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The life and times of the WWW

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Imagine you’re trying to learn about cats using a computer. You do a keyword search, only… nothing comes up. Perhaps you’re not using the right keywords? Are you sure the information is even on this computer? Finally, someone gives you a floppy disk, but it turns out your computer can’t read it, so you go to a different computer. Now you have a new problem: you have no idea how to use the software. You give up on all this computer stuff and ask someone to teach you about cats over a cup of coffee.

Welcome to sharing information in 1989. Thankfully it’s not that hard these days, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and the invention of the World Wide Web, an application that is crucial to viewing content shared over the Internet.

Let’s take a look at just how much the WWW changed the internet that we use today.

 

Invention of the World Wide Web

Back in 1989, Tim was working at the European research organization CERN and noticed how hard it was to share information. Information was also lost easily when people left the organisation. So, Tim proposed a flexible solution using a system called hypertext, which would be available on any computer, no matter where you were stationed in CERN.

At first, nobody else really “got it” – they said it sounded “vague but exciting” – and it never became an official CERN project. However, Tim was given some time to work on it in September 1990. By the end of that year, Tim had already built:

  • HTML (HyperText Markup Language) – the language web pages are written in
  • URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) – the most common type of which is a URL or “web address”
  • HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol)
  • The first Web Editor/Browser (WorldWideWeb) to understand all of the above so you can see and edit web pages
  • The first web server
  • The first web page

Tim called the project the “WorldWideWeb” and invited people outside of CERN to join as well. As participation grew, Tim realised it would need to be free in order to reach its full potential:

“Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

On 30 April 1993, CERN agreed that the WorldWideWeb should be available royalty-free, forever, and released the underlying code.

 

Early Adoption of the WorldWideWeb

Interest in the WorldWideWeb took off almost immediately, with an explosion of new web pages and tools to browse the web. The Mosaic web browser was released, making the web easier to use by displaying images in-line (instead of in a new window). The world’s first webcam appeared – The Trojan Room Coffee Pot – which became a popular feature of the early Web. We even have our own!

As the web exploded in popularity, early search engines like Infoseek, AltaVista, and Yahoo! were created to make it easier to find information. These were simple directories – Google would later come along and blitz the competition with search algorithms.

By 1994, commercialisation on the internet had already begun, with banner ads starting to appear. Amazon.com launched the same year, originally selling just books. Websites were also made to promote products – the amazing Space Jam website IS STILL AROUND!

As well as commercial sites, online communities appeared from groups of personal web pages hosted on GeoCities and Tripod. As the “neighbourhoods” on GeoCities grew, the “homesteaders” built tools to connect their sites and to talk to one another. Use of chat rooms, web rings, guest books, internet forums, and online journals increased as a way to connect with each other.

 

The great dot-com burst of 1999

In the late nineties, businesses started jumping on the web in a big way. A lot of wacky companies started appearing like pets.com, and beenz.com, which attempt to establish an online currency comprised of loyalty points that could be spent with participating merchants (think FlyBuys).

Unfortunately, a “get large or get lost” mentality that prioritised growth over profit lead many of these companies to go belly-up after burning through their venture capital.

Meanwhile, the internet was evolving socially. GeoCities communities gave way to bigger Internet forums, and early journal tools like LiveJournal. Some of the biggest forums are still around now. Something Awful (a NSFW comedy community) and Whirlpool (an Australian broadband community) were founded only one month apart in 1998/1999. As forums became bigger, they influenced internet culture, with memes like All Your Base spreading rapidly.

 

Web 2.0

As the building blocks of the Web became more sophisticated, it became possible to build software and advanced interactive tools. The Web was no longer just a way to transport text and graphics – it was a platform with software applications built into it.

Commercial websites immediately took advantage of these new capabilities, including eBay and Amazon’s online department store. There was a big focus on making online purchases easy and improving payment security.

New interactive tools also led to early social networking. Social networking sites started building on older community technologies like forums, internet journals (now called blogs) and chat rooms, mixing and matching features to make it easy for anyone to set up their own space on the Web. Friendster was the first major social network, then MySpace, later followed by Facebook and Twitter.

Interactivity also made it easier for people to add their own content to the web, and user-edited content quickly became popular. This wasn’t limited to creative and expressive spaces such as YouTube, WordPress and Flickr. Wikipedia launched in 2001 and would later become the world’s largest online encyclopedia.

This trend towards information and social networking combined with people’s enthusiasm for creating their own content paved the way for websites which offered combinations of features. Two examples which are still going strong today are Reddit, which is both a forum and a news aggregator, and Tumblr, which combines blogging, photo and video sharing.

 

The Web Goes Mobile (Web 3.0)

As time went on, web access became increasingly flexible. 2007 marked the release of the original iPhone, which set off a trend of touchscreen smartphones in the market. While the web was technically accessible on older mobile phones, smartphones made it much easier and user-friendly.

By the beginning of 2014, mobile use had exceeded the use of desktop computers. Today it’s unthinkable for any serious website not to have a mobile-friendly version.

 

Where to from here?

Today, the WorldWideWeb is an integral part of many people’s daily lives, and the number of users is only increasing. However, even though we interact with it every day, the “real world” and “the web” are still almost two separate worlds.

Perhaps this will change as interest in virtual and augmented reality grows. Games like Pokémon GO and Ingress overlay WorldWideWeb information on top of real-world locations… with some inappropriate results. WebVR, another emerging technology, promises to bring virtual reality to your web browser, creating new shared spaces.

As these services become more common, it’ll be important to add information to, or place limits on, the real-world locations they include. Mixed Reality Services are one proposed solution – a way to match real-world locations with web addresses. In any case, what we have today sure beats floppy disks!

