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The web is 25 today. Here are the moments that helped define it

The web has evolved in many ways since Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for it back in 1989.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.
Image: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

IT WAS THIS day 25 years ago that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited as the inventor of the web, put together his proposal for a system to help improve communication for CERN.

Now fast forward to today and that invention plays a major role in our lives. There are roughly 2.5 billion people – roughly one-third of the world’s population – online through desktop or smartphones and this number is growing.

A lot has happened between then and now so here are some of the most important moments in its history.

12th March 1989 – The birth of the web

Then a scientist at CERN, Berners-Lee wrote a proposal to develop a distributed information system which was to help improve communication for CERN. The plan for it quickly changed once Berners-Lee realised how the concept could be used for purposes outside CERN.

By linking pages together through hypertext, a format invented in the early 80s, it meant that files could be accessed from anywhere in the world. That concept became the basis for what the web has become.

Berners-Lee estimated that the project would take six to twelve months for two people to complete it while developing a system that would work on many machines would happen soon after.

imageAn diagram of how the web would work according to Berners-Lee’s proposal (Image: W3 Archive)

20th December 1990 – The world’s first website and server goes live

More than a year and a half later, the basic concepts of the web were established. All sites had a URL, http and html, and Berners-Lee had written the first browser and server software.

Just before Christmas, the first website was created where visitors could learn about the project. It was incredibly basic by today’s standards, but uses the same principles that you find on the web today.

23rd January 1993 – The first popular web browser Mosaic launched

Shortly before the web was made public, browser tend to be basic affairs with windows opening separately while images and text weren’t able to display together. Mosaic, named because it brought so many small features together, wasn’t even the first graphical web browser but became the most popular web browser during the mid 90s.

It also pioneered many features we take for granted today such as bookmarks and back and forward buttons, features that are still used heavily in modern web browsers.

However, it had a short life and with competition from Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, the makers of Mosaic decided to wind the browser down in 1997.

imageMosaic introduced a number of features that are present in modern browsers like the back button and bookmarks (Image: National Center for Supercomputing Applications).

30th April 1993 – The web is made public

Between the first website going live and this period, the web had been used mainly by universities and research groups. CERN changed this by issuing a statement putting the web into the public domain, ensuring it would remain an open standard.

The organisation released the source code of the project to the public, making the web free software available to all. By doing this, there were over 500 known web servers at the end of the year, and the web accounted for 1 per cent of internet traffic. By the end of 1994, the web had 10,000 servers – 2,000 of them were commercial – and 10 million users.

1994 – The appearance of the first standard search engine

With more information appearing on the web, there wasn’t any real way to discover a site unless you were given the actual URL. Search engines followed shortly with WebCrawler setting the standard for modern versions.

While it wasn’t the first search engine – W3Catalog and Aliweb were both released in 1993 – its use of text search, which checks to see which sites had the words you were looking for, is to this day used in major search engines.

It wasn’t until 1997 that Google appeared and its PageRank algorithm, which sorts search results out by ranking pages related to the words searched, helped it become the company it is today

1995 – Predicting the web is difficult

If you think predicting where what direction the web is going to go, spare a thought for Clifford Stoll who had to predict the web’s future back in 1995.  The Newsweek’s article ‘Why the web won’t be nirvana‘ has been referenced time and time again as an example of predictions going wrong, and Stoll has recanted some of his beliefs back then, saying the essay was a “howler.”

If anything, it’s a good reminder of how difficult it is to predict the future as well as remind ourselves just how underdeveloped the web was at the time.

2001 – The dotcom bubble burst

The web continued to grow in popularity and when something is popular, businesses soon follow. What happened were between 1995 – 2001, a number of dotcom businesses, as they were called, began to emerge which was quickly followed by large investments.

Unfortunately, these investments were based on speculation and since the majority prioritised growth over profit, it meant that stock prices ballooned until its inevitable crash in 2001. Since few of the dotcom companies made any money, it resulted in a number of them going bust and investors losing millions.

2002 – The birth of Web 2.0

The term web 2.0 is thrown around a lot without context, but what it refers to is the shift in giving the average person the power to shape the web though user-generated content. Originally, putting something up online was limited to just those who had a website, but Web 2.0 heralded the arrival of blogs which allowed the average person to create content.

Originally it was only blogs which allowed you to do this, but the rise of social media sites meant the average person became the biggest contributor to web content.

The concept was so popular that TIME magazine made “you” person of the year, referring to the millions of people who contributed to sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wordpress and Wikipedia among many other sites.

2007 – The move to mobile

Whether your opinion of Apple, you can’t deny the role it played in bringing the web to smartphones. Feature phones already had access to the web, but navigating between sites was slow and awkward at best.

The iPhone changed that, and features such as a large touchscreen display (large at the time), and its focus on multimedia content meant it was a hit. Soon other smartphones began to emerge and different OS’s followed like Android in 2008 and Windows Phone in 2010.

It also introduced the world to apps which became the lifeblood of smartphones everywhere.

imageThe iPhone has been credited with reshaping the smartphone industry and helping Apple become one of the most profitable companies in the world (Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

2013 – Things aren’t so private after all…

If the revelations concerning the NSA taught us anything, it’s that most data on the web that we thought was private could be accessed rather easily by third-parties.

After whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the US’s PRISM system and the amount of data the NSA had amassed over the last few years, it brought the questions of privacy and whether the data we post online is really ours to the forefront.

Such questions have yet to be answered, but it’s safe to say privacy will play a much greater role in the web’s future than it did before.

2014 – Where do we go from here?

If you listen to the major companies, then the focus is on connecting the remaining two-thirds of the world to the web. Facebook wants to connect the world with drones while Google is using balloons to achieve this aim.

Outside of that, how the web evolves is anyone’s guess. The beauty of the web is that despite the advances and improvements it’s made, it still has the potential to go in a number of directions.

Will it foster global relationships and bring people closer and make people more educated, or would major companies and governments improve their control on it? Or will it go in an entirely different direction, one that nobody could have predicted at this time?

Either way, the next 25 years are going to be eventful.

Read: 25 years on from the invention of the web, this infographic shows some of us still aren’t convinced… >

Read: Column: Unlike many of my peers, I was given the amazing opportunity to work at CERN >

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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