Happy 20th Birthday Web!
Last week, the global technology community celebrated the Web’s 20th birthday. Considering its impact, the Web must rank as one of the most important inventions of all time.
It is stunning how much the Web has evolved in two decades, from a text-only medium useful only for researchers to the world’s dominant publishing and communication medium. As with most big technology breakthroughs, the Web builds on decades of work that went before it, and the initial creation was only a glimmer of what was to come.
The Web began life at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee), who wrote the first proposal for what he named the WorldWideWeb, was seeking to make easier access to the vast and diverse information the research center created.
In the original proposal, Berners-Lee noted, ‘There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one.’ That, to be sure, has turned out to be one of the great understatements of all time.
In recognition of the 20th birthday of the Web, CERN has posted the first Web page at its original URL, http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html. It’s worth a look to see how basic was the seed of our modern communications world.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The invention of the Web centered around the recognition of the incredible value of connecting all information resources in a universal way.
Berners-Lee invented the URL (Universal Resource Locator): a simple text string that can provide a pointer to any piece of information anywhere. Deceptively simple, the URL is an incredibly powerful concept. Together with HTML markup and the HTTP protocol, also invented by Berners-Lee, URLs provide the glue that makes the Web work.
The creation of the Web was possible because Berners-Lee was able to add his insights about hypertext, markup, and protocols to a vast body of work that had already been done.
The idea of hypertext was at the heart of the concept for the Web. Linked text was not new, however; the concept was first elucidated by Vannevar Bush in his prophetic paper, As We May Think, written in 1945 when he was head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, guiding wartime military R&D.
It was almost two decades later that the name hypertext was coined by Ted Nelson, whose Project Xanadu, begun in 1960, was a more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful version of the same vision that drove Berners-Lee.
Nelson’s vision included mechanisms that made links bidirectional and prevented broken links from being published, as well as a micropayment system to compensate authors for use of their content. It turned out that the simpler and more open system of the Web, focusing on the core concept of a universal link format and basic text markup, took off like a rocket.
The Internet and TCP/IP
The Internet, of course, is not the same thing as the Web, though people relatively new to the industry often fail the make the distinction. The creation of the Web was possible because the Internet was already there.
Like Vannevar Bush’s vision of a world of interconnected information, the Internet was a direct outgrowth of the scientific efforts driven by World War II. The need for a communications infrastructure that could withstand a nuclear attack led to the creation of the ARPAnet in the 1960s, building on the concept of packet-switching to create a distributed, highly reliable network.
The creation of a standard protocol stack, TCP/IP, in 1982, made it possible for a number of different networks to communicate as one, and the Internet was born. For its first decade, however, the Internet was a decidedly nerdy tool, used only for non-commercial purposes and generally requires some technical skill to use effectively.
When the Web first emerged at CERN in 1992, it was a decidedly utilitarian place, designed by and for researchers.
Soon after the Web’s debut, Marc Andreesen’s Mosaic browser provided an easy-to-use interface and added the embellishment of images. By 1993, all the key pieces were in place for today’s Web.
The Power of Universality
The spectacular success of the Web is a tribute to the power of universality. The inventions of Berners-Lee, Nelson, Andreesen, and many others were major achievements in themselves, but they would have been far narrower in their application had they not been combined to create an open, distributed, universal method to connect all the computers of the world and all the information they store.
To be sure, there is lots of brilliant technology that underlies the Web. But the key principles that make it work are relatively simple; their importance comes not from breakthrough technical features, but from their competent implementation of fundamental concepts of universality, reliability, and extensibility.
Looking at the Web today, it has already become far larger, and been used in much more diverse ways, than any of its creators could have envisioned.
Google is something these innovators may have foreseen, but probably not its economic basis as an advertising system. That a business like Amazon could become a dominant retailer of nearly everything, or that a website called Facebook could become the center of many people’s social lives, would have been much harder to anticipate.
What will the next 20 years bring? Answering that question is just as hard as predicting Google, Amazon, and Facebook would have been when seeing Berners-Lee’s text-based, non-commercial WorldWideWeb.
For a fast-paced five-minute tour of the people and inventions to led to the Web, see High-Tech: The Incredible Depth of Simple Experiences.
Topics: Web History