Monday, July 13, 2009

Celebrating 20 years of the World Wide Web

Remember WAIS, Gopher, Mosaic and Archie?

Tim Berners-Lee wrote the world's first ever web browser, named WorldWideWeb, in 1990. The app supported hyperlinks, but graphics opened up in separate windows

Twenty years ago, in a research establishment in the Swiss Alps, a British-born computer scientist dreamt up a new way for academics to share information around the globe.

Little did he realise that his invention would break out from the confines of academia and give birth to the world wide web.

Two decades on, there are over 200 million websites and over one trillion unique URLs. An astounding 1.6 billion people use the web worldwide, and here in the UK the figure stands at over 70 per cent of the population.

To celebrate this milestone, we're looking back on how and why the web came into being, taking a look at how the web's key technologies have changed since the early '90s and investigating how it has affected our society and culture.

illustrate how vividly things have changed, we'll take a snapshot of the web at four stages in its development – at five, 10, 15 and 20 years old. And to complete our commemoration of the web at 20, we've consulted an expert to find out just how different it could look in another five years' time.

How it all began

The web might have come into being 20 years ago, but that wasn't the start of the internet – far from it. To find the first faltering steps of the information superhighway we have to turn the clock back almost 40 years to the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, which is widely regarded as the evolutionary starting point of the internet we know today. So to see why the web was so revolutionary, we need to investigate how the internet looked back in the late '70s

Some aspects of ARPANET-inspired technology are still with us. ARPANET was the world's first packet switching network, and some of its technologies – including email, FTP (file transfer protocol) for uploading and downloading files, and Usenet, which served a similar purpose to today's web-based newsgroups – were already in existence.

The biggest differences between these systems and their modern-day counterparts lies in the user interface more than the underlying technology. The older services were accessed using typed commands rather than via the now-ubiquitous graphical user interface.

Growing chaos

A more fundamental difference was in the way that people found information. In those pre-web days, that meant either knowing about information sources via word of mouth, email or newsgroups, or perhaps by accessing online library catalogues using the Telnet protocol for running programs on remote computers.

When the internet was tiny, this haphazard system worked (just about), but by the late '80s it was starting to get out of hand. American initiatives such as Gopher (as in 'go for'), WAIS (Wide Area Information Server), Archie and Veronica all did their bit to simplify internet information management, but, as it turned out, they were all doomed to relative obscurity in the light of events taking place across the Atlantic.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, an Oxford-educated computer scientist then working at CERN in Switzerland, proposed a new system for managing online information. Berners-Lee envisaged a system in which hypertext documents could be linked together. By clicking on a 'hot spot' (or link) in one document, the user would be automatically transferred to the document that was referenced in that link. What's more, Berners-Lee suggested that documents could be linked together without any central control or coordination.

The proposal was accepted, and a year later Berners-Lee finished the first ever browser. He named it WorldWideWeb (with no spaces). It ran on a NeXT cube computer, and despite its lack of colour and absence of in-line graphics, the fundamentals would be familiar to today's web users.

Later on, the browser was renamed Nexus to differentiate it from the abstract space that became known as the World Wide Web (with spaces).

Opening the gates

However innovative, who knows whether the concept of globally hyperlinked documents would have taken the world by storm if it wasn't for a couple of political and commercial decisions that took place in those early years.

In March 1993, America's National Science Foundation decided that its network backbone would no longer be restricted to academic institutions. Then, just a month later, CERN made its web technology free for anyone to use. The floodgates were opened – and the world would never be quite the same again.

Five years old

Five years in, the web was just starting to come to the attention of the public, although at this stage it was still mostly computer enthusiasts who were getting involved. One product that was instrumental in bringing the web to the man in the street was called Internet in a Box. Launched by Spry in 1994, it was, to quote the promotional literature, "the first shrink-wrapped package to provide a total solution for PC users to get on the internet". Included in the box was the necessary software to allow Windows to communicate with the internet, a subscription with an ISP and a copy of the Mosaic web browser. Other such packages would soon follow.

The Mosaic web browser really epitomised the web of the mid-'90s, and it's also the product that is widely acknowledged to have first popularised the web. Developed in 1993, the software would later evolve into Netscape Navigator, the descendant of which is still with us today in the form of popular browser Mozilla Firefox.

