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Happy Birthday: The Web turns 25

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March 13, 2014

The Web was born 25 years ago, on March 12, 1989 (Image: picture man/Wikipedia)

The Web was born 25 years ago, on March 12, 1989 (Image: picture man/Wikipedia)

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On March 12, 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a contractor at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, submitted Information Management: A Proposal, which sparked the greatest advance in information technology since Gutenberg invented the printing press. At the time, it was just a way for CERN scientists to share data, but a quarter of a century later, it’s grown from a curiosity into a necessity without which our world can no longer function.

For something that has had such an impact on our lives, the Web is surprisingly simple ... but so is the starter button on a McLaren P1. In many ways, it didn’t even seem like that big a leap at the time. Computers had been around for decades and throughout the 1980s they’d grown smaller, cheaper, more powerful, and more common. As far back as Vannevar Bush’s work in the 1940s, scientists and engineers had been working on how to get computers to communicate with one another, and the internet itself had been under development since 1969.

The problem was that in 1989, unless you were an accountant or a writer, the average computer was like an Alfa Romeo Spyder. It might be a great piece of technology, but it spent most of the time in the garage. That’s because no one had yet sorted out a way for any computer to communicate with any other computer.

Birth of the Web

Then in March 1989, Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for a new information management system that would allow the scattered scientific personnel of CERN to easily share data. His boss, Mike Sendall, called it "vague, but exciting" and allowed Berners-Lee to continue work on his idea.

This idea was very simple. It involved marrying hypertext to the internet by means of three essential technologies developed by Berners-Lee and his team. The first was a system of unique identifiers for each page, image, or other resource on the internet called a URI or URL. Then there was HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which was a simple way of creating web pages, and finally, there was Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which is a protocol to exchange or transfer hypertext.

Though similar systems had already been developed, Berners-Lee used unidirectional links rather than bidirectional ones, so links could be added without the page being linked from needing to do anything, and allowed web servers and browsers to be easily built. Berners-Lee and his team went on to write the first web page editor/writer, which he called the “WorldWideWeb,” the first server, which was housed in an unassuming NeXT computer, and in 1990, the first web page. In 1991, CERN opened the web up to users outside the laboratory, and in 1993, it was given to the world royalty free.

The world's first web server (Image: Coolcaesar/Wikipedia)

Even then, the Web wasn't much to write home about. There were already ways that people could get onto the internet with primitive modems using such things as BBS and Compuserve, but these were proprietary, limited, and most computer networks were largely closed off. However, thanks to a mixture of good engineering, marketing, and dumb luck, the Web eventually won out.

It was decentralized, owned by no-one, controlled by no-one, was built by individuals for their own purposes rather than tailored for a specific task, and while its competitors were like trains running on fixed tracks, the Web was more like motor cars that the users could drive where they wished. Then along came the Mosaic browser that brought a graphical user interface to the Web, kickstarting rapid growth that would see the number of web users explode to 50 million inside of five years.

In the 25 years since Berners-Lee’s proposal, the Web’s come a long way from the days when its main function was to host Kirk vs Picard flame wars. It’s had a huge impact that has touched every facet of our lives, from entertainment to politics to manufacturing to medicine. It’s become so pervasive in such a short time that to do justice to its effects would mean describing most of our technology and economy, as well as a great swatch of our culture. But it is possible to get some idea of what the Web hath wrought by looking at how it’s affected our everyday lives.

Information

The most obvious way in which the Web has touched us is the incredible amount of information that is at our disposal at the click of a mouse or a tap on a screen. Anyone anywhere has free access to the greatest single source of information in history. Everyone with access to the Web can tap into a library of books, magazines, and newspapers that would astonish a scholar of the last generation.

And it isn't just common or garden variety books. Back in the 1980s, getting to the rare books section in the British Library, or similar collections, required credentials and references to get anywhere near the place. Once inside, you were constantly hovered over, and woe betide if you were caught with a biro on the premises. Now those same treasures have been digitized and are available to all.

The other effect of this is that where thousands of books, music, and old radio programs were left to fade into history or sink into the clearance bins of secondhand book shops, they’re now readily available, and even "orphan" works that would have died a death by copyright because the authors and publishers couldn't be located are now finding new audiences.

Buying stuff

Another obvious area where the Web has hit society like a sledgehammer is the economy. Shopping isn't about going down to the shops any more. It’s about going online. Bricks and mortar is where we try on shoes or measure the television to see if it fits in the living room. The Web is where we actually buy them.

We can now buy almost anything on the Web. Groceries, cars, insurance, toys, and a billion other things are all on sale for delivery to your home. Some things don’t even need to be actually delivered. Where books, music, and DVDs may once have made up most of what people bought online, such media can now all be purchased and never see the inside of a delivery van, because they can be downloaded or streamed directly.

