Talkin’ about my generation

Fifteen years ago the World Wide Web started to live up to its name when its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, posted a message to the alt.hypertext discussion group about his work on ‘The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project’,  which aimed ‘to allow links to be made to any  information anywhere’.
Berners-Lee had been working on hypertext-based information services at the CERN physics lab for many years, and had written the first web server and browser late in 1990, but on August 6th 1991 he started to tell people outside CERN about it.
He pointed them to the server at, where he had posted some information about the project, and within a few weeks others had downloaded the server code and were running their own sites.
And so the web was woven.
Even if August 6th is a rather contrived anniversary it is worth commemorating, since there are many projects which sit in the labs and never manage to change the world.
And if one year of real time is equivalent to seven internet years, then we can even count it as a centenary of sorts.
The name has changed in the intervening years, having added some spaces and lost its capitalisation on news sites like this one, and the web has yet to achieve its design goal of linking to ‘any information anywhere’, since there are still millions of books and the contents of most of the world’s filing systems awaiting digitisation.
But the sheer scale and variety of information sources open to any internet user with a web browser to hand remains astonishing, especially to those of my generation who grew up offline and have seen the world change so much.
Every day we see evidence of the impact that the Web has had on the assumptions we make about how information is made available and what forms of access are to be preferred.
For example, the online edition of the Domesday Book has just gone live, providing us all with the sort of access to this supremely important historical document that was previously reserved for scholars.
The impact on businesses is in many ways even more dramatic.
Obviously companies like Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay would not exist without the web, but that is only part of it.  AOL has just announced that it is abandoning its subscription model and will no longer charge people for email, chat and the other services it provides.
Back in 1990 AOL was just getting off the ground, offering an alternative to the internet for those who wanted email and access to online information.  The commercialisation of the net started around the same time, but without the web it would not have proceeded nearly so rapidly.
In 1993 I was working for one of the first UK internet service providers, PIPEX, and the web was the one application that convinced sceptical businesses that the network was interesting and important.
Copying files and sending emails were boring, but looking at images of manuscripts from the Vatican Library on the US Library of Congress website was quite simply astonishing, a glimpse into the future which changed every one of us as we began to realise the sheer power of the web.
Thanks to its success AOL and other online services were forced to embrace the internet instead of running their own private networks, and now they are giving up the last remnants of their old business model and seeking to compete instead with Google and Yahoo!
Yet it is always worth remembering that the web’s success was far from guaranteed. Just as Tim Berners-Lee was developing the web protocol, http, and creating html for document markup, a related project at the University of Minnesota was doing something very similar.
At a time when most online resources were software archives, and simple tools for searching them by name were the best that we had available, the Gopher system created by Mark McCahill seemed like the ideal solution.
It let anyone with a collection of online documents or information services provide an easy to navigate menu which allowed users to find things easily. Gopher servers could even link to each other, so that users could be redirected to other sites when the file they wanted wasn’t stored locally.
When compared with the web, which required a new markup language and document editing tools to create pages which for the most part simply pointed to the same resources as gopher, it was a lot easier and offered more elegant solution to the problems of organising the rapidly growing collection of online information.
But in 1993 the University of Minnesota started charging licensing fees for gopher servers, and many users decided that the web, which was and remains completely free to anyone, was a better option.
It remains the better option, even though there is a growing realisation that today’s web is not able to deliver tomorrow’s network services, as we can see from the thrashing around the idea of ‘Web 2.0’ and the constant stream of innovations coming from companies like Flickr and Google and Microsoft.
Everyone is trying very hard to find a way to turn the web from an online document delivery system with built-in linking into a true distributed information service, but it’s a hard task because there are so many websites and so many web users out there, all of whom have to be taken into account.
Technologies like XML, the ‘extensible markup language’, provide the most promising path away from the old model web to something more flexible and powerful that can support the wide range of applications and services we want online.
These tools are being developed by people who grew up with the web, who have never really known a time when they couldn’t plug into the network and get immediate access to information.
We should look to the programmers of Generation XML for the ideas that will enable the web to evolve and adapt, and ensure that we still remember Tim Berners-Lee when the real centenary rolls around in 2091.

Bill’s Links
Tim Berners-Lee post:
AOL changes:
Library of Congress Vatican exhibit:

One Reply to “Talkin’ about my generation”

  1. Fantastic insight into the history of the web – I was just 10 in 1991 and got online just four years later so really don’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had access to the web.

    I think tagging is probably the most important part of the next gen web and will become more important when major news sites etc… start tagging – like BBC News.

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