Gopher, trapped in amber

Robert S. Thau (
Tue, 12 Jan 1999 17:00:57 -0500 (EST)

Jim Whitehead writes:
> In the "too little, too late" department, there was a Gopher+ protocol,
> which added variants, limited MIME and HTML support, and forms processing
> (what they call "ASK" blocks) to Gopher. The writeup of the protocol is
> dated July 30, 1993, however its unclear how widely this protocol was
> adopted within the Gopher community.

I was never much of a gopher user, and only through NCSA Mosaic, so my
view of this subject is extremely parochial. Still, my impression,
for what it's worth, is the following: conversion to Gopher+ was well
underway within the Gopher community by the time NCSA Mosaic got
released, but not to the point that you positively *needed* it to get
use out of your Gopher client. And Mosaic, following the lead of the
CERN libWWW, did not support Gopher+ at all. Which, in turn, acted to
seriously impede the adoption of Gopher+, as Mosaic quickly acquired
many, many users who it became politically difficult to lock out.

(But remember, the most I ever did with Gopher, aside from poking at
it with Mosaic, was suggesting the AI lab *not* set up a Gopher site,
since I didn't think it had much of a future)

> For example, the Jughead Gopher crawler, written in 1993, as a Gopher space
> administrative aid -- presaging Roy's MoMspider.

Is that what Jughead was? I thought that it was some kind of
search-engine thing (a better version of Veronica, which was the
Archie-style Gopher search engine), but given my distance from Gopher
I could easily be wrong.

> However, it does appear that, in order to place information
> in a Gopher space, the information needed to be placed in the Gopher
> document tree by the Gopher admin., or you needed to contact the Gopher
> admin. to add a symbolic link to your document location.

Actually, an entry in one of the "link" files you discuss further on.
Simply putting a file in its arena was not enough to make the standard
gopher server serve it --- you had to alter the relevant links file as
well. The gopher folks tried to sell this as a security feature ("you
can't export a file by accident!"); in fact, one of them (John Franks)
described this sort of arrangement as one of the features of his WN
web server (originally a dual-protocol web/gopher server). However,
it was in practice a real headache, and there were a lot of scripts
automating the creation of the link files to try to reduce the hassle.

(Ironically enough, I got the feeling this became a reason for some
places to delay their transition *from* Gopher --- I remember seeing a
lot of articles on the net saying how setting up the Gopher service
had taken a fair bit of time, simply to export a few text files, and
assuming that you'd need similar effort on a web site to achieve a
similar effect).

> Forms are implemented using two files, the ".ask" file which has the form
> description, and the file without the ".ask" is the script which processes
> the form.

This is a Gopher+ feature, which was never supported by Mosaic. I'd
be interested to know if other web clients do support it --- Netscape
may, for all I know, but I've never had occasion to check.

If you're interested in looking at some of the other fish in the pond
at the time the web piranhas took over, a few interesting things to
look at would be:

*) WAIS, a Z39.50 variant.
*) Prospero, whose sponsor (Clifford Neuman) was trying very
hard to make it the One True Protocol for net information access.
*) GILS, the Government Information Locator Service, which was an
attempt to set up a Z39.50 variant different from WAIS as a
standard for access to all government information on the Internet.

WAIS is the only one of these which ever saw in really widespread use,
though both the other two had a lot of political push behind them.