Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The 25th Anniversary of the World Wide Web

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
It was twenty five years ago today that the World Wide Web went live. Here I must stress that the World Wide Web is not the same thing as the internet, which has actually been around since 1969. That having been said, the World Wide Web made access to the internet easier than it ever had been before and available to more people than it ever had been before. While online services such as CompuServe and America Online had given many access to the internet in the Eighties, it was the World Wide Web that truly brought the internet to the masses.

Indeed, people around the world adopted the World Wide Web very quickly. I have been online since 1995 and I still remember when I first went online. We had to drive to our local telephone company office to pick up the software necessary to go online (my fairly new computer of the time had a built in modem). The World Wide Web essentially opened up a whole new world for me, as it did many other people. Suddenly I had access to information that I never had before. Of course, surfing the Web in those early days was even more of an adventure than it is now. Even the most innocent of search results could deliver a number of porn sites, and one had to be very careful about opening any attachments one might receive in an email for fear of viruses!

Regardless of the dangers in those early days, I would dare say that the World Wide Web would prove to be a boon to any research I was conducting. In the days before the World Wide Web, research would mean a trip to the library where I would browse microfiche of old newspapers or magazines and, if necessary, check out books. Sometimes I might even have to get books on interlibrary loan, which could mean a wait of several weeks. Quite simply, research was a long, drawn out process. The World Wide Web made it so that I had access to a whole, lot more information. Suddenly I did not just have access to a few major newspapers and our local papers, but newspapers around the world.

As to books, I could order them through Ebay or Amazon.Com. Still later, Google Books would make a number of books available online. It has been literally years since I have had to get a book on interlibrary loan. Of course, shopping is another way in which the World Wide Web changed my life. Before the World Wide Web, if I wanted a particular book, CD, or VHS tape (later DVD), I might have to make a trip to Columbia thirty miles away. Now I can simply order them online. What is more, it is not just books, CDs, and DVDs I have ordered online. My glasses frames, pairs of boots, and even my jacket, among other things, were all ordered online.

Of course, now much of my business is conducted online. Most of the household's bills are paid online. And any problems we might have with any of our services are solved online as well. In fact, about the only business I don't do online is pay our water and garbage collection bills, and anything related to my bank. In the case of the water and garbage collection, it's a simple case that the city doesn't have paying online set up as an option yet. As to my bank, it's because in addition to one's password with a capital letter, a special character, and numerals, they also expect one to answer several security questions, offer up the blood of a virgin, sign over one's soul, and other things that just make online banking impractical.

While I do much of my business online now, much of my entertainment is done online as well. Streaming has pretty much revolutionised the way people watch TV shows and movies the past few years. While I still watch a good number of TV shows and movies live or on DVD, much of what I watch is through streaming services such as NetFlix and Hulu. Even in the early days before streaming became commonplace, I would watch  videos online, even if RealPlayer always insisted on buffering several minutes beforehand.

While the World Wide Web has changed the way I do research, shop, and conduct business, probably the biggest change in my life (and the one for which I am most thankful) has been the opportunity to make many new friends I would not have if it had not been for the World Wide Web. One of the wonderful things about the World Wide Web is that it gives one the ability to seek out people with similar interests and similar tastes in TV shows, movies, music, and so on. Over the years I have made many dear friends online, at first on the email lists and forums of the early days and later on the various social networks that began to spring up in the Naughts. What is more, many of them live in faraway place to which I have never been; Canada, Australia, Scotland, Italy, and so on. I have known many of these friends for years now, and I feel closer to many of them than people I have known in person.

Not only have I made new friends through the World Wide Web, but it has allowed me to stay in touch better with old friends and my many relatives. In the old days the only way to keep in touch with friends and relatives was through the post or the telephone, neither of which were necessarily known for their efficiency. With the World Wide Web I could stay in touch through email or instant messaging, and still later through the various social networks. It's because of this that I have to disagree with those critics who believe the Web is driving people apart. I honesty  think it is bringing many people closer together.

In end, for all the criticisms levelled at the Web over the years, I think it has improved people's lives a good deal. I know that I am very thankful for its invention.

And here without further ado, is the post I wrote for the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, in which I talk a bit about its history.


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 of 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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