Posted by Martyn Casserly 18 April 2014
25 Years of the World Wide Web: Happy Birthday, Internet
The internet is such an integral part of modern life that it’s almost hard to believe that in many ways the web is still a recent invention. Sir Tim Berners-Lee first came up with the idea; here we look at how it all came together.
On March 12th 1989 a 34 year old Englishman wrote the rather drabbly titled paper ‘Information Management: A Proposal’. In it he laid out the principles for a system that would allow people to access information across the globe, and then share with others who were doing the same. This would become the backbone of the internet as we know it today - the World Web Web was born.
The man in question was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, an Oxford graduate in Physics, who while working at CERN - Europe’s largest internet node at the time - saw that the tools already existed to make his dream a reality.
‘Most of the technology involved in the web,’ he explains, ‘like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.’
While the terms internet and world wide web have become interchangeable over the years, they are distinctly different things. In simple terms the internet is the hardware structure of the network (servers, cables, routers, etc.,) with the world wide web being a software level that sits on top enabling website data to be linked and transmitted via HyperText Transfer Protocols (HTTP), a language layer specifically built for the task.
The pages themselves are essentially documents formatted in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that are then rendered by browsers to give us the experience we have today. As the technology has matured, and connection speeds increased, we’ve seen a marked development in the visual styling and dynamic behaviour of the web, which is a world away from the text heavy approach of the early nineties. But when Berners-Lee first envisioned the data-connected world it was in a time where documents and research papers where kept in digital silos.
‘The internet already existed, in that you could send email, but there were no websites’ Berner-Lee stated recently to The Independent. ‘There was no HTP, there was no HTML, there was no space or things you could click through, and it began because I was frustrated it didn’t exist. I imagined a system where you could just click from one to the other, and that was so compelling that I decided that I wanted to build it’.
He did just that, writing the code for HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), HyperText Markup Language (HTML), and then, to show how it would work, he also created the first ever browser- WorldWideWeb. Of course a browser without a destination isn’t much use, so the first website was built at CERN and put online in 1991, then released to the public in 1993. There’s even a replica of the early site still available from the current CERN site, which shows how very basic it was.
Now, as the world wide web celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, the idea of not being able to go online to find out pretty much anything you need to know seems archaic. There are estimated to be at least two and a half billion people who use the web, and in the region of five hundred million websites. Whole economies are based online, with Google, one of the most valuable companies in the world, essentially existing almost entirely on the world wide web. Entertainment is moving inexorably towards on-demand, streaming style convenience, while education is now freely available to anyone with an internet connection and the desire to learn.
With the whole world benefitting from Berners-Lee’s innovation you might think that the father of the web would now be a very rich man, but Sir Tim doesn’t make any money through licensing or patents. Technically CERN had the rights to the WWW technologies, but after convincing from Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, another significant figure in its development, the organisation agreed not to charge any royalties for the code.
‘If I had tried to demand fees...there would be no World Wide Web,’ announced Berners-Lee in 2004 during his acceptance speech for the first Millennium Technology Prize. ‘There would be lots of small webs.’ There was some recompense at hand though, as the prize he was accepting at the time was a cheque for $1.2 million.
A quarter of a century may have passed, but Berners-Lee is still a significant figure in the develop of the web. His work with the World Wide Web Consortium continues to refine and expand the inner mechanics of the web, and he has been a vocal spokesman for the future of his creation.
‘Now, 25 years on, Web users are realizing they need human rights on the Web’ he admitted to CNN. ‘We need independence of the Web for democracy, we need independence of the Web to be able to support the press, we need independence of the Web in general. It's becoming very important to sort out all that.’
This is probably the most difficult stage of the web’s existence so far. It’s no longer a fledgling idea, but instead a mainstay of modern culture, and one that has quickly infiltrated so many aspects of life. With this importance has come significant challenges. Recent revelations of the widespread and nefarious surveillance techniques used by the NSA and GCHQ has shaken confidence in its ability to protect privacy, while the rising reports of criminal activity and hacker attacks look set to increase as we go forward. The next quarter century will see the web change technologically in ways we can’t easily imagine, but at its heart it still remains the means for people to communicate and share - something Berners-Lee firmly believes needs to be fought for.
‘Key decisions on the governance and future of the Internet are looming, and it’s vital for all of us to speak up for the web’s future’ He wrote on the 25th anniversary. ‘How can we ensure that the other 60 percent around the world who are not connected get online fast? How can we make sure that the web supports all languages and cultures, not just the dominant ones? How do we build consensus around open standards to link the coming Internet of Things? Will we allow others to package and restrict our online experience, or will we protect the magic of the open web and the power it gives us to say, discover, and create anything? How can we build systems of checks and balances to hold the groups that can spy on the net accountable to the public? These are some of my questions—what are yours?’
Remember when websites looked like this?