Jon Postel, a networking pioneer who had enormous, unsought power over the Internet, died Friday during heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. He was 55. Postel was part of the group that created the first Internet protocols under the Department of Defense’s ARPAnet project, and he continued his involvement up until his death. More recently, Postel headed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the organization that manages the process by which domain names are resolved into numbers, among other tasks. Because of his leadership at the IANA, Postel drafted a series of successive plans in the last several months to change the domain name registration process. The most recent draft was issued early this month.
Like Plato’s postulated philosopher-king, who is given power precisely because he or she doesn’t want it, Postel never imagined himself in the middle of things but didn’t shy from performing much-needed jobs. He chose his battles primarily for technical, not political reasons, and was noted for facilitating change rather than acting as a roadblock or capitalizing on development. Postel was a key figure in helping the Internet grow and become commercial, as well as in developing new standards and procedures. His impartiality was well known and well respected, especially in his management of RFCs, the seminal documents defining technical specifications for general adoption by software and hardware developers. Postel’s death may further extend and exacerbate debate over the future of domain name development and registration.