Unsung heroes of tech: where are they now?
31st May 2011 | 12:00
We track down the names behind GeoCities, camera phones, DNS and more
Mark Zuckerberg gets all the attention as the creator of Facebook.
But there are countless unheralded tech luminaries who worked long hours and rarely slept to make sure we can call up any site on the net, buy a book on Amazon and store our music online.
These five superstars are rarely mentioned alongside Steve Jobs - but they probably should be. We tracked them down to find out what they're up to.
1. Jordon Ritter, co-creator of Napster
They don't make a movie about the technologist behind a major music service. While Sean Parker gets most of the media attention, Jordon Ritter did the programming on the first five releases of Napster. As the Chief Architect, he created the critical back-end system and load-balancing, figured out how to integrate the service into a database, and handled the security, maintenance, and management.
"The world's perception of Napster centered on what it was doing to the global culture and to the music industry - not the mechanics of how it did it," recalls Ritter, speaking to TechRadar.com. "That today remains the most impactful story of Napster. It is my crowning achievement in terms of successfully scaling an architecture against an immense load in such a short period of time."
To understand the achievement, it's important to note that, in its heyday, Napster had 60M users and as many as 2M online at the same time. The service ran on hundreds of interconnected computers. Ritter recounts how the FBI even asked him to monitor bomb threats over the internal Napster chat relays. This, around the time of Y2K, was just before the web had really hit the mainstream.
2. Taher Elgamal, creator of SSL
In 1995, Taher Elgamal led a team at Netscape that was charged with a complex goal: make e-commerce work reliably and securely. As a cryptographer, his team helped create the SSL encryption standard used in every browser today. They improved basic cryptography standards and made them more robust so they could work for securing transactions. The technology is now used widely on services like Amazon.
Surprisingly, Elgamal does not consider SSL to be his most important contribution. While he was a student at Stanford in the 80s, he created algorithms for public-key encryption that are still used today.
"My PhD work at Stanford is basically the foundation upon which almost the entire current public key crypto system has been built. In fact, there's a NIST standard, FIPS 186, also called the U.S. Government Digital Signature Standard, which was a minor modification on my PhD thesis," he says.
3. David Bohnett, creator of GeoCities
Before there was Facebook, and prior to MySpace, there was a service called GeoCities, essentially small inter-connected communities that rallied around specific subjects – such as sports teams or certain styles of music. David Bohnett created GeoCities and created some of the formative ideas of the web: your own personal website; content generation and management; shared ad revenue.
Eventually, the concepts evolved to incorporate photos, music and video, but the "user generated" content model of GeoCities was brand new at the time. Now, it is commonplace.
"Apart from learning the BASIC computer language when I was in high school and then programming a payroll reporting system in assembler when I got out of college, I consider GeoCities to be my most significant technical accomplishment to date," says Bohnett, who now heads Bohnettfoundation.org and the early stage technology fund, Baroda Ventures.
4. Philippe Kahn, inventor of the camera phone
Sometimes, proving you invented something can be difficult. In 1997, Philippe Kahn used a Motorola phone, a Casio camera, and his laptop to build the first known camera phone.
"At my home, I ran a web server on which the camera-phone software wirelessly uploaded the snapped pictures and dynamically created URLs accessible from outside my firewall," says Kahn.
The magic, he says, is that he set up a network to process the images. He took a picture when his daughter was born and sent it on to about 2,000 business contacts. Other companies say they developed camera phone prototypes, but Kahn says he has the earliest documented image. He is now the CEO of MotionX, a company that makes GPS software and GPS apps for smartphones.
5. Paul Mockapetris, inventor of DNS
You use it every day – even as you're reading this. DNS, or domain name system, is like the address book of the internet that provides, among other things, a way to call up a website in a browser.
In 1983, Paul Mockapetris was working at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the University of Southern California and evaluated several proposals for DNS. He eventually developed what is currently used today, which uses an ever-changing database of addresses instead of one look-up table.
Interestingly, the initial feedback was that the DNS spec was too complex. Mockapetris told TechRadar.com that, after about five years, the same experts started complaining about what was missing from the DNS spec. "That's my definition of success," he says.
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