The World Wide Web–now 20 years old

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What happened in computing before the Web

Since the home computer came on the scene in the 1970s, there were previous efforts to present information on these computers in a navigable form. This was achieved through the use of dedicated computer programs that were written for this task. These programs became important when the modem, which facilitated computer-to-computer communications over the telephone, came on the scene through 1980.

The main examples of these were the bulletin-board systems and “videotex / viewdata” systems which used the computer as a terminal. They typically provided a forum functionality and an information display which allowed people to bring up pages of information. But they were often difficult to operate unless you were a diehard computer nerd.

Apple was one of many companies who tried to popularise the concept of hyperlinking information where one could click on an item of information and be led to another related item of information. They did this with a program called “HyperCard” which allowed the user to link between various “cards” of information, whether in the same deck or another deck.

There were even attempts to provide indexable information for computer systems, including networked computers by using indexing software like “Isys”. These programs crawled collections of word-processing documents, spreadsheets and the like and created an index which could be searchable and the results viewed in an elementary form.

The establishment of the Web

After 1991, various universities worked towards establishing two standards that were critical to the establishment of the Web. These were “HTTP” (HyperText Transport Protocol), an efficient file-transfer protocol which allowed text to be delivered as a stream suitable for hyperlinking; and “HTML” which was a way of marking up text files to permit formatting or hyperlinking of information.

These worked hand in glove with the Internet and there was a clear advantage that one could link to information using a standard “Uniform Resource Locator” or “URL”. This link could point to file on any computer in the world on the Internet. All it required was the use of a program called a “Web Browser” and the first of these was “Lynx” which worked with text-based terminals. With this one, users had to enter a number pointing to the desired link they wanted to follow.

But, as the Internet became popular, there was the rise of the graphical Web browser which was in the form of Netscape Navigator. This became more intense with Windows 95 having integrated Internet functionality and Microsoft releasing Internet Explorer for this platform.

The Web as an integral part of computing

This led the World Wide Web to become the Internet’s killer application in a similar vein to how pre-recorded video movies being available for hire through video stores became the video cassette recorder’s killer application in the 1980s. We now started to talk of home pages and of “surfing the Web” or “surfing the Net” as an activity.

The Web has also provided support for a universal interface for every sort of computer-driven activity, whether browsing and searching for information, managing one’s email or doing one’s banking and shopping online. It had then led to the boom-bust cycle that was known as the “dot-com” era where companies could set up behind a Web page with a “dot-com” name and make money out of the domain names or the goods and services they could sell online.

As the Web matured, the ability to provide snazzier presentation on the Web sites allowed media companies to work on snazzier home pages, which ended up becoming “portals” that featured news and other information. These became the jump points for people to start their Web-browsing sessions from and they ended up also offering task-specific features like Web-based mail and messaging.

It also led on to the growth of the “Social Web” which is driven by the end user. This is in the form of Web logs or “blogs” which are effectively micro-journals; or social networks like Facebook where one can interlink with other like-minded people.

Even the way the Web is viewed has changed from since it first started. Previously, it was viewed on a regular desktop or laptop computer. Now the last five years has seen the Web being viewed on mobile phones, especially smartphones like the Apple iPhone; tablet computers like the Apple iPad and now the television screen with the new generation of “smart TVs” and video peripherals like Blu-Ray players or games consoles.

Conclusion

The World Wide Web has become one of the major cornerstones for the connected lifestyle by popularising access to online information and commerce, and simply popularising the Internet iteself.

Happy 20th Birthday World Wide Web

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