Never getting lost

Until the Web came along, getting lost was a fact of life, as was fighting with folding maps while driving a car. Now there aren't just dedicated GPS navigation devices, but assistance is available wherever you can get a connection. We now live in a world where you can ask your phone "where am I?" and it will tell you, instead of everyone around you looking at you as if you've gone mad. More than that, your device will tell you how to get home, when the next bus is, and where you can grab a bite to eat on the way.

Interactive media

Before the Web came along, media was a one-way street under the control of those who produced it. It used to be that media, whether it was books, music, or whatever, sat behind a bottleneck caused by how it was made and distributed. Vinyl records, for example, required a small army of artists, engineers, packers, and shippers, as well as masses of equipment, before listeners could play them at home. Thanks to the Web, music is reduced to data files that can be streamed or downloaded instantly.

The same is true of books, videos, and more. More than that, media now has a third dimension. You don’t just read, you share highlights. You don’t follow a sci-fi series once a week, you watch it in a massive binge, then go online to look at the minisodes, tweets, Facebook pages, and so on. Watching a film trailer these days can involve a lot of commitment.

Reaching out

One truly astonishing effect of the Web has been the bubble of instant communication that we live in. It short circuits time and distance in a way inconceivable a generation ago, with people Skyping someone in London from Chicago as casually as a local phone call. It’s a world where people take "selfies" and instantly share photos of what they’re having for lunch with a potential global audience.

There are now so many ways to stay connected that you need apps to manage them. When the Web first started to catch on, someone who checked their email more than once a day was seen as odd. Now there’s not only email, but blogs, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flicker, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, and all their imitators. People don’t just communicate with each other instantly and constantly, but create whole communities with people who they've never spoken to outside of the Web. Not to mention that a "friend" can now be someone we’ve never so much as exchanged a word with.

The downside

The columnist James Lileks once said that modern technology allows you to do to your music collection with one click what once required half a dozen clumsy house movers. As the Web has grown, it’s not only pumped billions of dollars into the economy and given us powers that were once reserved for the very rich, it’s also given much more scope for things to go horribly wrong.

It isn't just things that trade off between connectivity and privacy, the NSA and GCHQ spying scandals, online pornography, cyber stalking, bullying, and identity theft, but the everyday things like discovering that the Web is forever. It’s discovering that the hilarious photo of what you did at the pub last night will be seen by your kids years later.

It’s the sheer time wasting as your life vanishes in a parade of lolcats, flappy birds, Miley Cyrus video clips, and pages comparing Benedict Cumberbatch to an otter. Even Berners-Lee says he never foresaw kittens.

What’s next?

But the most sobering thing about the Web is that its impact is still playing out and will be for years to come. Today, only 25 percent of the world’s population have access to it, how it will evolve and who will control it is still under debate, and the next phase of its technology is still under development.

Where the Web was once a distinct thing that you went to and read, then something that you interacted with, now its becoming a pervasive entity that’s moving out of our computers and our phones and into our cars, our televisions, and (for some unfathomable reason) our fridges. The question is, what will it look like in the next 25 years, and will it still be something we can just switch off and go for a walk in the woods instead.

Your turn

How has the Web affected your life? Let us know in the comments below.

A message from Tim Berners-Lee.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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11 Comments

I remember using Prodigy and how I was startled every time it said 'Youve Got Mail'. :)

I went from just browsing sites to keeping up with relatives and friends that I have not seen for quite awhile. I now can find things that are no longer carried at stores.

The tricky part is keeping it from taking over my life. I try for a balance of online and offline.

BigWarpGuy
13th March, 2014 @ 05:56 am PDT

It's boosted creativity, putting every encyclopedia, every science article, every art, architecture, entertainment program at my finger tips. If you use it right, nearly everything free, though you can choose to cast economic votes. Anything you imagine can be queried and expanded upon by gathering examples. You could live your life in a cave and with it know the world as well as most. Amazing.

BT
13th March, 2014 @ 07:09 am PDT

I wouldn't exactly call it a necessity. In some ways, we'd be better off without it. It never fulfilled its initial promise, and is now dominated by corporations and spies.

We need two things. We need 1.) congress to reclassify the internet as a utility, and, 2.) security. Europe may come up with some improved security. I'm waiting to see.

Eddie
13th March, 2014 @ 08:30 am PDT

I recall the 110/300 baud BBS job boards and talk boards. The local computer stores had BBS's and they'd call around each other at night and update their shared databases of updated messages. Prodigy was keen to have its ads once it got out there and got people online but the ads were a pain taking up part of the screen. The USENET was popular in a capacity of BBS subscriptions in segmented categories.

