Analysis: The World Wide Web -- Past, Present, And Future

We explore how and why the W3 exploded in popularity, as well as what's in store for the future.

September 14, 2006

16 Min Read
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In just 15 years, the World Wide Web has gone through many iterations: document-sharing tool for researchers, key source of news and information, shopping mecca, multimedia playground, and incredibly popular means of socializing and self-expression. How did the Web get so far so fast?

Well, it didn't, exactly. As with many inventions, in order to understand how today's Web developed, you have to look farther back than its official introduction. The seeds of the Web were planted much earlier than 1991.

Beginnings
Amazingly, a very early version of the World Wide Web was floating around in at least one person's head way back during World War II. In an essay entitled "As We May Think" that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, Vannevar Bush, an American engineer and scientific administrator, argued that as society emerged from World War II, our scientific efforts should become centered around preserving and collecting all previous human knowledge.

15 Years Of The World Wide Web

• Introduction• WWW: Past, Present, And Future• Browser Wars: The Saga Continues• The Skinny On Web 2.0

• WWW Pop-Up Timeline• Browser Image Gallery

To collect and display all this information, Bush even devised a system he named Memex. A combination of broadcast television and microfilm, in theory this device would allow researchers to rapidly access microfilm from remote locations as well as quickly link from one microfilm version of a book to a related topic in another via electromagnetic means.Memex was a far cry from the notion of hypertext -- computers in the 1940s lacked any sort of visual element beyond the punch card -- but Bush's theory that humans would pool their knowledge for quick reference and cross-reference proved eerily accurate.

Bush was ahead of his time -- Memex proved too complicated and ambitious to make it into production. However, his theories proved highly influential to Ted Nelson, a sociologist and information technology pioneer who devised a digitally oriented theory of information architecture, and to Douglas Englebart, a research engineer credited with the invention of the computer mouse.

In 1960, Nelson dreamt up and devised a notion of interrelated, dynamically linking documents with a simple user interface. This theory became Project Xanadu. His theory marks the first-known usage of the word hypertext.

At the time, implementing a system using Nelson's concept of hypertext in Project Xanadu proved too complex. So, like Vannevar Bush before him, Nelson was never able to complete it. (He does, however, continue to keep the faith with a new information structure project known as ZigZag.)

At almost the same time Nelson was developing his theories, Englebart, an American inventor, was putting them into action. He echoed both Bush's and Nelson's beliefs that technology and information had strong influence on each other. His 1962 paper Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework posited a computerized network of information.In 1963, Englebart set about turning his theories into reality. He set up the futuristic-sounding Augmentation Research Center (ARC). Here he created the first successful implementation of hypertext and the early underpinnings of the graphical user interface (GUI). Just as important, he created a device that allowed users to browse and click through the interface and information: the computer mouse.

In a 1968 demonstration of the technology at the Fall Joint Computer Conference (that included a live video conference with his lab 30 miles away), Englebart gave what has since been referred to as "the mother of all demos." The notion of hypertext in a mouse-driven GUI was so far ahead of its time that some members of the audience thought he was pulling off an elaborate hoax.

The impact of these concepts was revolutionary, even if it took several years for technology to catch up. Nelson's and Englebart's ideas eventually played a key role in the machinations and theories of Tim Berners-Lee, who would go on to invent the World Wide Web. Hypertext + Internet = WorldWideWeb
As were Bush, Nelson, and Englebart before him, Berners-Lee was motivated by a strong desire to facilitate access to -- and sharing of -- information to scientists and academics.

In 1980, while working as an independent contractor for CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, TimBL -- as he's frequently referred to by friends and fans -- conceived of and devised ENQUIRE, a closed, cross-linking database that permitted collaboration and relied on bidirectional hyperlinking to connect database elements located in multiple nodes on a network. ENQUIRE formed a foundation and knowledge base for his development of the World Wide Web.

In 1989, Berners-Lee began to devise a more formal and ambitious proposal. His goal was to find a way to harness the power of the Internet to publish and update hypertext documents. Again, this theory was aimed squarely at academia and research. More modern notions of the Web -- self-expression, entertainment, sex -- weren't even on his radar. He put this theory into action on a powerful NeXT workstation, and the foundation of the Web was born.In his November 1990 paper titled WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project, Berners-Lee wrote: "HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. It provides a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help). We propose a simple scheme incorporating servers already available at CERN."

By August of 1991, Berners-Lee had created the very first Web browser and editor, named WorldWideWeb, as well as world's first server: nxoc01.cern.ch, later renamed info.cern.ch. In an entirely appropriate first real-world usage for this new medium, the WorldWideWeb crew placed the CERN telephone directory on the server for easy access.