As with most things related to the internet in those pioneering days, Mosaic was written for the Unix operating system, but other versions were soon released for the Macintosh and, more importantly, the PC. It was the first browser to display images inline with text instead of displaying them in a separate window. In many ways, it still resembles the browser of today.

EARLY ANCESTOR: Even as early as 1994, Mosaic could display blue hyperlinks and inline graphics

These early times were also the days of massive growth, even though the numbers pale into insignificance compared to today's figures. In mid-1993 there were just 130 websites worldwide, but by the end of 1994, when the web had reached its fifth birthday, this figure had grown to over 12,000. However, only 18 per cent of these websites had magic '.com' URLs – and the commercialisation of the web was only just beginning.

10 years old

Now that knowledge of the internet was becoming commonplace, software wars were breaking out. Of particular note was the moment that Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer to compete head-on with Netscape Navigator.

In the next five momentous years, no less than five versions of Internet Explorer and four of Netscape Navigator were released. IE finally came out victorious once Microsoft fully integrated it into Windows, but the real beneficiary of those browser wars was the user – the web browsing experience changed out of all recognition.

OLD NEWS: Familiar names like Google had appeared by 1999, but they were yet to oust established search engines such as Northern Light

No longer did the web comprise only static information: dynamic content had entered the scene with a vengeance. Audio and video multimedia content could now be displayed on web pages.

Far more fundamental was support for a range of technologies including the now familiar JavaScript, ActiveX controls and cascading style sheets. This meant that web pages could feature animation and users could fill in forms online and run applications such as games.

By the web's 10th birthday, search engines had also made their presence felt. Although search apps had been around five years earlier, they were small fry then. By now their commercial potential had been recognised, and several sites were vying for the number one spot. At the time, Northern Light and AltaVista were tied with 150 million pages each, but Google was closing in rapidly.

The browser wars and the search engine wars were the tip of the iceberg. The web was now big business and there was no shortage of young companies eager to get a piece of the greatest publishing revolution since the invention of the printing press.

These were the glory days of the 'dot com' companies, with well-known names such as Amazon, eBay, Expedia, Google and Yahoo all appearing. Not all the dotcoms would be successful, though, and another year down the line the bubble would burst, leaving financial catastrophe in its wake.

 15 years old

While previously the web had been all about finding information, things had started to change by the time it reached the wise old age of 15.

Change number one was that more people started to shop online frequently. Web-based retailer Amazon posted its first profitable year with international sales up 33 per cent on the previous year. Meanwhile eBay had over 135 million registered users, up 43 per cent on 2003. Between them, the two companies had sold or bought almost $10billion worth of merchandise.

SELLING UP: 2004 was Amazon's first profitable year, with sales approaching £7 billion

In the UK, specialist e-retailers were joined by the traditional outlets such as Argus and Screwfix, who were soon to be up there with Amazon at the top of the league table for online shopping. With low-cost airlines, holiday companies and the major supermarkets also providing an online ordering service, around 33 per cent of Britons were now shopping online. Each spent an average of over £500 per year. Goods worth £3.3billion were shifted in the 10 week run-up Christmas. Mainstream online shopping had come of age.

Change number two was the way in which social interaction happened online. The likes of MySpace and Facebook were still small fry, but their predecessors were starting to get a foothold. As blogging really took off, web users got into the habit of providing web content rather than just consuming it for the first time.

Instant messaging was also in a period of massive growth. Strictly speaking, IM isn't a web application (because behind the scenes it doesn't use HTTP) but most users don't care about the nuts and bolts, and it's an important stepping-stone to social networking.

Chatrooms were also taking off, and in one way or another vast numbers of people were interacting with each other online without the delay inherent in email exchanges.

20 years old

Twenty years on, all of the technologies and trends we've seen emerge in two decades are still going strong. The mainstay of the web is still hyperlinked pages of information, even though many of those links are now graphical rather than blue text and active content is the rule rather than the exception.

Search engines continue to flourish alongside newer web presences such as online shopping sites. Does this mean the web is now mature and the days of change are long gone? Not a bit of it.