Commercialized internet now I agree is full of marketing ploys and such which in the 1980's helped the economy and a false appearance the economy was booming under certain Presidency's who take the credit, but really, the suckage of the then economy is once again catching back up as the novelty of the internet wears off. I do wonder what the economy would be like if we went back to mail catalogs, and order forms, and local malls would then be prime again. The online buying of goods with fed-ex and UPS being the delivery method is getting stale.

Ed Weibe
14th March, 2014 @ 08:22 am PDT

Once I can order a house on-line and have it delivered I think the Web can do anything....OK, no house I have to put together myself. I don't shop at IKEA!

Still a long way to go. Eventually software/computers will mimic reality. The web is just one-dimensional now. People need to smell, taste and feel things. The web is like a 1920's tv set.

habakak
14th March, 2014 @ 10:59 am PDT

I also remember back when the only contact I had was with a local BBS. It cost money to post a message outside. The BBS was run by a single person whose computer was tied up almost 24/7 for people to call in.

But now, I find the internet is a useful tool. For example, if I am going somewhere I've never been I get the address and go to map quest for directions. Then I bring up Google Earth to see what the area looks like. If there is a street view I can see what the building looks like. Also, if the weather is bad, if it is snowing a lot, I can bring up the highway cams to see where the traffic is backed up.

I used the highway cams when my son was driving out to California taking the Northern route. He ran into a big snowstorm. I checked the weather maps and then the highway cams along his route and kept him updated on the situation ahead of him, calling him on his cell phone.

Back a decade or two, when we were all younger, my extended family from all across the U.S. would gather once a month in a chat room. Cousins, uncles, people we hadn't seen in many years gathered to chat and keep up on the family news.

Recently my sister set up a Skype account on her laptop. She got my nephews to sign up, too. Now, when she visits my other sister in the nursing home, that sister can have a video chat with her sons who are about a thousand miles away (and seldom write letters.)

Of course, I can also use email, shop on line, pay bills, manage my bank account, balance my register, file taxes, download income statements, sign contracts. I also can check up on those prank callers and see who they are and where they live, or check on a caller who is trying to sell me something. All that in addition to listen to music and watch movies and TV shows, and read books and learn more about just about anything.

When I haven't heard from my kids in a while I can have a look at their Facebook page.

Maybe having the internet is not a real necessity, but it certainly has become a huge item in my life.

VidVicar
14th March, 2014 @ 11:07 am PDT

Even though I graduated from High School and did a couple of years at a community college, the Internet has given me an education more than ten times as vast! If I need some help to build or repair some device like a car or a computer or a rocket engine, the data is right there, literally at my fingertips! I can find data about health, wealth and more subjects than I could ever write down. The Internet is the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. It is the most liberating thing ever invented, in my humble opinion.

I have written several papers based upon knowledge that I have gleaned from other writers and researchers who post to the Internet. My life is so much richer in so many ways because of it, heck, I even met my WIFE because of the Internet! If it had not been for this means of communication, I don't think that we could have ever come to know each other!

I could go on and on, but I have other things to do as well, so will close with my heartfelt thanks to Tim and everyone else who has helped to create this wonderful medium for communication for all of us!

Randy

Expanded Viewpoint
14th March, 2014 @ 01:56 pm PDT

The internet is the most important world wide disruptive technology since the printing press. Like the press, it will bring us a renaissance. It will do so because we now have access to world events as they happen, uncensored and unedited by the MSM. Govt. will be exposed for the monster it is.

Don Duncan
14th March, 2014 @ 03:58 pm PDT

The early Web was very different. I remember reading about it in '93 and thinking it wasn't very useful. The huge difference between then and now was the advent of search engines. Back then, you had to know the address of a site you wanted to visit. You couldn't Google it. That severely limited the Web's utility.

Gadgeteer
14th March, 2014 @ 09:02 pm PDT

The beginning of the Internet as we know it happened in 1982 actually. Access to the ARPANET was expanded in 1981 when the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the Computer Science Network (CSNET). In 1982, the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) was introduced as the standard networking protocol on the ARPANET.

b@man
15th March, 2014 @ 10:02 pm PDT

Wow! Has it been 25 years already? I didn't realize it had been so long since my last shower or good meal ;)

I fell in love with the Internet the moment we met and we've been joined at the keyboard and mouse ever since.

I have to watch old movies or TV shows to remember what life was like before we got so tangled in the worldwide inter-webs o' wonder.

So many things I never could have imagined are now second-nature because of the Internet.

I'm so excited to see what the next 25 years brings!

CameraPhoneCash.com
17th March, 2014 @ 12:56 pm PDT
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