Berners-Lee and his partners began proselytizing the gospel of WWW to the masses. "The WWW project," he explained on the newsgroup alt.hypertext, "was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!"

According to Tim Bray, a search engine pioneer who is currently Director of Web Technologies for Sun Microsystems, the success of the World Wide Web is largely due to the elegant simplicity of its design. "The Web is one of the best examples ever of using the 80/20 sweet spot...The ideas of hypertext links and accessing information were already there, thanks to Ted Nelson," Bray said. "But it was complex. In Nelson's theories, hypertext links never broke and had a bunch of meta-data attached to them. With WWW, we took ideas like this from the past, but we simplified them."In real-world terms, this emphasis on simplicity resulted in basic URLs with single documents and no meta-data attached to them. It resulted in a radically simplified and accessible language format -- HTML -- instead of the complex programming languages familiar to computers users at the time. Better Browsers Bring More Users
Of course, the keystone of the Web's success was the Web browser itself. The notions of hypertext linking and navigating forward and backward through Web pages resulted in such an easily graspable standard that the interface was universally adopted -- which isn't to say there wasn't room for improvement. Almost immediately after Berners-Lee completed the WorldWideWeb browser for the NeXT platform, Nicola Pellow, one of his collaborators on the WWW project, wrote a generic text-only version called WWW that could run on non-NeXT systems.

Not long after, several other text-and-image browsers were developed and released. One of the most popular was Pei-Yuan Wei's ViolaWWW for the X Window platform. This browser, which bore a strong resemblance to the Mac's HyperCard application, was the first to feature support for modern browser implantations like style sheets and tables. It also incorporated back and forward buttons, as well as bookmarks and a browsing history.

In 1993, however, NCSA Mosaic -- written by Mark Andreessen and Eric Bina for Unix but translated to the Apple and Windows platforms shortly after its release -- supplanted ViolaWWW as the Web browser of choice. Mosaic was the first Web browser to successfully integrate text and graphics in the same window. It was also the first browser ported to both Windows and the Mac, and the result was nothing short of phenomenal -- ordinary, everyday computer users were suddenly able to browse the World Wide Web.

Editor's Note: For more about the great browser battles for the hearts and minds of Web users, see the sidebar Browser Wars: The Saga Continues.The advent of Windows- and Mac-based browsers, along with the medium's inherent simplicity and graspability, laid the foundation for the explosion of the World Wide Web. Over the first five or six years of its life, millions of Web sites were launched by corporations, publishing companies, retail outlets, and more.

A Brand New Media Outlet
Besides the pure novelty of Web-surfing, one of the most appealing aspects of the World Wide Web was -- and still is -- the ability to access and read newspaper and magazine articles from around the globe.

Over the first five years of its life, large and small media outlets of all types -- newspapers, TV networks, magazines, newsletters -- rushed to publish their content on the Web. Following in their wake, countless Web-only content sites were launched, covering every conceivable range of subjects.

The availability of instant-access news had a profound impact on traditional media and society. As the masses flocked to online sites such as ESPN.com and CNN.com, the evening news, newspapers, and even magazines suddenly felt a whole lot less relevant. These industries would spend years attempting to reconfigure themselves to accommodate the changing desires of their followers.

Ironically, and unbeknownst to media experts at the time, a similar status erosion would soon affect traditional journalistic outlets -- both print and online. By the turn of the century, the elite status, privileged access, and relative influence of traditional publishers would be hobbled and occasionally overshadowed by "regular" people's blogs and homegrown sites.

(Another form of media that quickly found a niche on the World Wide Web -- and in turn helped drive the adoption and usage of computers and the Internet -- was pornography. The potential psychological and societal implications of Web-based porn have been impossible to ignore; for better or worse, the perceived privacy and specificity afforded by the Web have allowed the public unprecedented indulgence of their erotic fantasies.)As with all new ventures, revenue rapidly became a primary concern. How would companies monetize their new Web presences? For media-oriented organizations, the answer came in a very traditional form: advertising. Global Net Navigator launched the first clickable Web ad in 1993. A year later, Hotwired.com -- started by Wired Magazine -- became the first site to sell banner ads. AT&T was the first company to purchase one of these banners.

For other companies, though, the road to online riches lay not in selling ads on media sites, but in a more traditional capitalist outlet: selling and marketing goods and services.WWW And Commerce: A Match Made In Heaven

It's nice to think that the Internet's sensational growth was spurred primarily thanks to humanity's latent desire to share stories and be connected together as one big, happy family. But information sharing was just one dimension of the World Wide Web's explosive growth in the mid-1990s.

"There's a little-known turning point to the popularity of the Web," Tim Bray told us. "And that's the day [in 1994] when FedEx put up parcel tracking on the W3. Every business person in the world got it right then and there. It was one of those powerful moments that illuminated the usefulness of this new medium."

