Postel, who played a critical role in both the Internet's past and its future, died Friday evening during heart surgery, according to friends and colleagues.
One of the founders of the Net, Postel was perhaps best known for his crucial--and sometimes controversial--role in
Jon Postel - photo by Peter Lothberg
His death comes at a critical juncture, as the federal government is planning how to turn over the domain naming system to the private sector.
But while Postel wielded considerable power in spearheading that effort, he remained an intensely private man who was much more the wizard behind the curtains than the politician in front of the people.
"Basically for years he's been the quiet person whose made things happen, who got consensus," said Dave Farber, professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania, who served as Postel's thesis adviser. "If Jon said, 'We're all going left,' in fact at least the technological part of the Internet went left--not because he had any particular power over them, but he was usually right."
Farber added that Postel was not one to yell. "He never banged the table," Farber said. Instead, he always tried to achieve consensus, and he was often successful.
"He wasn't powerful because he ran a corporation. He basically ran it because people trusted him. His power didn't come from anywhere other than his good taste and his ability to talk to people. It was a unique thing. If he was interested in being a teacher, he would have made a brilliant one. Jon could have been a millionaire. It just wasn't his bag."
But Postel, who shunned publicity, was not always happy being the head of a process--the domain naming system--that had become one of the most politicized on the Net.
"I think he was uncomfortable being controversial," Farber said. But he added that Postel dealt with that part of his job even when he did not enjoy it.
As head of IANA, Postel led a proposal recently submitted to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration on the transition of the domain naming system.
The proposal has not been without its critics. But this weekend, as word filtered out across the Net, they put aside their differences and praised a man who all agreed was, if not the most popular person on the Net, nothing short of brilliant.
But they also were concerned about how his death would affect the process.
"I don't think you'll see much of a hiccup," Farber said. "The new IANA is well formed enough. I think it will go on. This is a good test of whether the Net can govern itself. Jon pushed hard for that."
Postel is survived by four brothers and sisters, his mother, and his partner, Farber said.