I've just read the article written by Steve Crocker commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first RFC (RFC 1), for which he was the author.   You can find this New York Times article here.  

Steve coined the term "Request for Comments" which is still used by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to label its documents.   Not all of the 5500+ RFCs are standards, but many of them are and they include documents which have offered a foundation upon which the Internet has been built.   Standards like TCP/IP, the SMTP email protocol, the HTTP web protocol and, more recently, the SIP communications protocol, are widely used and support a cornucopia of applications both on the public Internet and on its private network cousins.  

As a telecommunications product manager, I'm a huge fan of standards, since they offer a way to build a solution once and then produce many applications, and by extension, many customers.   By contrast, the request by a customer to build a non-standard solution or to extend a standard in a non-standard way, may provide the approach needed to win a single deal, but will only rarely find its way into solutions that can be used by multiple customers.  

Standards can also be dynamic.  In the Nineties, I got involved in the IETF because there was a desire by industry vendors to find a standard way to support a facsimile function over the Internet.   This groundswell of interest stirred up a beehive of standards activities.   The email and fax community started up a mailing list and all kinds of ideas were kicked around for about six months.   Over time, this newly grown Internet Fax community decided that two set of Internet Fax standards were needed: 

  • Adapting Internet Email to support a store and forward fax service
  • Developing a real time fax communications protocol that could run over IP networks

There was quite a bit of discussion about what standards groups should do the work, but over a six month period, two major standards groups agreed to cooperate in a historic fashion and produce the required standards.   The Internet Engineering Task Force built a series of extensions to the Internet Email protocol, which resulted in RFCs 2301-2305.  I brought these new RFCs to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and they were endorsed and referenced as part of the T.37 standard in June, 1998.   At the same meeting, a new standard for real time fax over IP was completed by the ITU fax experts, T.38. 

It comes as a major surprise to some people that fax is still in widespread use, but one of the reasons for its staying power has been a strong foundation of standards.   The extension of fax to run over the Internet has helped it to maintain its relevance during a period when there has been a strong shift to IP-based communications.   The Internet Fax RFCs added quite a bit of functionality to the email protocol in areas like content negotiations and delivery confirmation, and the T.38 protocol has been widely adopted as a way to transport fax on Voice over IP Networks on products such as Voice over IP Gateways.  

Let's raise a glass to thank Mr. Crocker for writing the first RFC and celebrate this important anniversary.   Standards have been essential in building the Internet and the resulting expansion of communication possibilities continues to set the stage for new levels of innovation.