable, but it led to a Twitter thread I thought I’d expand on here.

Decades ago, I was a product manager for dial-up access concentrators. When you put an AOL CD-ROM in your PC and dialed out, my product picked up the phone on the other end. That product was called the Data Network Gateway/IP, and it was made by Primary Access Corporation in San Diego. We affectionately pronounced DNG/IP “dung heap.”

Getting two machines to talk to one another was a huge effort. Back in the days of acoustic modems, this literally meant oscilloscopes and lots of loud squealing in labs. But getting an entire industry to agree on how to connect, how to send things, how to make sure they were received correctly, and what to do if they weren’t was insanely hard.

Many vendors, often direct competitors with one another, had to horse-trade features that might help or hurt them in the market, while also designing something that worked All. The. Time. I recall long meetings with Cisco, 3Com (where I worked, following its acquisition of Primary Access), Bay Networks, Wellfleet, Telematics, Nortel, Alteon, and tons more. These were multi-day meetings full of acronyms, at a time when Netscape and Mosaic were just introducing the world to the wide web.

I even helped pen one of these (PPTP, the Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol, which, combined with L2F, the Layer Two Forwarding spec, became L2TP, the Layer Two Tunnelling Protocol.) You probably use some of this technology when you connect via a VPN. This name salad alone should help you understand just how Byzantine and contentious the process can be.

Having worked in deep network infrastructure, web protocols, and cloud computing, I have a somewhat rarefied view of what it takes to make things “just work.”

The work continues today. Organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) get together in corners of the world to debate changes, figure out what to work on next, and so on. These gatherings are like the bastard offspring of the UN Security Council and happy hour at a bar full of insufferable technology pedants. Of course, many of these people are friends, so I say this with love.

The work has changed, but not much:

  • Tech has become more complicated as we’ve moved “up the stack” from just sending ones and zeroes down a wire. This means there are more states to manage, and more participants to coordinate.

  • There’s less vendor “biodiversity.” The tech industry has created some of the most profitable, influential companies in history, but they’ve conflated hardware, software, and operating systems, often using proprietary protocols to make things work better (for example, your Apple Watch, iPhone, and Airpods coordinate things like unlocking your phone with your watch, or switching Airpods from phone to tablet—but only within the Apple ecosystem.

  • Many of the tools became human-readable, starting with HTTP and up, so they’re probably more accessible. This makes troubleshooting a bit easier in some cases, although there are efforts to make the web more efficient by doing away with this human-friendly “overhead.”

  • Security is a growing concern. If you encrypt something, you can’t easily sniff the traffic to work out what’s going on under the hood.

  • The conversations between devices are about bigger “things.” Rather than sending a packet, we’re now saying stuff like “please authorize this user because I trust them” (using a protocol called OAUTH.) These “macro” functions can fail in more complicated and hard-to-troubleshoot ways.

Yet it just works.

When I open up YouTube on my iPhone and play a video on my Samsung TV, the button on the side of my phone adjusts the volume on the Denon amplifier. It took a stunning amount of collaboration to get there. Google, Apple, Samsung, and Denon, all work together.

(Yes, it’s Alphabet, not Google. Alphabet’s attempts at rebranding bounced off me like raisins off an Oldsmobile.)

There’s the YouTube app talking to iOS, which uses airplay to connect to the TV over wifi. The phone hands off the stream to the TV, so I can do other things and don’t clog up my home wifi network. And then the TV uses an HDMI protocol called ARC to turn on the amp and send it volume messages.

None of which I need to think about: My volume button just works.

We take for granted the incredible complexity of the human process that makes modern tech feel like magic. But it is as hard as the tech itself, and often thankless and exhausting.

So maybe take a moment, as you’re reading this, to think about the hundreds of millions of hours that went into making it possible for you to do so.