Archives

Date

Birth of the World Wide Web

Yesterday, I was interviewed for the public radio program Marketplace and as is normal, 30 minutes come down to 30 seconds. So I wanted to add some commentary to that story.

As you are no doubt hearing today, it was 25 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee first developed his draft proposal for an internet based hypertext system to tie together all the internet’s protocols: E-mail, USENET, FTP, Gopher, Telnet and a potential new protocol (HTTP) to serve up those hypertext pages. He didn’t call it the web then, and the first web tools were not written for a while, and wouldn’t make it to the outside world until 1991, but this was the germ of a system that changed the internet and the world. The first wave of public attention came when the UIUC’s supercomputing center released a graphical browser called Mosaic in 1993 and CERN declared the web protocols non-proprietary. Mosaic’s main author went on to start Mozilla/Netscape, which turned into the Firefox browser you may be reading this with.

As the radio piece explains, many people are confused as to what the difference is between the internet and the web. (They also are unsure what a browser is, or how the web is distinct even from Google sometimes.) To most, the internet was an overnight success — an overnight success that had been developing for over 20 years.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of the web, or TimBL’s contribution to it. He writes a guest editorial on the Google blog today where he lays out a similar message. The web integrated many concepts from deeper internet history.

Prior to the web, several systems emerged to let you use the internet’s resources. Mailing lists were the first seat of community on the internet, starting with Dave Farber’s MSGGROUP in the 70s. In the early 80s, that seat of community moved to USENET. USENET was serial, rather than browsed, but it taught lessons about having a giant network with nobody owning it or being in control.

The large collection of FTP servers were indexed by the Archie search engine, the first internet search engine from McGill University. Greater excitement came from the Gopher protocol from the U. of Minnesota, which allowed you to browse a tree of menus, moving from site to site, being taken to pages, files, local search resources and more all over the internet.

The web was not based on menus, though. It took the concept of hypertext; the ability to put links into documents that point at other documents. Hypertext concepts go back all the way to Vannevar Bush’s famous “Memex” but the man most known for popularizing it was Ted Nelson, who wrote the popular book Comptuer Lib. Ted tried hard for decades to commercialize hypertext and saw his Project Xanadu system as the vision for the future computerized world. In Xanadu, links were to specific points in other documents, were bi-directional and also allowed for copyright ownership and billing — I could link in text from your document and you got paid when people paid to read my document. Hypertext was the base of Apple’s “Hypercard” and a few other non-networked systems.

So did TimBL just combine hypertext with internet protocols to make a revolution? One important difference with the web was that the links were one-way and the system was non-proprietary. Anybody could join the system, anybody could link to anybody, and no permission or money were needed. Embracing the internet’s philosophy of open protocols, while others had built more closed systems, this was a tool that everybody could jump aboard.

Another key difference, which allowed WWW to quickly supplant gopher, was counter-intuitive. Gopher used menus and thus was structured. Structure enables several useful things, but it’s hard to maintain and limits other things you can do. Hypertext is unstructured and produces a giant morass, what we math nerds would call a big directed graph. This “writer friendly” approach was easy to add to, in spite of the lack of plan and the many broken links.

The Web was a superset of Gopher, but by being less structured it was more powerful. This lesson would be taught several times in the future, as Yahoo’s structure menus, which made billions for its founders, were supplanted by unstructured text search from Lycos, Alta Vista and eventually Google. Wikipedia’s anybody-can-contribute approach devoured the old world of encyclopedias.

For the real explosion into the public consciousness, though, the role of Mosaic is quite important. TimBL did envision the inclusion of graphics — I remember him excitedly showing me an early version of Mosaic in 1992 he was playing with — but at the time most of us used USENET, gopher and the very early Web using text browsers, and more to the point, we liked it that way. The inclusion of graphics into web pages was mostly superfluous and slowed things down, making it harder, not easier to get to the meat of what we wanted. The broader public doesn’t see it that way, and found Mosaic to be their gateway into the internet. In addition, many companies and content producers would not be satisfied with publishing online until they could make it look the way they wanted it to look. Graphical browsers allowed for that, but at the time, people were much more interested in the new PDF format which let you publish a document to look just like paper than in the HTML format where you didn’t control the margins, fonts or stylistic elements.

(The HTML specification’s history is one of a war between those who believe you should specify the meaning of the structural elements in your documents and let the browser figure out the best way to present those, and those who want tight control to produce a specific vision. CSS has settled some of that war, but it continues to this day.)

Nobody owned the web, and while Tim is not poor, it was others like Marc Andreesen, Jerry Yang & Dave Filo who would become the early billionaires from it. The web was the internet’s inflection point, when so many powerful trends came together and reached a form that allowed the world to embrace it. (In addition, it was necessary that the Moore’s law curves governing the price of computing and networking were also reaching the level needed to give these technologies to the public.)

25 years ago, I was busy working on the code for ClariNet, which would become the first business founded on the internet when I announced it in June — I will post an update on that 25th anniversary later this year.