Three Internet Inventions as told by their Creators

 

The Internet, a mainstay of contemporary culture, did not exist in previous generations. It dates back to the late 1960s and the ARPANET project, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense. But really this is the product of numerous inventors who came up with prominent features. This website will tell the story of three of them - computer viruses, the camera phone, and YouTube.

1.

1982: the First Computer Virus 

"What began as a ninth-grade prank, a way to trick already-suspicious friends who had fallen for his earlier practical jokes, has earned Rich Skrenta notoriety as the first person to let loose a personal-computer virus.

Although Skrenta over the next 25 years started the online news business Topix, helped launch a collaborative Web directory now owned by Time Warner Incorporated’s Netscape and wrote countless other computer programs, he is still remembered most for unleashing the ‘Elk Cloner’ virus on the world.

‘It was some dumb little practical joke,’ said Skrenta, 40. ‘I guess if you had to pick between being known for this and not being known for anything, I’d rather be known for this. But it’s an add place holder for (all that) I’ve done.’

Elk Cloner - self-replicating, as are all other viruses - bears little resemblance to the malicious programs of today. Yet in retrospect, it was a harbinger of all the security headaches that would only grow as more people got computers - and connected them with one another over the Internet.

Skrenta’s friends were already distrusting him because, in swapping computer games and other software, as part of piracy circles common at the time, Skrenta often altered the floppy disks he gave out to launch taunting on-screen message. Many friends started refusing disks from him.

So, during a winter break from Mount Lebanon Senior High School near Pittsburgh, Skrenta hacked away and figured out how to get the code to launch the messages onto disks automatically.

He used his Apple II, the dominant personal computer of the day, to develop what is now known as a ‘boot sector’ virus. When it boots, or starts, an infected disk puts a copy of the virus in the computer’s memory. Whenever someone inserts a clean disk into the machine and types the command ‘catalog’ for a list of files, a copy is written onto that disk as well. The newly infected disk is passed on to other people, other machines and other locations.

The prank, though annoying, is relatively harmless compared with the viruses of today. Every 50th time someone booted an infected disk, a poem Skrenta wrote would appear, saying in part, ‘It will get on all your disks; it will infiltrate your chips.’

Skrenta started circulating the virus in early 1982 among friends at his school and at a local computer club. Years later, he would continue to hear stories of other victims, including a sailor during the Gulf War nearly a decade later. (Why that sailor was still using an Apple II, Skrenta can’t say.)

These days, there are hundreds of thousands of viruses - perhaps more than a million depending on how slight variations are counted.

The first virus to hit computers running Microsoft’s operating system came in 1986, when two brothers in Pakistan wrote a boot sector program now dubbed ‘Brain’ - purportedly to punish people who spread pirated software. Although the virus didn’t cause serious damage, it displayed the phone number of the brothers’ computer repair shop.

With the growth of the Internet came a new way to spread viruses: e-mail.

‘Melissa’ (1999), ‘Love Bug’ (2000) and ‘SoBig’ (2003) were among a slew of fast-moving threats that snarled millions of computers worldwide by tricking people into clicking on the e-mail attachments and launching programs that automatically sent copies to other victims.

Although some of the earlier viruses overwhelmed networks, later ones corrupted documents or had other destructive properties.
Later viruses spread through instant-messaging and file-sharing software, while others circulated faster than ever by exploiting flaws in Windows networking functions.

Suddenly, though, viruses weren’t spreading as quickly. Virus writers now motivated by profit rather than by notoriety are trying to stay low-key, lest their creations get detected and removed, along with their mechanism for income.

Even as corporations and Internet service providers step up their defenses, virus writers look to emerging platforms, including mobile devices and Web-based services such as social-networking sites.
That’s not to say Skrenta should get the blame anytime someone gets spam sent through a virus-enabled relay or finds a computer slow to boot because of a lingering pest. After all, there's no evidence that virus writers who followed even knew of Skrenta or his craft.

Fred Cohen, a security expert who wrote his doctorate dissertation in 1986 about computer viruses, said that the conditions were right, and that, with more homes getting computers, ‘it was all a matter of time before this happened.’

So, back then, where was Skrenta’s restraint?

‘I was in the ninth grade,’ he said.”

25 Years of Viruses
 
 
Elk Cloner, 1982
Regarded as the first
Morris, 1988
Written by a Cornell graduate student whose father was a top government computer-security expert. It infected an estimated 6,000 university and military computers.

Melissa, 1999
One of the first to spread via e-mail.
Love Bug, 2000
Also spread via e-mail. It tricked recipients into opening it by looking like a love letter.

Code Red, 2001
Exploiting a flaw in Microsoft software, it was among the first ‘network worms’ to spread rapidly because it required only a network connection, not a human opening an attachment.