Amazon.com. Expedia. eBay. In 1995, companies began to launch corporate Web sites and e-commerce portals in rapid succession (as evidenced in our timeline). Buoyed by a strong economy, the consuming public began to respond in force. Now every major corporation has a Web presence of some sort, and hundreds of thousands of online shops allow consumers to purchase goods electronically.

Amazon's large-scale success was one of the milestones of Internet commerce. Prior to Amazon's success, naysayers pooh-poohed the notion of waiting four to five days to receive a book. In time, these critics would be proven wrong as both Web nerds and grandmas flocked to the site. These days, Amazon.com is more popular than brick-and-mortar establishments during the holiday season.Another company whose success is similarly important, perhaps even more so when viewed from a sociological perspective, is eBay. The company's instantly profitable launch opened everyone's eyes to the power of used goods and collectibles -- not to mention the thrill of bidding for products online.

Finally, during this period of Web expansion, a number of Web sites emphasizing services rather than marketing or commerce began to emerge. Hotmail is one of the most prominent examples -- developers Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith created a Web-based e-mail system that severed users' reliance upon Internet service providers for e-mail addresses and e-mail access.

Enter The Search Engine

Sorting, scanning, and scouring the Web via search engines such as Google seems like a no-brainer today. How else are we to find and explore the millions of content entries on the Web? In the Web's early days, however, the number of sites was so limited that there was minimal need for search. When you wanted to find information, you went straight to the source. And if you were just browsing, you went to the NCSA's "What's New" page, a simple listing of the new Web sites that were popping up on a daily basis, or "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" -- which would later become Yahoo.

A number of Internet-based search programs, such as Archie, Gopher, Veronica, and Jughead (some of which predated the Web), were available for searching non-Web content. As the number of Web sites began to grow exponentially, both in the number of available sites and the level of public interest, one thing became clear to people like Tim Bray: Users of the World Wide Web desperately needed similar tools to quickly sort, categorize, and search the ever-growing amount of information.

"In 1994, I was at a conference and this guy started talking about how important search engines and functionality would be," Bray related. "I had just helped put up Open Text, one of the Web's first search engines, and I remember thinking that this would be a key future element of the World Wide Web."

Hundreds of individuals and corporations also felt this way. Starting in 1994, a number of search engines were launched: WebCrawler, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, AltaVista -- and, of course, Yahoo and Google. And the rest is history: In terms of its relative importance to the growth of the Web, search is probably second only to the Web browser itself.Self-Expression Ascendant: Web 2.0
From its earliest days, one of the primary uses of the Web has been self-expression, starting with simple Webcams trained on coffee machines and homegrown gossip sites, and working up to today's social networking sites and video-sharing services.But it's only since the turn of the century that online self-expression has really rocketed to the forefront. The community site Xanga, for instance, had just 100 online blogs in 1997, but had over 50 million by December 2005.

The advent of easy-to-use tools for blogging, sharing photos and videos, and otherwise creating online content has driven this growth. The end result is that people are becoming not just consumers, but contributors -- a notion that lies at the heart of the Web's newest movement: Web 2.0.

Editor's Note: For more about what Web 2.0 means, along with a list of today's top Web 2.0 sites, see the sidebar The Skinny On Web 2.0

One of the key factors in the Web 2.0 movement is technology. As Web developers master emerging tech such as Ajax, Web sites can implement a wide array of new feature sets that increase users' access and capabilities, which in turn allows them to create more original content for the Web.

15 Years Of The World Wide Web

• Introduction• WWW: Past, Present, And Future

Browser Wars: The Saga Continues• The Skinny On Web 2.0• WWW Pop-Up Timeline• Browser Image Gallery

So What's Beyond Web 2.0?
Web 3.0, of course. But what does that consist of? It's impossible to know for sure, but as users become busier, it's not unfeasible to imagine some level of automated artificial intelligence routines that manage various aspects of our digital lives. As an example: Imagine a Web-based calendar application that intelligently arranges your schedule based on input from other people's calendars -- without any input from you. The concept that a computer or network can not only provide access to data, but also make sense of that data in a meaningful and impactful way is known as the Semantic Web.

Beyond the Semantic Web, there's another aspect of future Web development that has yet to be accounted for: What happens to the Web as the billions of people who have no access now start to come online? It's not really Web 2.0 or Web 3.0, but the impact that an extra billion people from cultures around the world will have on the Web will be significant in a multitude of ways. For the first time, the World Wide Web will truly be a worldwide phenomenon.

Judging by the astonishing development of the last 15 years, we're going to go out on a limb here with a single prediction: There's no way anyone can accurately predict what shape the Web will take 15 years from now.

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