NOW the Web is 30 years old: When Tim Berners-Lee switched on the first World Wide Web server
Today, most of us live, work, fall in love, and buy our goods over the web. To us, it’s as natural as breathing. It wasn’t always like that. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee came up with his own take on creating a unifying structure for linking information across different computers. He called it, “Information Management: A Proposal.” Later, Berners-Lee would call it the World Wide Web. It wasn’t a new idea, you can trace it back to Vannevar Bush in 1945, who described a Memex: A desk, which would let users search microfilms to display documents from a library via trails of linked pages. Sound familiar? It should.
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If you’re like most people, you’re probably using Google Chrome as your default browser. It’s hard to fault Google’s record on security and patching but privacy is another matter for the online ad giant.
Others in the 1960s such as Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart would further the idea. But, in August 1991, Berners-Lee would take the theory into a working system: The World Wide Web. The world would never be the same.
In 1989, the internet was still largely used by researchers, academicians, and the military. By 1993, it was well on its way to being the internet you know. Two developments made this happen: The web and the far more obscure Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). Here’s how it happened.
In the late 80s and early 90s, the internet had evolved from the military ARPANet into a public network for the military, scientists, researchers, and academics. It was available if you were at the right school or worked at the right job, but most people had no access to it.
Even when you could use the early internet, you had to use ASCII-based applications like pine and elm for email and Unix command line/shell programs like ftp and Archie for finding and sharing files. The most advanced tool we had was Gopher, a Yahoo-like guide to internet resources. After Berners-Lee invented the web, everything changed.
No one saw the revolution at first. The web, which was running on NeXTStations — Steve Job designed Unix workstations that would prove to be the forefathers of today’s Macs — was only available to a few people in techie internet circles. It was, after all, created to help scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, share search, not share cat pictures. That came later.
While I was the first writer to describe the web to a mass audience, I focused on WAIS. WAIS was one of the first of what we now call public search engines. While there had been many other search engines before it — starting with NASA RECON, Dialog, and OCLC — these weren’t publicly available and confined themselves to a relatively narrow data set. WAIS was the first to make most public internet resources searchable.
WAIS was really Google’s ancestor. But, without the web, search engines would still be limited to restricted areas of knowledge.
At the same time, people were becoming more and more interested in using the internet for more than just research. Usenet, a primitive social network of many discussion groups, whetted people’s appetite for socializing and doing business on the net. Unfortunately, you couldn’t even sell your used car on the net, never mind run a company like Amazon.
Yes, believe it or not, before today’s hyper-commercialized internet appeared where you can barely find a single webpage without advertisements or cookies, in the early 90s you couldn’t do anything related to business on the net. That would change with CIX.
Early Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as IBM, Merit Network, and MCI started to provide business services over national and regional networks. To save money and expand their reach, in 1990 they formed the nonprofit Advanced Network Services (ANS), which created the first commercial internet backbone, ANSNET. This same wide-area network was also used by NSFNET; part of the older non-commercial internet was running on the same cables and routers.
ANSNET did more than increase the early internet’s backbone speed from T1’s blazingly fast 1.544 megabits per second to T3’s then-amazing 44.736 Mbps. It was a long time ago.
In 1993, the NSF also agreed to let the trio of pioneering internet companies form ANS CO+RE Systems, a for-profit corporation that sold corporate internet access — as long as they didn’t use the net for advertising. Oh, how things have changed!
This agreement opened Pandora’s box. Now, everyone wanted to use the rapidly expanding network, as data jumped from business to nonprofit networks and back again. To hash out these issues, a public mailing list, com-priv, was set up on an early internet service provider, PSI Network (PSINet). From these conversations, three ISPs that were not part of ANSNET (CERFNET, PSINet, and UUNET), formed their own network of networks: the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). From these conversations, three ISPs that were not part of ANSNET (CERFNET, PSINet, and UUNET), formed their own network of networks: CIX.
But, ANSNET and CIX couldn’t agree on sharing traffic. This annoyed everyone on the early internet who couldn’t even easily send emails to one another. In 1992, Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development and its killer-app Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, became chairman of CIX. He got the two sides to agree to a “great compromise.” In the agreement, ANS and CIX agreed to share traffic across each other’s networks. As Kapor said then, “In taking this significant step, we enable greater freedom from content restrictions on the Internet.” Does that remind you of net neutrality? It should. This is where it starts.
After they made peace, ISPs sprang up throughout the world, offering internet access at the unheard speed of 28.8 kilobits per second (Kbps). As I said, it was a long time ago.
The first popular graphical web browser came from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mosaic, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, wasn’t the first graphical web browser. ViolaWWW, a Unix browser, takes that honor, while Cello was the first Windows graphical web browser.
Mosaic, however, was the first browser to enable you to see images within pages. Earlier browsers could only show images as separate files. It was no contest: Mosaic would dominate the first browser war.
Today, 30-years later, many of you can’t even imagine a world without the web. You think of it in terms of Facebook, Twitter, funny cat photos, memes, Netflix, and World of Warcraft. But without the web’s technology and CIX’s commercializing of the net, none of this would exist.