Looking back at more than 25 years of the World Wide Web


More than 25 years ago, in a research establishment in the Swiss Alps, a British-born computer scientist dreamt up a new way for academics to share information around the globe.

That scientist was Tim Berners-Lee, and he first introduced his idea on March 12, 1989.

Little did he realize that his invention would break out from the confines of academia and give birth to the global internet, the World Wide Web.

More than two decades on, there are over 200 million websites and over one trillion unique URLs. An astounding 3.4 billion people use the web worldwide – that's nearly half of the world's population. In the UK, the figure stands at over 92% of the population. Meanwhile, 88.5% of Americans and 85% of Australians use the internet, too.

With that in mind, we're looking back on how and why the web came into being, taking a look at how the web's key technologies have changed since the early '90s and investigating how it has affected our society and culture.

To illustrate how vividly things have changed, we'll take a snapshot of the web at five stages in its development – at five, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years old (and beyond). To complete our long look at the World Wide Web – technology's millennial – , we once consulted an expert to find out just how different it could look in another five years' time.

So, we'll see just how right those projections were with some crystal-clear hindsight. Plus, we'll offer some (safe) projections of our own for the World Wide Web as it inches toward its 30th birthday.

How it all began

The web might have come into being 20 years ago, but that wasn't the start of the internet – far from it. To find the first faltering steps of the information superhighway we have to turn the clock back almost 40 years to the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, which is widely regarded as the evolutionary starting point of the internet we know today. So to see why the web was so revolutionary, we need to investigate how the internet looked back in the late '70s

Some aspects of ARPANET-inspired technology are still with us. ARPANET was the world's first packet switching network, and some of its technologies – including email, FTP (file transfer protocol) for uploading and downloading files, and Usenet, which served a similar purpose to today's web-based newsgroups – were already in existence.

The biggest differences between these systems and their modern-day counterparts lies in the user interface more than the underlying technology. The older services were accessed using typed commands rather than via the now-ubiquitous graphical user interface.

Growing chaos

A more fundamental difference was in the way that people found information. In those pre-web days, that meant either knowing about information sources via word of mouth, email or newsgroups, or perhaps by accessing online library catalogs using the Telnet protocol for running programs on remote computers.

When the internet was tiny, this haphazard system worked (just about), but by the late '80s it was starting to get out of hand. American initiatives such as Gopher (as in 'go for'), WAIS (Wide Area Information Server), Archie and Veronica all did their bit to simplify internet information management, but, as it turned out, they were all doomed to relative obscurity in the light of events taking place across the Atlantic.

This marked Berners-Lee's, an Oxford-educated computer scientist then working at CERN in Switzerland, arrival on the scene. On that (probably) cold day in March, he proposed his new system for managing online information. Berners-Lee envisaged a system in which hypertext documents could be linked together. By clicking on a 'hot spot' (or link) in one document, the user would be automatically transferred to the document that was referenced in that link. What's more, Berners-Lee suggested that documents could be linked together without any central control or coordination.

The proposal was accepted, and a year later Berners-Lee finished the first ever browser. He named it WorldWideWeb (with no spaces). It ran on a NeXT cube computer, and despite its lack of color and absence of in-line graphics, the fundamentals would be familiar to today's web users.

Later on, the browser was renamed Nexus to differentiate it from the abstract space that became known as the World Wide Web (with spaces).

Opening the gates

However innovative, who knows whether the concept of globally hyperlinked documents would have taken the world by storm if it wasn't for a couple of political and commercial decisions that took place in those early years.

In March 1993, America's National Science Foundation decided that its network backbone would no longer be restricted to academic institutions. Then, just a month later, CERN made its web technology free for anyone to use. The floodgates were opened – and the world would never be quite the same again.

Five years old

Five years in, the web was just starting to come to the attention of the public, although at this stage it was still mostly computer enthusiasts who were getting involved. One product that was instrumental in bringing the web to the man in the street was called Internet in a Box. Launched by Spry in 1994, it was, to quote the promotional literature, "the first shrink-wrapped package to provide a total solution for PC users to get on the internet". Included in the box was the necessary software to allow Windows to communicate with the internet, a subscription with an ISP and a copy of the Mosaic web browser. Other such packages would soon follow.

The Mosaic web browser really epitomized the web of the mid-'90s, and it's also the product that is widely acknowledged to have first popularized the web. Developed in 1993, the software would later evolve into Netscape Navigator, the descendant of which is still with us today in the form of popular browser Mozilla Firefox.

As with most things related to the internet in those pioneering days, Mosaic was written for the Unix operating system, but other versions were soon released for the Macintosh and, more importantly, the PC. It was the first browser to display images inline with text instead of displaying them in a separate window. In many ways, it still resembles the browser of today.

Mosaic browser

EARLY ANCESTOR: Even as early as 1994, Mosaic could display blue hyperlinks and inline graphics

These early times were also the days of massive growth, even though the numbers pale into insignificance compared to today's figures. In mid-1993 there were just 130 websites worldwide, but by the end of 1994, when the web had reached its fifth birthday, this figure had grown to over 12,000. However, only 18 per cent of these websites had magic ".com" URLs – and the commercialization of the web was only just beginning.

