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History Of The World Wide Web

Aug 13, 2008
Over recent years the Web has grown into an integral part of every day life. If you're of the same generation as me, born in the 80s, it is hard to imagine life without it. Used for everything from entertainment, mail, news, work, commerce, communication and everything in-between, the Web has found a way to be ingrained in everything we do from day to day.

In my memory the net has gone from simple text html documents on a 28k modem to full streaming video and audio on mobile devices via wireless broadband. The Web isn't all that old though, and the growth has been staggering for the short time that it's been around.

Here I should point out the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet is the series of interconnected networks that provides the backbone for the Web and all other communication technologies to operate. The Web is the series of interconnected documents, typically the web pages that you visit.

Despite the prevalence of the Internet and the Web in almost everything now, it isn't actually very old at all. The technology that powers the Internet is older than the Web, which was actually started in 1990 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The Internet was already widely used within academic and military circles in the USA at this point, but what Burners-Lee did was create a means with which people could easily browse documents and access information from their computer. By December 1990 he had created the first browser, WorldWideWeb, as well as the first web pages, which were documents detailing the nature of the Web.

By 1991 web servers began popping up all over the world, and testing had begun on the first universal browser that would allow anyone to access the documents stored on the Web. In 1992 there were 26 servers in the world, and by 1993 there were over 200. In February of that year Mosaic was released, the browser that allowed anyone that owned a PC or a Mac to access the Web. From this point the growth is staggering.

By 1994 Netscape had been formed and released their first browser, Netscape Navigator while Microsoft had released their Windows browser, Cello in 1993. At this stage the Web was still in its infancy, and in May 1994 the first International WWW Conference was held at CERN, a year after they had decided that use of the Web would be free-to-use and royalty-free, a major factor in its success.

By 1995 the ever expanding Web was starting to pick up momentum and gain some attention in the media and popular culture. By this point Netscape Navigator was the most commonly used browser, but Microsoft had licensed Mosaic to use as the basis for their own browser, Internet Explorer, which would be bundled with Microsoft Windows 95 Plus.

New versions of each browser were released in quick succession to keep up with the new technologies and demands of their ever increasing user-base. In 1997 Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4, which was faster than before as well as allowing a much more dynamic display of information. The browser also integrated itself into Microsoft's dominating OS, Windows.

Microsoft would go on to use its monopoly on home operating systems and its massive budget to crush the competition from Netscape in the following years as versions 5 and 6 of Internet Explorer completely dominated the market. Netscape eventually released the source code of Navigator as an open source browser, Mozilla. This would eventually lead to the creation of the Firefox browser, now a significant rival to Internet Explorer.

By 1998 most companies had realised that with all the commercial benefits and opportunities that the Web could bring that a website was no longer optional, but required. This would lead to the much hyped 'dot com' boom and bust of the turn of the century.

Low interest rates in 1998-1999 would help tempt venture capitalists into investing in dot-com businesses that were seeing their stock values rise extremely quickly. This lead to remarkable situations where start-up dot-coms could be worth millions despite never having made a profit, or in some cases never even having taken any revenue.

The boom lasted into the year 2000, where the stock value of the technology rich NASDAQ Index peaked at more than twice its value from the previous year. On March 10th the dot com bubble burst. Massive multi billion dollar sell orders for companies such as Cisco, IBM and Dell were all processed on the March 10 weekend, this selling prompted a chain reaction as investors found themselves past Y2K without incident and so spending was reduced.

The failure was also undoubtedly linked to the poor showing of Internet companies during the Christmas 1999 season. Their lavish spending and valuations now seemed foolish and most of the dot com businesses went out of business throughout 2001.

The fallout of the dot com era was a large amount of overcapacity on many Internet networks, as well as cheaply available high speed broadband. From the ashes many companies did manage to find a successful niche online and started to form stable businesses. Google, Amazon and Ebay are excellent examples of this.

2002 would see the advent of user driven content, and the real start of Web 2.0. Up until this point the Internet was generally something that you could browse and view, but not edit. Websites would be built by companies and organisations with the intent of users reading them from their computers.

As websites such as MySpace and Facebook began popping up, so did the popularity of instant messaging services such as ICQ, MSN and AIM. During the early 2000s the Web would undertake a shift from being commercially driven to being built around interpersonal communication. Many people began seeing the Web as a cheap and easy way of keeping in contact with friends and relatives. As more and more homes were connected to broadband the Web became integrated into the personal computer and the Internet became the primary communication tool for millions.

2002 also saw the advent of the blog and RSS feeds. A blog enabled just about anyone to have their own personal space online that was easily editable. Previously owning and running a website was the domain of people with sound technical knowledge and a grasp of HTML. With blogs just about anyone could start a site and create something where their voice could be heard. This would essentially bring the Web to the masses as people realised that traffic online could be a two-way thing.

Around the same time Google was rising to prominence as the premier search engine. Google would help to organise and clean up the Web for people. Using complex search algorithms Google attempts to rank pages based on their relevancy and reputation. Their streamlined search page enabled users to find what they were after in the sea of content available online much more easily than before.

In 2005 YouTube was founded by three ex-PayPal workers. The website hosts user-uploaded videos in a quick loading format based on Flash that enables people to watch videos on just about anything. YouTube proved to be the fastest growing website in history. The site now hosts 84 million videos, with 3.75 million user channels. YouTube was a significant step forward for the Web and user-generated content.

Since 2005 the Web has exploded with all kinds of user-generated material. Recently it has been social networking sites that have seen the most growth, with Facebook proving to be an international phenomenon. These sites enable users to have a much more personal connection to the Web than previously. With people using the Web as their sole means of communication while sharing photos and video it has become totally ingrained in everything that we do.

As the flood of user-generated content continues to grow it is hard to predict where the growth will stop, if at all. This kind of content is what has enable the Web to reach the point it has reached now. In just 18 years it has gone from the domain of nuclear physicists and computer scientists to the domain of everyone. Even people with little to no computer knowledge can browse web pages, or set up a blog.

It'll be interesting to see where the Web will go next. With Web 3.0 just around the corner many people, including Sir Tim Burners-Lee are predicted the advent of the Semantic Web, where the Web will understand and satisfy the requests of people as they search and surf. I imagine the Internet will merge into every facet of technology and entertainment in the future, even more so that what is happening today.

It is an interesting time and also interesting to note that the reason people buy a computer now is not to compute, but to use the World Wide Web.
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