Sat 2020-02-22 02:36

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Cory Doctorow sometimes posts insightful and interesting articles and talks but this piece isn't one of those, I'm afraid. In this latest editorial on the EFF website, Doctorow opines that adversarial interoperability was the downfall of the Gopher protocol. That the Web killed Gopher by... wait for it.. working with it.

Nice thought, but speaking as someone who is fairly familiar with it, what killed Gopher was that it was a rather shit protocol limited by inherent design flaws. The new kid HTTP was able to do everything Gopher could do (and in most cases, do it better) and could also do things Gopher couldn't. This was because of the HTTP protocol's flexible (and rather agnostic) design. It wasn't by some Machiavellian conspiracy that the World Wide Web supplanted Gopher. It was because HTTP was simply more capable and easier to use for most people, that the Web caught on.

Let's also not forget (as Doctorow apparently did in the above-linked article) that UMN (the university where Gopher was invented) shot their own baby in the head in 1993. The university placed their Gopher server implementation under a restrictive license, thus creating fear within the contemporary Gopher admin circles that other similar or derived server implementations might also be subject to UMN copyright claims.

Considering Doctorow is usually a staunch critic of copyright, it's odd he didn't see fit to mention that factoid. I guess it would have weakened his overall premise? I mean, given that CERN httpd (1990) was under a permissive license from the beginning, as were successors NCSA HTTPd (1993) and Apache (1995), it's really not that surprising that Gopher would drop out of favor with university computer science departments of the era who were concerned that deploying Gopher services might open their schools up to UMN claims for licensing fees. HTTP was the safer option.

In its day (an era of largely text-mode Internet communications and basic file downloads, where packet-level security was not a pressing concern), Gopher was a decent-enough protocol. But as soon as graphical web browsers hit the scene, people began to see the enormous possibilities of the Web and the writing was on the wall for its buck-toothed predecessor. These days, aside from the interest of retro-tech fetishists and those misguided persons who blame the sad state of the Web on its underlying protocol (rather than on the shit web developers who link 5MB+ of Javascript frameworks, ads, and trackers into every webpage they create) Gopher is a thing that ran its course a long time ago. And for good - technical - reasons.

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