Where Protocols Come From

There’s an interesting discussion on usv.com this week called Where Protocols Come From. Here’s the anchor to the discussion:

Protocols play a vital role in computing, as well as a vast array of our online interactions. The device you’re reading on now has a USB connection; without it, your device couldn’t interoperate with other devices. You’ve probably sent an email to someone in the past hour; without the standard IMAP/SMTP protocol, you wouldn’t be able to send email to people who aren’t on Gmail.

While protocols make interoperability possible, and in fact many are governed by standards bodies, history shows that standards are often imposed by one dominant player. For example, Apple may have quietly invented the new standard for USB. JVC played a large role in the invention of the VHS.

On the software side, the history is a little murkier. Among file formats, Adobe invented the PDF and Apple is largely responsible for the proliferation of MP4HTTP was invented by a computer scientist and widely adopted without the domineering of any one industry player. Attempts to establish social networking protocols, such as Tent.io, have largely failed. We are, however, beginning to see an uptick in protocols proffered by companies, such as our portfolio company Onename.

This week we’re asking:

  • Why have hardware protocols been driven by dominant players but not software?

  • What might it take for a software company to establish a protocol?

  • What conditions must be met to establish to establish an internet protocol?

The discussion is here. We are collecting both comments and posts in the discussion, which is how we do every topic of the week at usv.com.