Gopher Protocol (Gopher)
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Gopher's Role in the Modern Internet
There are some people who believe that Gopher is technically superior to the Web in a number of respects. They consider it cleaner to have linking be done by servers, rather than having links embedded in documents. An argument can also be made that the text orientation of Gopher is efficient, better able to ensure compatibility between platforms, and also more suited to special needs situations such as low-bandwidth links and access by those with visual impairment. Some Gopher enthusiasts thus consider it to be a purer hypertext system than the World Wide Web.
However, history shows us that despite Gopher predating the World Wide Web, the Web overtook it in popularity in only a few short years. Today, the Web is the 900 pound gorilla of the Internet, while most people have never even heard of Gopher. What happened?
I believe the main reason why Gopher lost out to the Web is that the Web is far more flexible. Gophers use of text hyperlinks and server directory structures may be efficient, but it is limiting. In contrast, the Web allows information to be presented in a wide variety of ways. The open, unstructured nature of the Web made it an ideal vehicle for the creativity of information providers and application developers. In the mid-1990s, the Web was also perfectly poised to support the transition of computing from text to graphics, and Gopher really was not.
Simply put, you can do more with the Web than you can with Gopher, and more people care about functionality and breadth of options than straight efficiency. Once the Web started to gain momentum, it very quickly snowballed, as I discuss in the topic on the Webs history. It took only a couple of years before Web use was well-entrenched, and Gopher was unable to compete.
For its part, the University of Minnesota likely hastened Gophers demise with its controversial decision to charge licensing fees to companies that wanted to use Gopher for commercial purposes. I do not believe there was anything nefarious about this: the university was on a limited budget and wanted companies that could afford it, to pay a small fee to support development of Gopher software. However, computing history has shown time and time again that there is no faster way to kill a protocol or standard than to try to charge licensing or royalty fees for it, no matter what the reason.
By the late 1990s, Gopher was well on its way to obsolescence. As use of the protocol dwindled, many organizations could no longer justify the cost of continuing to run Gopher servers. Even the University of Minnesota itself eventually shut down its own Gopher servers due to low utilization. The final nail in the coffin for Gopher occurred in 2002, when a security vulnerability related to Gopher was discovered in Internet Explorer, and Microsoft chose to simply remove Gopher support from the product rather than fix the problem. Today, Gopher is still around, but is a niche protocol used only by a relatively small group of enthusiasts and a handful of organizations that have a past history of using it.
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