10 years old

Now that knowledge of the internet was becoming commonplace, software wars were breaking out. Of particular note was the moment that Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer to compete head-on with Netscape Navigator.

In the next five momentous years, no less than five versions of Internet Explorer and four of Netscape Navigator were released. IE finally came out victorious once Microsoft fully integrated it into Windows, but the real beneficiary of those browser wars was the user – the web browsing experience changed out of all recognition.

Northern light search

OLD NEWS: Familiar names like Google had appeared by 1999, but they were yet to oust established search engines such as Northern Light

No longer did the web comprise only static information: dynamic content had entered the scene with a vengeance. Audio and video multimedia content could now be displayed on web pages.

Far more fundamental was support for a range of technologies including the now familiar JavaScript, ActiveX controls and cascading style sheets. This meant that web pages could feature animation and users could fill in forms online and run applications such as games.

By the web's 10th birthday, search engines had also made their presence felt. Although search apps had been around five years earlier, they were small fry then. By now their commercial potential had been recognized, and several sites were vying for the number one spot. At the time, Northern Light and AltaVista were tied with 150 million pages each, but Google was closing in rapidly.

The browser wars and the search engine wars were the tip of the iceberg. The web was now big business and there was no shortage of young companies eager to get a piece of the greatest publishing revolution since the invention of the printing press.

These were the glory days of the 'dot com' companies, with well-known names such as Amazon, eBay, Expedia, Google and Yahoo all appearing. Not all the dotcoms would be successful, though, and another year down the line the bubble would burst, leaving financial catastrophe in its wake.

15 years old

While previously the web had been all about finding information, things had started to change by the time it reached the wise old age of 15.

Change number one was that more people started to shop online frequently. Web-based retailer Amazon posted its first profitable year with international sales up 33% on the previous year. Meanwhile eBay had over 135 million registered users, up 43% on 2003. Between them, the two companies had sold or bought almost $10 billion worth of merchandise.

In the UK, specialist e-retailers were joined by the traditional outlets such as Argus and Screwfix, who were soon to be up there with Amazon at the top of the league table for online shopping. With low-cost airlines, holiday companies and the major supermarkets also providing an online ordering service, around 33 per cent of Britons were now shopping online. Each spent an average of over £500 per year. Goods worth £3.3 billion were shifted in the 10 week run-up Christmas. Mainstream online shopping had come of age.

Change number two was the way in which social interaction happened online. The likes of MySpace and Facebook were still small fry, but their predecessors were starting to get a foothold. As blogging really took off, web users got into the habit of providing web content rather than just consuming it for the first time.

Instant messaging was also in a period of massive growth. Strictly speaking, IM isn't a web application (because behind the scenes it doesn't use HTTP) but most users don't care about the nuts and bolts, and it's an important stepping-stone to social networking.

Chatrooms were also taking off, and in one way or another vast numbers of people were interacting with each other online without the delay inherent in email exchanges.

20 years old

Twenty years on, all of the technologies and trends we've seen emerge in two decades are still going strong. The mainstay of the web is still hyperlinked pages of information, even though many of those links are now graphical rather than blue text and active content is the rule rather than the exception.

Search engines continue to flourish alongside newer web presences such as online shopping sites. Does this mean the web is now mature and the days of change are long gone? Not a bit of it.

At our last milestone, many of the changes to the web were inspired by commercial and social pressures rather than technology. But in the last five years advances in technology are, once again, making their impact felt.

Five years ago, only seven per cent of the UK's internet users had a broadband connection, far behind much of the rest of the developed world. By 2007, half of all adults in the UK had fast internet access at home and, as of today, 95.1% of all the UK's connections to the internet are via broadband.

Connection speeds have also escalated. Today the average speed a broadband user in the UK can expect is 4.3Mbps. Virgin's cable broadband offers up to 50Mbps. Worldwide, even higher speeds are available – 100Mbps is considered normal in Japan – so it's no surprise that the web of 2009 has taken advantage of all this extra bandwidth.

First and foremost this means more multimedia content. YouTube would be barely usable over a dial-up connection. Today, millions of people have taken heed of the site's invitation to 'Broadcast Yourself', with 15 hours of video being uploaded to the site every minute. In the US alone, over 100 million viewers watch over six billion movies per month.

The BBC iPlayer is another beneficiary of high-speed internet connections. Launched in December 2007, it's still the new kid on the block but already the iPlayer is providing over half a million people a day with the opportunity to watch programs they've missed or view again those they enjoyed.

BBC iplayer

WATCH THIS SPACE: The BBC iPlayer, which attracts millions of visitors, is only viable because of the massive take-up of broadband internet services over the last couple of years

The other big success story is the iTunes Store, the music download site provided by Apple in the wake of the hugely popular iPod. To date, downloads account for less than 10 per cent of music sales, but with CD sales falling, it's clear where the future lies.