At our last milestone, many of the changes to the web were inspired by commercial and social pressures rather than technology. But in the last five years advances in technology are, once again, making their impact felt.

Five years ago, only seven per cent of the UK's internet users had a broadband connection, far behind much of the rest of the developed world. By 2007, half of all adults in the UK had fast internet access at home and, as of today, 95.1 per cent of all the UK's connections to the internet are via broadband.

Connection speeds have also escalated. Today the average speed a broadband user in the UK can expect is 4.3Mbps. Virgin's cable broadband offers up to 50Mbps. Worldwide, even higher speeds are available – 100Mbps is considered normal in Japan – so it's no surprise that the web of 2009 has taken advantage of all this extra bandwidth.

First and foremost this means more multimedia content. YouTube would be barely usable over a dial-up connection. Today, millions of people have taken heed of the site's invitation to 'Broadcast Yourself', with 15 hours of video being uploaded to the site every minute. In the US alone, over 100 million viewers watch over six billion movies per month.

The BBC iPlayer is another beneficiary of high-speed internet connections. Launched in December 2007, it's still the new kid on the block but already the iPlayer is providing over half a million people a day with the opportunity to watch programmes they've missed or view again those they enjoyed.

WATCH THIS SPACE: The BBC iPlayer, which attracts millions of visitors, is only viable because of the massive take-up of broadband internet services over the last couple of years

The other big success story is the iTunes Store, the music download site provided by Apple in the wake of the hugely popular iPod. To date, downloads account for less than 10 per cent of music sales, but with CD sales falling, it's clear where the future lies.

But the popularity of broadband doesn't mean that the web is now solely about multimedia. As Google Earth has shown, the public still have an appetite for information. Using a smart plug-in, the user's PC can interact with a database of satellite imagery on Google's computers. As a result, 2.5 million people a month in the UK alone are experiencing what was formerly the sole domain of the military.

Technology has also come to the fore in the case of the mobile internet. No longer is browsing the web only something to be done sitting at a desk. With the combination of Wi-Fi hotspots, web-enabled mobile phones and the new MID (Mobile Internet Device) platform, we can go online anywhere. This ability is also key in changing how we use the web.

With the exception of keeping up to date with the news, a recent survey has shown that social networking is the major reason for accessing the web while out and about. If you're used to being able to text friends anywhere, it doesn't make sense that you can only contact them via social-networking sites while sitting at your desk. The mobile internet has catapulted Facebook and MySpace into the major league.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre example of how the web at 20 is affecting lives, a British woman is divorcing her husband because his alter ego in the online community Second Life had an affair with a virtual woman in a virtual world.

25 years old

With web technology showing no signs of running out of steam, it's inevitable that the web of 25 years will be markedly different from the web of today. What we don't know yet is exactly how it will evolve. We spoke to Rohit Agarwal, Director of Marketing and Innovation for AOL Europe, to get an idea of how the web could evolve even further over the next five years.

Agarwal's vision of the future revolved round three key themes – web access versus web experience, voice-enabled web and the realisation of cloud computing.

"With the world permanently and ubiquitously online, the question will be about the user experience," says Agarwal. "Access to the web and to the information you want will be available anywhere and at any time from a whole myriad of devices.

MOBILE INTERNET: More and more traffic on the web is destined for devices other than the PC

"The iPhone may be credited as the device that first made the mobile internet a truly enjoyable user experience through its large touchscreen display, and similar handsets are being produced. But this is only one side of the move away from the desktop as the main point of contact with the web. The other side of the development will see television and the web fully converge, giving a more complete and interactive experience."

"Voice-enabled web will make it possible to control your computer through voice commands," says Agarwal. "Microsoft and Nuance serve as incumbents to this technology, and other companies have the opportunity to develop it.

"Through the realisation of cloud computing we will be able to synchronise our online life and always have access to our personal media assets, no matter where we are. We will be able to edit, create and share movies, documents and personal media within this cloud through online apps that no longer require local software installation."

Agarwal stressed that many of these technologies are already with us. "The key", he said, "is that they will continue to converge, becoming an interconnected personal experience and adding value to each part of your everyday life."

The World's First Web Server

Posted via web from swathidharshananaidu's posterous

No comments:

Post a Comment