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March 16, 2015

Setting the Clock

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Your computer, your phone, your tablet, and pretty much all wireless electronic gizmos keep good and accurate track of the time. That’s thanks to something called NTP. It’s the Network Time Protocol. The NTP has been in the news recently because it might suddenly disappear.

Back in the days of the steam-powered computer, one of the first questions a PC asked you was for the date and time. That’s because computer’s aren’t clocks. They keep track of the time (poorly), but they don’t know the time unless they’re told.

In the late 1980s, a popular PC expansion card was the Time/Clock card. It provided battery-backed clock circuitry that automatically set the computer’s tick-tock. That circuitry has been built into all computers since then, although the clock does need to be initially set.

Starting in the late 1990s, computers could use the Internet to set their clocks. This was thanks to the NTP. Every so often, the computer would check the current time by venturing out to the Internet, connecting with an NTP server, and adjusting its clock accordingly. That process still takes place today, not only on all computers but on smartphones, tablets, and even scary scientific gizmos.

The issue is that NTP is an open source protocol. No one owns it. And most definitely, no one makes any money from it.

The person who maintains the NTP is Harlan Stenn. He’s a programmer who lives in Oregon and pretty much volunteers his time so that you, me, and even Google, Apple, and Microsoft can benefit from his work.

Someday soon, Mr. Stenn needs to find a job that pays him real money. I’m sure he has the creds, if not the monetary recognition, for providing the services that he has in maintaining the NTP. And you would think that Google, Apple, and Microsoft would be right there to help him, but no.

According to an article in InformationWeek, Mr. Stenn isn’t alone. Programmers around the globe maintain open source software libraries that many of us use and from which a lot of people benefit. This list includes OpenSSL, Bash, and other popular technologies.

Programmers like Harlan Stenn may soon decide that if fools are out there are making billions by selling silly apps, they should likewise be rewarded. If so, they could simply abandon their work and get a real job. Or perhaps those who benefit from their hard hours and dedication should seek some kind of remuneration or thanks?

The open source community could help, but my feeling is that the Big Boys need to cooperatively chip in. If they don’t, we may see a divided world where Google’s time server won’t work with Apple’s stuff and Microsoft (again) declares it’s own standard that makes all PCs incompatible with the rest of the planet. That would be nightmare.

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