25 Wonderful Webby Years
14 March 2014

by tmartin on March 14, 2014

YOU BLINK FOR A SECOND and looks what happens – 25 years go by!

That’s right, this month marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web and the 20th anniversary of the creation of the W3C, the standards organization that helped create this universal environment … the very environment that has become part of the warp and weave of every day life.

It wasn’t always thus. And it certainly wasn’t predefined.

By the 1980s, digital information was multiplying at astounding speed. Managing it became a challenge and a goal for organizations everywhere. Tim Berners-Lee had some ideas for an information management system and his bosses at CERN gave him the go-ahead to develop it further. (original paper: http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html)

The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, sort of. You see, it might have been a different history, had other events not also happened. Key among those? CERN’s willingness to put its commitment to public domain to the test by releasing Berners-Lee’s work to the world.

The conceptual and technical outline for our nascent WWW grew into a robust and extendable structure and set of standards for grappling with information — but other solutions were also being developed, including the popular Gopher, from the University of Minnesota.

Early in 1993, the University of Minnesota made a business decision: It would start charging for Gopher servers. On April 30, 1993, CERN stood by its commitment to open information: It put its work into the public domain. Those two decisions would define history.

In 1994, Gopher grew by nearly 1000 percent. In 1994 the Web grew by 34,000 percent. Compare and contrast. (classic 2008 column celebrating this at: http://www.capeeyes.com/2014/03/cern-public-domain/)

In 1995, I co-founded one of the early web companies. ProjectCool (yeah, goofy name but everyone smiled and remembered it!), which identified innovative examples of the web (anyone remember Daily Sightings, successor to Cool Site of the Day?), used online techniques to teach people how to create the web themselves, built a strong community around web design and development, and created a before-its-time marketplace for “applets.”

Looking back this week, as I edit columns from 1996-99 into e-book form, I kept flashing back how chaotic – yet exciting – it was, when it wasn’t clear where this would all lead.

The basic web structure grew at an astronomical rate. I credit that to a combination of the right underpinnings combined with the power of the open community to spread and extend it – the strength we create by collaborating never ceases to amaze. Yet different companies began to branch in different paths, creating HTML tags and functionality that would only work on their browsers or in their environments. Remember, at this time, web browsers were a shrink-wrapped product that you bought from your local computer store!

They were all guilty! Netscape, Microsoft, AOL … Sometimes the innovations were really good; I remember how exciting Microsoft’s DHTML promised to be. But the point of the web – indeed the strength of the web! – lay in its interoperability and a set of standards shared by all.

In 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium, aka WC3 (http://www.w3.org) formed to coordinate and connect the people and organizations developing core Web technology, creating a forum for exchanging ideas and agreeing on standards. A year later it moved from CERN to Cambridge, where it continues to reside at MIT.

The development of this standards body – with members from many countries, organizations, and perspectives – marked another key historical element, without which the web would likely not exist as we know it today.

Not everyone liked or agreed with W3C standards – or with the idea that standards should exist at all. By 1998, the browser battle – and the acrimoniousness between Netscape and Microsoft – had grow so heated, one had to run multiple browsers to use web information and developers had to create multiple versions of everything. It was crazy making!

Project Cool’s servers hosted a development community response to this mess – the Web Standards Project. The “wasp” delighted in stinging vendors for out-of-standards releases. Various community members took on the voice of the wasp and flew jabbing little flights around the issue, actively supporting W3C standards and reminding the community about the web’s vision: open, accessible, universal.

By the time the decade ended, the web had grown into mainstream acceptance. My ah-ha moment came in 1999, when I picked up a pack of Pampers and saw URL leap out at me, emblazoned across the package front. In one short decade, the web evolved from a CERN proposal to a normal part of mass marketing disposable diapers.

It took a smart idea, a commitment to public domain, a suite of technologies, and a community to create the platform. But it took a few other shifts, as well, to create the ubiquitous web.

First, came the rise of always-on connectivity, which turned browsing from a designated task to an integrated activity. In 1995, most people connected via dial-up. This involved a multi-step process of dialing, logging in, and launching, all while seated in front of a computer. You really had to set aside time to do it.

And it was slow! We used to recommend that designers look carefully at their use of graphics and take every trick to compress them; the rule of thumb said that 1k of graphic size meant one second of download time. So, a page with five 20k images meant the user would sit there for about a minute and a half, waiting for the page to paint, in a slow line-by-line process. Did the images add enough value to make them worth the wait?

By 2000, increasing numbers of people used an always-on service, like DSL. This turned “going online” from a task into something you could just turn to naturally. And those graphics? Well, sometimes you still had to wait, but it was significantly less painful.

The second trend — which accelerated in the first decade of the new millennium – came in the form of mobile devices, freeing us from the tyranny of a fixed device. Even more critically, the form factor of the “smart phone,” and more recently the tablet, turned out to be so much less intimidating than a computer that legions of people suddenly started accessing the web through these new devices. Just click and you’re looking at what you need, digitally.

Coupled together, all of these elements changed our world.

Now, as we pause at the inflection point of a quarter century anniversary, one can’t help but ask: Where will we go in the next 25 years, what happens as the young adult matures?

Tim Berners-Lee is spot on in his 25th anniversary message (which you can see in full at http://www.webat25.org) as he writes:

    “Remember though that the Web was built by all of us, and so we all can, and should, play a role in defining its future.”

As money, power, and control jockey for the dollars and minds at stake in this universal medium, once again the core strengths of the web come under attack. Remember: universal, accessible, open?

The web – and its associated ecosystem – triggered innovation, generated fortunes, sparked creativity, and connected people in new and wonderful ways. It changed us – mostly for the better.

To keep moving forward, to keep this medium true to that original vision, requires vigilance, awareness, and involvement. No one should “own” the web, nor the channels to connect to it. As a whole, it truly is a global and public asset.

Berners-Lee also used the anniversary to announce the Web We Want initiative (https://webwewant.org), an effort to engage the world in keeping the web moving forward. In the anniversary release, he also said:

    “I also hope this anniversary will spark a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the Web successful, and to unlock the Web’s untapped potential. I believe we can build a Web that truly is for everyone: one that is accessible to all, from any device, and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans.”

Then, he took one more step in media interviews, calling for action:

    “We need a global constitution—a Bill of Rights. Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities, and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.”

I, for one, have had a great 25 years on the web, and I’m looking forward to standing alongside Berners-Lee and rest of the web community to work for another 25 great years.

Happy Birthday, WWW!

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