Jon Postel, a central figure in guiding the Internet from its infancy to what it is today, died on Friday at the age of 55, friends of Postel's have confirmed.
Postel, one of the founders of the Internet, died in Los Angeles from complications following heart surgery, they said.
Postel's career spanned the past 30 years. He worked on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the precursor to the Internet and was most recently the director of the Information Sciences Institute (ISI), a branch of the University of Southern California in Marina del Rey, California.
He received his B.S. and M.S. in Engineering, and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Southern California. He was also a founder of the Internet Architecture Board, a technical advisory group of the Internet Society that helps set Internet technical standards.
As director of the ISI's Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), Postel oversaw the allocation and assignment of the world's Internet domain names and Internet addresses. The role is considered so core to the Internet's smooth operation that many observers said Postel wielded unequaled power over the global network of networks.
Postel, however, always played down such characterisations.
In interviews, e-mails and postings on the Net yesterday, fellow builders of the Internet characterised the gray-bearded programmer as the quiet steward of the Internet who shunned the limelight and always worked for the greater good of the Internet.
"His approach on the management of resources entrusted to him was put to the interests of the Internet as a whole before the interests of the few," said David Conrad, former head of the Asia Pacific Network Information Center, the regional registry to which Postel's group allocated IP addresses.
In a statement yesterday, the Internet Society (ISOC) agreed.
"[Postel] regarded his responsibilities as a kind of public trust. He never received any personal benefit form the exploding business of the Internet, choosing instead to stay outside of the business frenzy the initial public offerings and other paraphernalia of Wall Street," the ISOC said.
In recent years, however, that commercial explosion of the Internet brought Postel much strain.
Postel's death comes amid a long-running battle over how to allocate the key Internet resources, IP addresses and domain names. Postel's IANA has managed the processes since the Internet's inception, when the network was funded by the U.S. government and most of its users were U.S. researchers and engineers.
But as a growing amount of commerce is being done over the Internet, rabble groups are trying to move IANA's work into the public sector. Currently one point being discussed is whether to set up a company, called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to manage the resources.
Postel was a central figure in the debate and spent much of the past two years helping shape a consensus.
"He sought to find a solution that most closely matched the demands of increasingly polarised communities despite the distrust and venom the situation devolved to," Conrad said. Conrad added that without Postel, the squabbles will likely drag on.
"I'm cynical," he said. "I suspect unless the ICANN is firmly established in a very short amount of time there will be significant jockeying for position by the various factions who want to assert their constituency's position over others," he said.
Conrad hopes, however, that Postel's death brings disparate factions together.
"Jon's death may have provided a window of opportunity that will allow the establishment of the structure Jon worked so hard to build," he said. "That may be the most fitting tribute the Internet communities can bestow."
Postel's home page is at http://www.isi.edu/div7/people/postel.home/.