30 comments

  1. Brian Nowell says:

    Your opening paragraph reminds me when I began working with computers in my school. Kids brought in their own disks to play games! Yeah, often carrying virus. I placed a ban.

    Since then I’ve been confronted with persons swapping files for communication purposes and finding that the receiver’s software was not compatible with the sender.

    But back to WWW,I’ve produced my own personal holding at iiNet using a now obsolete means of compiling webpages. I don’t care. I still use the same software (from CoffeeCup) to make documents which I save and may burn to CD. Those documents have the semblance of a website – the index page allows one navigate through various stages of our holidays, a few weddings, …

    Admittedly that is somewhat tedious.
    Variously there are applications being offer that provide for what I have just described, but I think I like to do things my way, grass roots, so to speak.

    Just completing this form I find something funny! I’ve deleted the ‘index.html’ of my page, not an issue to me as I can still navigate my space remotely.

  2. Brian Nowell says:

    CoffeeCup is a brand name and I am happy to have that deleted if that be necessary.

  3. John says:

    I think that some of your dates may be incorrect as i was the emails in 1990 between Australia and England.

    • Taryn Adams says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for the feedback. You’re right in saying that email was around for a long time before the WWW. People were using electronic mail on other networks as far back as the 1960’s – well before either the Internet or the WWW!
      – Taryn

  4. Anthony Byen says:

    never to old to learn some thing,even at 85 it is good how every thing comes in place,thank you

  5. Anthony Byen says:

    never to old to learn,at 85 it is good how every thing started.Thank you

  6. John Hardie says:

    Congratulations Taryn on a great article, I enjoyed reading it and reminiscing on past experiences.

  7. Marty says:

    Good article, there seems to be a lack of stuff like this to read. Most news sties have an angle, or something to sell, and are poorly researched. Forums are full of opinions and social media full of junk food.

    I enjoyed this steak.

  8. Thank you Taryn

    Really good to see Tim Berners-Lee recognised for brilliant culture changing invention.

  9. Gavan says:

    A very interesting summary, but the brevity made it pretty cryptic Perhaps a longer version?

  10. Ken Brooke says:

    At 91.4 I still learn something everyday. e.g. How much there is to learn with no hope of doing a tiny fraction of that.

  11. Aaron says:

    A bit overly simplistic, and contentious, but well done for starting the conversation. Nanos gigantutus humeris incidentes. Apparently that is latin for, ” If I have seen so far, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants. “

  12. BobK says:

    There were other distributed information systems around before the web. Eg Gopher or WAIS. Gopher was huge in its day but had a fixed hierarchical information structure. The web was far more flexible and took over.

  13. Keith says:

    I used Perl a lot in the late 90’s, very powerful language for writing WWW Forms.

  14. Murray Shaw says:

    Many thanks for this invaluable and enlightening information which I’ll keep as an easy reference and also copy to family and friends.

  15. As we humans head towards a future full of promises, We can learn from the past promises made On how to honour the new one’s.

  16. Eve Ruddock says:

    Thanks for your wonderfully clear telling of a complex story, Taryn. Even if some of the dates may be ‘approximate’, I find your tale of the development of the WWW both beautifully written and helpful!

  17. Lee says:

    Nice look back. Now look forward a bit and set your links to open in new tabs if you want people to read the whole thing…

    • Gina Thompson says:

      Fair point, Lee. I’ve updated the links in this article to open in new tabs.

  18. Jo says:

    I found this very interesting as I originally started working on (and programming) main frame computers in the 1960s. How things have changed but once Windows appeared I lost interest. At that time I was an accountant but found that I spent more time learning how to operate the new computers than I did with my work. And mobile phones – they’re the bane of my life. Never had one, don’t want one, Currently using Windows 8 but know so little about it.

  19. Steve Carter says:

    I worked in a university computing service in the early 1990s, and we found out about WWW pretty quickly. Easter Friday in 1992 I took my daughter (then 8) in to work so that we could use the otherwise idle workstations to look at most of the 200 or so sites that then existed! All in one day.

    A couple of years later I was stunned to find out that Tim B-L had gone to the same school in the UK as me.

    • Taryn Adams says:

      Hi Steve,
      It’s amazing how far the WWW has come! I’m curious to know if you have any favourite websites from the earlier days that you remember?
      – Taryn

  20. Peter says:

    Thanks for getting it right!
    I was working in a physics accelerator lab (Aussie version of cern) at that time. Had my first email address around 1990 and was sharing data with CERN and other labs at that time. We were surprised that others began to use the technology. On one day a few of us sat down to look at all users …. about 50 web sites in all! Certainly has changed!

    • Taryn Adams says:

      Hi Peter,
      The WWW has definitely come a long way! Do you have any websites from back then that stick in your mind?
      – Taryn

  21. Bert Rolinson says:

    I’m glad to here that Al Gore was not involved. If the Americans could they would claim it as their own and charge everyone exorbitant royalties

  22. David Sallows says:

    I was using an internal corporate email network between my employer’s Australian and international offices in 1988/89. It was based on an AOL service if I recall correctly.

  23. Hey Brian remember HotDog?No that’s going back! Been a web developer for over 22 years now. Time flies.

  24. E.J.J. says:

    Never too old? Well, I am (88) not too sure about that… but I do try and keep up –

  25. BARBARA WOOD says:

    very informative thank you and we continue learn as we go. I wish I understood it more but did not grow up with it born 1947. B

  26. Thanks for this article Taryn.
    I learnt to write html in 1998 only to find it was quickly incorporated within new web page design software at an increasing rate. Can’t even find my notes now, or the lovely thick coloured floppies I saved my website files on to. And they were purpose built and marketed for the job. I wanted to keep those for posterity, like my Nokia brick. Now I have to learn Word Press!

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