John Naughton’s book is a fascinating look at where the internet came from, how it developed and who was involved. Naughton’s own interest in the subject shines through constantly, his passion for communication evident from the first chapter, where he describes his own father’s penchant for ham radio, despite his insufficient resources to become a private broadcaster.

A Brief History of Time is nicely balanced, given enough fact to be meaty, but also enough story to be engaging. In particular, Naughton paints particularly rich pictures of the characters involved. I often read books like this and end up recognizing all the names, but unable to attribute the particular accomplishments to the relevant owners. But Naughton so successfully humanizes these names on paper that you cannot help but remember their great achievements.

Although slightly dated (by the looks of things the book was completed around the time that the dot com boom was just starting to slow), this is nevertheless a solid foundation for anyone trying to understand the internet by looking at its past. Unlike many authors, Naughton does not attempt to predict the future of the medium, but does well to highlight a number of challenges that will (and in fact currently are) being faced by those who seek to use, as well as those who seek to profit by, this intarweb doohickey.

For those more interested in the technical rather than the social science aspects of the web and the massive distributed network upon which it exists, there is also plenty in this book. A good balance is struck between the “then there’s some technical details which we’ll completely gloss over” and the painstakingly detailed approaches when considering the important protocols, design issues and so on. Although this is by no means a complete technical guide (at just over 300 pages it hardly could be!) it definitely gives enough information to work out what you are more interested in and to understand the broad implications of many of the solutions finally settled upon.

All in all this was a good read, although not as engrossing as for instance Stephen Levy’s Crypto, but well worth investing the time to give it due attention