Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The World Wide Web Turns 20

It was twenty years ago today, on 30 April 1993, that CERN made the technology of the World Wide Web available free of charge to the public. The World Wide Web would not only revolutionise the Internet, but in the process would also revolutionise the world itself. From science to education to business to entertainment, there has probably not been one field that has not been changed by the World Wide Web.

Indeed, many either are not aware or simply forget that the Internet existed well before the World Wide Web. The Internet's beginnings essentially trace back to the ARPANET, which launched on 29 October 1969. Other networks would be developed in the wake of the ARPANET. Eventually these networks would evolve into what we now know as the Internet (a term first used in 1982). Over time more and more universities, libraries, and other organisations would connect to the Internet. As the Internet grew, keeping track of resources on the Internet became more and more difficult.

As a result various organisations began developing means of tracking the information on the Internet. In the late Eighties an archiver of FTP sites was developed at McGill University in Montreal, Ontario. Known "archie." Archie was implemented in 1990. The internet protocol called Gopher was established in 1991 and for a time was a rival to the World Wide Web. Created at the University of Minnesota (hence its name), Gopher would thrive only for a brief time in the Nineties. It was doomed by essentially two factors. The first was that the University of Minnesota decided to charge a licensing fee for Gopher--this only two months before CERN made the World Wide Web totally free. The second is that Gopher documents are much more rigidly structured than the hypertext documents of the World Wide Web.

As to the World Wide Web, it was the result of developments made by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee over the years. Then an independent contractor at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland, it was in 1980 that he developed ENQUIRE. At the time, as it is now, CERN was a vast organisation with a large number of people, with a number of ongoing projects at any time. Much of the work was done via the internet, through email and exchanges of files. As a result CERN needed a means to keep track of everything. Mr. Berners-Lee then developed and proposed ENQUIRE. In many ways ENQUIRE can be considered a predecessor to the World Wide Web. Like the World Wide Web, ENQUIRE relied upon hypertext, and like the World  Wide Web it could operate on different systems.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee left CERN in late 1980 to work for Image Computer Systems, Ltd. He returned to CERN in 1984 where he continued to use ENQUIRE to keep track of his own projects. It was in 1989 that Sir Timothy Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for "..."a large hypertext database with typed links." It was in 1990 that he found a collaborator in the form of Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau. The two of them tried to attract interest in their idea of World Wide Web at the the European Conference on Hypertext Technology in September 1990 to no avail.

Regardless, they continued work on the project, creating the first web site at CERN. Over the next several months Sir Timothy Berners-Lee developed what would be the building blocks of the Web: HTTP (the HyperText Transfer Protocol), HTML (HyperText Markup Language), and even the first web browser and editor (named simply WorldWideWeb). The work was completed by late December 1990. It was on 6 August 1991 that Sir Timothy Berners-Lee put the world's first Web site online. Initially the World Wide Web was adopted primarily by universities. Two turning points would come about in 1993. The first was the introduction of the Mosaic web browser on 23 January 1993. While other browsers pre-dated Mosaic, none possessed the versatility or ease of use of Mosaic. Of course, the second turning point occurred twenty years ago today--the World Wide Web went public.

Of course, in the following years the World Wide Web would experience enormous growth. Web commerce emerged fairly early, with such companies as Amazon.com (1994),  EBay (1995), and others being founded in the mid to late Nineties. By the early Naughts the World Wide Web was nearly commonplace. As 30 June 2012 78.1% of all Americans and 83.6% of everyone in the United Kingdom are on online.

Twenty years after the World Wide Web was made free to the public it is nearly impossible to imagine life without it. Indeed, it may well have been the most revolutionary medium introduced in the 20th Century, doing more to change the world than even radio or television. For better or worse, the World Wide Web has become a part of everyday life for many around the world.

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