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OSI: The Internet That Wasn’t

How TCP/IP eclipsed the Open Systems Interconnection standards to become the global protocol for computer networking

15 min read
Photo: INRIA
Only Connect: Researcher Hubert Zimmermann (left) explains computer networking to French officials at a meeting in 1974. Zimmermann would later play a key role in the development of the Open Systems Interconnection standards.
Photo: INRIA

If everything had gone according to plan, the Internet as we know it would never have sprung up. That plan, devised 35 years ago, instead would have created a comprehensive set of standards for computer networks called Open Systems Interconnection, or OSI. Its architects were a dedicated group of computer industry representatives in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States who envisioned a complete, open, and multi­layered system that would allow users all over the world to exchange data easily and thereby unleash new possibilities for collaboration and commerce.

For a time, their vision seemed like the right one. Thousands of engineers and policy­makers around the world became involved in the effort to establish OSI standards. They soon had the support of everyone who mattered: computer companies, telephone companies, regulators, national governments, international standards setting agencies, academic researchers, even the U.S. Department of Defense. By the mid-1980s the worldwide adoption of OSI appeared inevitable.

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