World-Wide Web Today

The World-Wide Web. I am willing to bet that it has been a long time since anyone reading this has heard the internet referred to in that way. Just recently, I read an article written by Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Ari Luotonen, Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, and Arthur Secret called The World-Wide Web published in Communications of the ACM, August 1994, No. 8. (unfortunately you can only read it if you buy it, sorry). Why did I list all of their names instead of using et. al? I did it because this paper was written at a time when it took five highly educated people to write a paper describing what we know today as the internet. To be perfectly clear, I am not putting these men down. In fact, we owe it all to Berners-Lee and Cailliau. Those guys literally invented the internet! Sorry Al Gore, we found the guys who really did it! All of the authors of this paper are very, very important men when it comes to constructing the internet as we know it today. Just read through their Wikipedia pages:

Tim Berners-Lee

Robert Cailliau

Ari Luotonen – He doesn’t have his own, but the CERN httpd article points it out pretty well.

Henrik Frystyk Nielsen

Arthur Secret unfortunately does not have a Wikipedia page either, but his W3 link still shows that he was heavily involved in the World Wide Web Consortium. Those are the guys who decide what protocols run the internet.

The main focus of the paper was to describe the various protocols needed to run the internet on your home computer. HTTP, FTP, HTML, URL, NNTP, Gopher, MIME, are all terms that just don’t really mean anything anymore. The paper went in to great detail about these terms. If you really want to know about those things, just follow the links.

To start off with, it is important to understand that technically the world wide web and the internet are two different entities. The good ‘ol WWW is a collection of documents, software, and content that runs over the internet. Realistically speaking, they have merged and are more or less one in the same now. Most people no longer distinguish the two from one another and most really don’t care that they are supposed to be two different things.

Now, what I want to focus on is not so much the content of the paper, but more on what has changed in the 17 years since it was published. The internet is probably one of the fastest developed technologies in all of human history. Once it was made widely available to the public, there was no closing Pandora’s Box.

Much of what we know and love about the internet did not exist when this paper was written. The first web browser, Mosaic, did not come in to existence until 1993. It was the first program with a GUI interface to the web. Instead of having to download the text using one program, the graphics using another, and the files yet another, it could all be done using one clean interface. The development of Mosaic greatly increased the popularity of the web and led to an arms race of sorts.

Netscape (1994), Internet Explorer (1995), Opera,(1996) Firefox (1999 Mozilla M3), Safari (2003), and Chrome (2008) all developed in rapid succession. There have been many others who have tried to breach the market, but those were the big dogs. As you can see, not all of them are still around and some of them have been cast in to obscurity.

What they all do is basically the same thing. They take advantage of, translate, and display content using all of the different protocols I mentioned above. They make the user interface so easy that knowledge of how the protocols work or the language used to make the run is simply not necessary. Anyone can get on and use a web browser without ever having to know more than how to type in http://www.google.com.

Since 1994, many new protocols have come in to existence. Instead of HTML, we now use Java, Javascript, CSS, XML, Flash, and HTML5. All of these combine to produce not just text or simple graphics on a page, but a multimedia experience on just about every page we visit today. Those using the web in 1994 or 2001 for that matter would never have dreamed of sites like YouTube even being possible. If we wanted to watch a video back then, we had to download it first. The closest thing we had to embedded video was the .gif format. Basically we went from this:

To this:

Yeah, that’s a whole episode not just a small snippet made to look like animation.

What’s also important to understand is that in 1994 there was probably less information, bit wise, on the entire web than exists just on YouTube today. Data that Berners-Lee et. al dealt with could easily be delivered over a 14.4kb connection. When the 56kb connection came out, those of us on the web at the time thought there was know way we could realistically take advantage of such outrageously fast speeds. Today we need at least a 1mb connection to be able to check our email!

The point I am trying to make is that I believe that not even the creators of the web themselves could have envisioned what we are doing with it today. Entire social movements are being coordinated on it, whole libraries are available to anyone at anytime, and the entirety of visual entertainment is available instantly. We have gone past simply sharing ideas. We now create and collaborate on ideas. Billion dollar businesses are built on the architecture that they created. We have taken this tool for educational purposes and turned it in to THE tool of the world.

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