Some thoughts on the infancy of the Web, on it’s 25th birthday

The web is 25 years old, and I have been using it since the very beginning. For those of you that haven’t — and those feeling nostalgic — here are some fun facts about the early days of the World Wide Web:

  • Before the web, there was just the Internet. And the Internet consisted of various services, from e-mail (of course) to Gopher to ftp to WAIS to news groups/Usenet, etc. It was all great, but then the World Wide Web sprung into action and the browser quickly became THE tool for using the Internet (save email). I wonder if anyone under 30 has even heard of any of those other services, let along use any of them?
  • In the beginning, most people couldn’t access the Web or even the Internet. Most people’s PCs had Windows, and Windows didn’t come with software to connect to the Internet. I was using OS/2 at the time – Really! – and OS/2 did provide a “TCP/IP stack” that allowed you to connect. You could buy a Stack and install it on your Windows machine, and eventually Microsoft bundled it with Windows. When that happened, Internet access took off.
  • To access the Internet, everyone had a dial up modem, with U.S. Robotics making some of the finest ones at the time. Web pages had to be designed to be very small, because every byte delivered by modem had to count.
  • The mid to late 90s was an exciting time to be on the Internet. The web, access to the Internet via new software, ISPs, and email all hit most people at about the same time. Things changed so quickly, the notion of a “web year” (3 months) came about.
  • In the early days, there were a range of browsers, from Mosaic to Viola to the one from IBM called Web Explorer. Then came Netscape and then Internet Explorer. It was along time before Firefox and Safari came along to challenge IE.
  • The “www.” part was important at first when you were using the Web. You could type “www.ibm.com” or “ftp.ibm.com” or “some other protocol.ibm.com” and your browser and the server would figure out what you wanted. It wasn’t assumed you were going to a web site Likewise, you could type “ibm.com:80” to go the web server. Eventually , the only thing that people wanted was their browser to talk to the web server, and the “www.” and the “:80” became superflous.
  • Server technology was very expensive at first. Netscape’s web server came with nice bells and whistles and cost about $10,000 for some form of that. Then Apache came along with their web server and essentially obliterated the web server software market.
  • Yahoo! was a big thing in the beginning. I actually tried to do a Canadian version of it. FYI: you cannot hand craft your own Yahoo! It’s like an artisanal Google. Needless to say, I abandoned that idea soon and left it to the professionals. I was involved with the early development of IBM’s global presence on the web.
  • Early web pages seem ugly now, but at the time they were amazing. You didn’t have to type in a bunch of commands to access information, like you did with FTP. You could type in one thing and just point and click, and each click brought up new information or played audio files or played video files! All of that was simply amazing.
  • The moment I thought the web was going to be big was when paintings from the Louvre went online. I thought: this isn’t just for technical people: any one can do this.
  • In the early days of the Web, there were two big concerns. One was doing commerce on the web. Companies were cautioned to be very discreet about selling things: otherwise the hard core Internet people would make a big stink and make life difficult for you. The second big concern was that the Internet backbone in the United States would get broken up or underfunded or somehow messed up and that this would inhibit the health of the Internet. This was a really big concern. The Internet has always been in various states of precariousness, and the recent threats to net neutrality are part of an ongoing story.
  • Speaking of net neutrality, there have always been special connections between major sites and major ISPs. In the early days it was from big sites like AOL connecting directly to big ISPs. Now it is Netflix who is making the deals. The more things change… šŸ™‚

Happy birthday, World Wide Web, you great information superhighway! May you be around for 25 more!

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