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Internet

Postel eulogized as humble genius

High government and corporate officials and admiring graduate students alike gather to pay tribute to Jon Postel, a founding father of the Internet.

    LOS ANGELES-- For a technical genius, it was a simple send-off.

    Two dozen white paper airplanes were sent sailing over the crowd at the end of a memorial service here today, where more than 200 people gathered to pay tribute to Jon Postel, a founding father of the Internet who died of heart problems October 16 at age 55.

    Remembered as a "missionary," "bright, bearded student," "Eagle Scout," and "protocol tzar," friends and colleagues who gathered under the ornate arches in one of the University of Southern California's oldest buildings said Postel's contributions to the Internet were more than historic.

    Jon Postel
    Jon Postel--photo by Peter Lothberg

    Without him, the medium would not have existed.

    President Clinton's senior adviser, Ira Magaziner, compared Postel to Albert Einstein.

    Like Postel, many attending the service belonged to the ground-breaking group of scientists and engineers who helped build the Net when they were just young university students. Some were alumni of the University of Southern California, where the service was held.

    Postel's passing is a milestone in the bigger transformation of the Net from a collaborative project between the government and academia into a private backbone for global commerce and communication.

    "It was Jon and his colleagues who helped create a revolution that will change mankind," said Magaziner, who, in addition to delivering his own eulogy read a letter from President Clinton acknowledging Postel's achievements.

    "Jon was the first to pass from this group," he added before bringing some levity to the service, attended by a mixture of establishment players in suits and ties, long-haired academicians, and code warriors. He said Postel was probably hooking up to the Net in his afterlife. "He needs to get up the addressing system for when all his friends get there."

    Postel, who loved hiking in Yosemite and was recognized by his long hair and beard as well as his often sandaled feet, was the director of the government-funded Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), where he managed the underpinnings of the Internet domain name system. He also joined USC's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in 1977, eventually becoming its director.

    Postel was present when the first digital packet was switched. During his career, he not only created protocols for the Internet's domain-naming system, but also for email and online file transfers--all of which now form the cornerstone of the so-called New Economy.

    A private man, Postel often was criticized by the media and those in some of the inner circles of the highly controversial domain-naming community for being a power-hungry man who wanted to control the strings behind the Net--especially during the last few years, as the process of privatizing control of the domain name system became increasingly cumbersome and politicized.

    But to those who knew him best, Postel was far from being a dictator who was eager for the limelight, as some of his critics characterized him. Rather, they thought of him as a somewhat shy genius whose greatest contributions took place behind the scenes. The turnout today for his memorial, which included people ranging from high government and corporate officials to admiring graduate students, was a testimony to that.

    "The facts don't do justice to the warm, complex person Jon was," said Robert Braden, senior researcher for USC's ISI. When credited with founding the Net, he was quick to point out that "others were there too."

    "He could be stubborn," said Herbert Schorr, executive director of USC's ISI. "But he held power in a unique way--by forming a consensus. He tried to express the power of the community."

    It is unlikely that Postel anticipated the impact the network address system he initiated ultimately would have.

    A meticulous organizer, Postel first kept track of Net addresses in a neat paper notebook.

    That was more than 30 years ago.

    Now there are millions of Internet addresses and a comparable number of people online.

    "For years, [Postel] did the thankless job in the background and provided a tremendous amount of stability for the Net to incubate into what it is," said Don Telage, senior vice president of Internet relations for Network Solutions, which--for now--has a government contract to run the registry for ".com" and other popular domain names.

    When Postel died, he was working with the government to transfer control of IANA to a nonprofit corporation, in order to open up competition in the registry business and to end U.S. oversight of it.

    In fact, the week after his death, the government, under Magaziner, chose the organization that Postel had spent months organizing and promoting to assume control of the domain naming system.

    That process is far from finished, however. It now is up to Postel's successors and a board IANA has appointed to address many of the stickier issues involved in the transition, such as how the group will maintain the openness demanded by an extraordinarily diverse, demanding, and vast Internet community.

    But not everyone here today remembered Postel just as a Net guru or as a key player in the battle over the domain name system. Some remembered him simply as a friend who was as much at home in front of a computer as he was hiking in the shadow of Half Dome.

    "He was humble and he touched my life royally," said Postel's assistant, Joe Kemp. "He put himself in the background and pushed others out front."

    Postel's brothers, Thomas and Russell, wore socks with Teva sandals in a tribute to Postel's style, and his sister, Margie Bradshaw, took her shoes off to eulogize him. His mother Lois also was present, but didn't speak.

    "He was complicated," Russell Postel said, "but he lived simply."