The Rhyming Protocol Wars of 2022
Defi lending protocols, distributed exchange protocols, cross-chain messaging protocols, communication protocols. All of them are in the process of being invented, debated, and adopted.
In a roundabout way, this post is about the emergence of web3 protocols. But it’s about how we got here.
For 20 years, from 1970 to 1990s, the first Protocol Wars raged over clacking IBM Model M mechanical keyboards.
At the time, computers were connected by local networks. Stanford operated a computer network. DARPA and University College London also. But these networks couldn’t talk to each other in a standardized way - paralleling the limited interoperability of blockchains today.
How would computers find each other? How would they exchange files or messages or emails? How would they secure data on the wire?
In 1974 and 1975, a team at DARPA including Vint Cerf developed a standard called TCP/IP. TCP/IP is a collection of standards that today are ubiquitous: HTTP (web browsing), IMAP and SMTP (for emails), UDP (broadcast video), and many others.
After significant testing, the US Department of Defense standardized its networks on TCP/IP in 1981. Berkeley embedded TCP/IP into Unix not long thereafter.
In the private sector, IBM, DEC, and Xerox built proprietary protocols to connect business networks. These closed-source competitors duked it out market share for more than 20 years.
Not to be outdone, startups vied for business, writing TCP/IP stacks and selling them to big computer makers. The largest of the era, FTP Software, went public as a hugely successful business before being sold for less than cash after Microsoft embedded a TCP/IP stack in Windows 95 for free, marking the end of the era.
During these decades, the conference circuit featured architecture debates from protocol preachers sporting spicy t-shirts.
Web3 builders are debating their way through this era’s protocol wars, defining the networking stack to connect blockchains.
Ethereum wrote a virtual machine, EVM. The EVM has become an early standard for smart contract runtimes. Cosmos has been promoting the Inter Blockchain Connectivity (IBC) standard for messaging. There are point-to-point cross-chain bridges like Wormhole that recall PPP in the TCP/IP array.
The next era in web3 will feature a panoply of three-letter acronyms, debates over communications protocols at the most fundamental levels written on modern, clicky mechanical keyboards sporting Cherry Brown switches, and, yes, colorful couture. It wouldn’t be a protocol war otherwise.