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Chapter 10. Network Protocols > Power and Protocols

10.1. Power and Protocols

Let's take a minute to consider the politics of protocols, because politics are more likely than performance to determine which protocols are actually used and which remain only theoretical. Protocols have value in proportion to the number of users: a widely used protocol gives you the desirable ability to communicate with a large number of people. So when a protocol has enough users, it tends to attract even more users. Let's call this the snowball effect, because a simple snowball thrown down the side of a mountain can grow to be an avalanche. The snowball effect doesn't particularly care if the communications protocol is high performance. Just being able to communicate at all with huge numbers of people is valuable. This is exactly what happened with HTTP. It's not a particularly efficient protocol, but it has provided great value through its ubiquity.

Open protocols are at the core of the Internet and the Web. TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, Java, and CORBA are all open protocols. There are many competing definitions of "open" that serve the needs of the parties doing the defining. I say a protocol is open if the complete specification is publicly available for use or implementation at no cost. Open protocols tend to spread faster than closed protocols because they add nothing to the price of software that uses them. Open protocols were essential to the development of the free Internet software that gave rise to the Web. Paying even a small price for software is always a barrier to acceptance, if only because of the overhead involved in making the payment.


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