But the popularity of broadband doesn't mean that the web is now solely about multimedia. As Google Earth has shown, the public still have an appetite for information. Using a smart plug-in, the user's PC can interact with a database of satellite imagery on Google's computers. As a result, 2.5 million people a month in the UK alone are experiencing what was formerly the sole domain of the military.

Technology has also come to the fore in the case of the mobile internet. No longer is browsing the web only something to be done sitting at a desk. With the combination of Wi-Fi hotspots, web-enabled mobile phones and the new MID (Mobile Internet Device) platform, we can go online anywhere. This ability is also key in changing how we use the web.

With the exception of keeping up to date with the news, a survey at the time showed that social networking is the major reason for accessing the web while out and about. If you're used to being able to text friends anywhere, it doesn't make sense that you can only contact them via social-networking sites while sitting at your desk. The mobile internet has catapulted Facebook and MySpace into the major league.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre example of how the web in its twenties is affecting lives, a British woman divorced her husband because his alter ego in the online community Second Life had an affair with a virtual woman in a virtual world.

25 years and beyond

Judging from the web's population nearly doubling in the past seven years, Web technology shows no signs of running out of steam. It's obvious that the web of 27 years is markedly different from the web of 2009. Back then, we spoke to Rohit Agarwal, then-director of Marketing and Innovation for AOL Europe, to get an idea of how the web could have evolved even further over the next five years.

Agarwal's vision of the future (now present) revolved round three key themes – web access versus web experience, voice-enabled web and the realisation of cloud computing. Turns out that he pretty much nailed it.

"With the world permanently and ubiquitously online, the question will be about the user experience," said Agarwal. "Access to the web and to the information you want will be available anywhere and at any time from a whole myriad of devices."

Bingo. The meteoric rise in the amount of people with access to the World Wide Web is directly correlated with the rise of not only smartphones, but tablets. In fact, mobile is on track to account for 2 billion of the 3.4 billion-and-counting internet users worldwide this year.

"The iPhone may be credited as the device that first made the mobile internet a truly enjoyable user experience through its large touchscreen display, and similar handsets are being produced. But this is only one side of the move away from the desktop as the main point of contact with the web. The other side of the development will see television and the web fully converge, giving a more complete and interactive experience."

Another bullseye! Smart TVs are all but set to take over the market, spurred in development by the major gaming consoles equipping themselves with marquee streaming apps in the late aughts. In fact, Netflix claimed 37% of peak hours internet bandwidth in the US as of November 2015, a number that could very well continue to grow.

"Voice-enabled web will make it possible to control your computer through voice commands," said Agarwal. "Microsoft and Nuance serve as incumbents to this technology, and other companies have the opportunity to develop it.

Well, he's right in that at least everyone is trying? Microsoft, Apple and Google all have their hands in this pie, each with their own virtual assistant – Cortana, Siri and Google Now, respectively.

This is one of those projections that Agarwal may have simply been a bit too bullish one. There's no doubt that this is the future of the World Wide Web, but it may not become a feasible reality for another five years or more.

"Through the realisation of cloud computing we will be able to synchronise our online life and always have access to our personal media assets, no matter where we are. We will be able to edit, create and share movies, documents and personal media within this cloud through online apps that no longer require local software installation."

No doubt about this one. If you haven't been all but forced to buy into cloud storage for your myriad selfies and totally-legit songs by now, trust us, it's coming. Agarwal nailed this one too, but it's gone even further than this: server farms are now powering our online games for us, with hits like Titanfall and Halo 5 making liberal use of Microsoft's Azure cloud system to offload the toughest bits of processing to its servers.

world wide web

TIME FOR THE WEB PART: Devices like the Nest internet-connected thermostat are poised for a takeover

Agarwal stressed that many of these technologies are already with us. "The key", he said, "is that they will continue to converge, becoming an interconnected personal experience and adding value to each part of your everyday life."

Finally, Agarwal aced this one too, if only for being a little vague. But here's the deal: from the devices in our pockets to the smart ones that are replacing the "dumb" ones in our homes, the World Wide Web will continue to pervade the world in two key ways.

One, voice control, voice recognition and web-assisted artificial intelligence are only growing in scope and capability. While we're a ways off from the world depicted in Her, talking to your phone or computer without feeling like a dunce is well within our grasp.

In fact, with the dawn of bots, we're quickly approaching a point in which we'll barely have to speak to our computers – they'll just know what to do based on our routines. (And text messages that simply read "PIZZA".)

Two, the Internet of Things may sound like a joke right now, but so did a phone that could play music and retrieve your email at the same time back in 2007. Give this blanket term for internet-connected appliances another five to 10 years, and you'll have an internet-enabled toaster like the rest of us.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the world wide web we are offering an extra 25% off all subscriptions and single issues on our sister technology magazines! Just click here and, once you've chosen your products, enter the code WWW25 at checkout to claim your discount.