Sasser, 2004
Exploited a Microsoft flaw. Bad programming prompted some computers to continually crash and reboot.

“A ‘dumb little practical joke’: It was 1982, and ninth-grader Rich Skrenta had cooked up the prank to end all pranks: The world’s first computer virus.” By Anick Jesdanun of the Associated Press. Star Tribune, September 1, 2007, p. D1

2.

1997 : How the camera phone was created

 

In 2007, 41 percent of American households owned a camera phone. When and how was this device invented?

It was invented ten years ago by a Silicon Valley inventor named Philippe Khan. In 1997, Mr. Khan was sitting alone in a maternity ward waiting for his wife to deliver a baby. “We were going to have a baby,” he said, “and I wanted to share the pictures with family and friends, and there was no easy way to do it.”

As Kahn sat waiting, he wrote a simple program on his laptop computer and “sent an assistant to a RadioShack store to get a soldering iron, capacitors, and other supplies to wire his digital camera to his cell phone. When (daughter) Sophie was born, he sent her photo over a cellular connection to acquaintances around the globe.”

That’s it. Necessity was the mother of invention. Kahn, who also founded Borland software, has personally created one of the industry’s most important gadgets to share family news with his friends.

The fact that many people carry cell phones equipped with video-recording capabilities means that videos or photographs will be available to record many more scenes than what was previously possible. In effect, there will be “news reporters” at the scene of nearly any event - at Saddam Hussein’s hanging, for example, or outside a hall at Virginia Tech University where a mass murder was in progress.

The camera phone is an integral part of today’s communication revolution.

3.

2005: the Origin of YouTube 

In the mid 1990s, 27-year-old Jawed Karim was a student at St. Paul’s Central High School who had a knack for computers. He constructed an email system for the school’s faculty and was later an employee of PayPal, which was acquired by eBay in 2002. Today Karim is a graduate student at Stanford University, personally worth $65 million. This wealth is due to the fact that he was one of the creators of YouTube which was sold to Google for $1.65 billion in late 2006.

Karim participated in a discussion of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in downtown Minneapolis on March 26, 2007. He became rich on the strength of better ideas but his message at the forum was “ideas are cheap”. In other words, there’s much more to launching a successful product than having a good idea. “In some cases,” said Karim, “you just have to let the users tell you how to use your product.”

YouTube turned out to be something quite different than what its creators earlier imagined. Karim explained to a newspaper reporter: “Basically I suggested a dating website based on videos ... We launched in April 2005 and it didn’t take off. People didn’t use it (YouTube) very much. We looked at our product and realized we should open it to any contact. Also, we opened up the interface so you could choose what you wanted to watch, search for videos, link to related videos and give people the ability to ‘tag’ videos so other people could find your video with a keyword. It grew explosively.”

So adaptability to user demand is one key to success in launching a new computer-based system such as YouTube. The computer-dating concept was too limiting. You Tube’s founders tinkered with the product to allow activity that the users wanted. They made it easier to post and locate videos, regardless of use or intent. The product took off.

At the public discussion, Karim stressed the importance of timing. Conditions must be right for a new product to be successful. If YouTube had been launched in 2003, it would not have been successful because not all the required conditions were then in place. MySpace.com was the consumer platform which launched YouTube, Karim said. Young people wanted to express themselves on the Internet but they did not have a good way to post videos.

There was a video-sharing craze in 2004, spurred by the greater availability of video cameras and cell phones. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean showed the importance of videos taken on cell phones when video-equipped media could not be on the scene. All this amateur-made video created a backlog of materials waiting to be used in personally expressive ways on the Internet.

Before 2004, said Karim, you couldn’t send videos by email because they required too much bandwidth. Broadband capability greater increased for home users in the period between 2004 and 2006. Also the hosting costs for dedicated servers came down. More people were able to send and post videos, fueling a demand for YouTube.

The site also benefited greatly from “viral communication”, which means users telling their friends about the product. (Karim’s example: PayPal tells a new person that he has received $100 from a PayPal transaction; but to collect this money, the person has to establish a PayPal account.)

Karim pointed out that innovative products on the Internet are mostly new combinations of existing products. Macromedia flash was one such product, utilized by YouTube, that had been around for some time. Such sites as Broadcast.com and Yvonnesworld.com existed in 1999. For YouTube to succeed, there had to be the right technology, greater bandwidth, and increased storage capacity. The decision to allow users to tag their videos for better identification and retrieval was also an important factor in the site’s success.

In other words, Jawed Karim and his two associates became rich by being flexible and by “being in the right place at the right time” with the right combination of features to supply what the mass of consumers wanted. Besides features in his own product, the inventor needed to know about subsidiary products and features that would support a market for this.

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