Rong Chen and the Evolution of the Internet: From ARPANET to Web3 — Part 1

Before the Internet as we know it came into existence, there was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a project funded by the United States Department of Defense. Conceived in the late 1960s, ARPANET was designed to provide a system for researchers and military personnel to share information easily. At this time, computing resources were expensive and siloed. Researchers often had to physically go to the machine’s location to perform computations. Therefore, a set of rules that allowed different types of computers to communicate was developed was initially developed called the Network Control Protocol (NCP), later to be superseded by the TCP/IP protocol suite in 1983. This was a key innovation for military and research institutions, as it demonstrated that a network of multiple, interconnected computers could effectively communicate, optimising resource utilisation and enhancing productivity. As technological advancements in networking continued beyond the early 80’s, various institutions and individuals worldwide played crucial roles in shaping the Internet’s development. Rong Chen’s experience provides an insightful perspective on this collaborative effort and the milestones that followed.

‘I worked as an intern with another person at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1987 at the University of Illinois to implement data rendering algorithms on the SUN Workstations while the data came from two Cray Supercomputers a few hundred yards away. Two other fellow students worked on implementing the first TCP/IP ever for IBM PCs at the same time. It was planned to interconnect 6 supercomputers in 5 universities’ supercomputer centers in the US at the time of 1987. I had heard that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) joined the scientific research network later. And Tim Berners-Lee worked at the CERN and invented the WWW web in 1989 on top of the network that we had built. Mosaic from NCSA came later in the early 1990s as the first useable internet browser product inspired by Tim’s work.‘ – Rong Chen, Elastos Founder

Less than a decade before the Dot-Com Bubble of the ’90s, Rong Chen’s 1987 internship at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) offers a fascinating glimpse into a crucial period into the transformative era of the internet. Rong’s work on optimising communication between computers designed for very different kinds of tasks laid the groundwork for interoperability across divergent systems. The standardisation later of TCP/IP for IBM PCs was a seminal step in mainstreaming internet access. This development set the stage for Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 invention of the World Wide Web, which revolutionised data organisation, allowing pages from different server locations to be linked together and explored in one universal environment.

The foundational networking by Rong Chen and colleagues enabled subsequent developments like the Mosaic browser, a user-friendly platform that evolved the Internet’s reach from academic and military circles into consumer households. But Mosaic was just the start; it inspired the creation of Netscape in 1994, one of the first commercial web browsers. Netscape’s success demonstrated the internet’s economic potential and spurred the “browser wars,” such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer which was instrumental in embedding the Internet into the fabric of everyday life, driving global markets and commercial opportunities. Being inside the exponential growth phase of a company like Microsoft at this time tells an exciting story full of innovative milestones, filled with lessons and warnings in architectural principles.

‘I worked at Microsoft from June 1992 to April 2000. I was with the multimedia framework team for 6 months, Then joined the multimedia operating system team around the end of 1992. The multimedia OS team merged with the MS Research OS team in 1993. The Research OS became the Interactive TV set-top-box OS in 1994, and became part of the Advanced Consumer Technology Division’. – Rong Chen

At its core, an Operating System manages hardware resources, such as CPU and memory, to maximise the utility of the physical hardware. However, it also manages internet connectivity for external communication and data exchange, disk storage for data integrity and efficient retrieval, and identity management for authentication and system security. These functionalities are integrated, not isolated. A failure or inefficiency in one could have a domino effect across the system, underscoring the essential role of the OS in harmonising hardware and software.

Early advancements in OS design have been catalysts for innovations defining subsequent generations of internet technologies. In 1995, a few months before Microsoft pivoted away from private Internet technologies, Rong Chen joined the Internet Explorer team as its 10th member. Microsoft’s embrace of open internet standards wasn’t just a policy shift; it recognised an industry trend favouring open ecosystems over exclusive standards for widespread adoption. Rong Chen and teams work on OS resource management, connectivity, and security—across different contexts from multimedia frameworks to specialised consumer technologies—put Microsoft in a position to innovate rapidly. But they were not confined to one niche; they were exposed to a cross-pollination of ideas. This made them a hub of innovation.

Rong’s passion would see him transition to the OLE Automation team, which simplified the integration of different software components, such as embedding a Microsoft Excel graph into a Microsoft Word document. This technology formed half of the programming paradigm architecture that all Microsoft projects would subsequently have to follow, shaping the foundational architecture of Microsoft’s OS software. The other half of the Microsoft programming paradigm architecture was the OLE “New Technology” team, providing the essential framework to enable efficient communication within Windows OS. These two Microsoft teams merged to form the COM Core team, which became essential in developing early versions of .NET—a framework setting the stage for future Windows versions and enabling various application types.

Rong Chen Windows 95 team

However, a pivotal moment arose when Microsoft decided to shut down the COM Core team and narrow their focus and invest in one particular software development approach. Rong disagreed with this single-track focus. He believed that both should co-exist and be developed in parallel, as each has its unique advantages and use cases. His rationale also included security considerations; specifically arguing that the OS should ensure a secure environment to protect user data from third-party apps.

“Due to the fact that Microsoft decided to dissolve the COM Core (C/C++) team and embrace only the C# intermediate bytecode framework, I believed that both should be supported and working in parallel. 3rd-party apps must be sandboxed in their own computing execution environment so that they cannot abuse the 1st-party user’s data, the operating system, as the 2nd party, is responsible for providing such a secure computing environment. So I resigned in April 2000 to build my own C++ version network operating system Elastos.” – Rong Chen

What Rong articulated around 2000 aligned closely with what we now recognise as the principles of Web3. His move from Microsoft to found Elastos, a Network OS platform, emphasises the catalytic power of divergent visions for spawning new initiatives. But divergent visions don’t emerge in isolation; they often stem from user demands for new capabilities. In the case of Microsoft and similar entities, a centralised structure, once established, became the path of least resistance for subsequent advancements. This approach enabled effective commercialisation during the Web 2.0 era, regardless of inherent limitations. Economies of scale in data centres and cloud services not only attracted more users but also contributed to the emergence and increasing value of platforms like Facebook and Google.

However, such architecture generated a growth feedback loop but also increased critical setbacks. Systems like identity management and social media that initially fuel growth also introduce security vulnerabilities, censorship issues, and biases. The growth of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and complex AI algorithms intensify these vulnerabilities, expanding the number of avenues for potential attacks. This segues naturally into the principles Rong advocated, fostering a new internet or network OS cycle that safeguards first-party user data from third-party abuse.

In Part 2, we’ll explore Elastos in-depth, the vision that prompted Rong to leave Microsoft. This decentralised network OS introduces a paradigm shift in internet ownership, addressing current Web 2.0 limitations and forming the foundation for a third-generation web, or Web3. These principles find their expression in the Elastos SmartWeb concept, which encompasses sandboxing, peer-to-peer communication between these sandboxes, and the trust-based, decentralised features intrinsic to blockchain technology.