Before the Web: the Internet in 1991

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: This was not the Internet you know today.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I've been using the Internet since the late 1970s. So I already knew it well in 1991, when ZDNet was getting its start on CompuServe and it looked nothing like the Internet you know, love, and use every day.

Many of you know that the Web will turn 20 this year. I certainly do since, back in the day, I was the first person to write about this new thing called the WEB that would change everything about the Internet.

Of course, I had no clue about how much it would change everything. Indeed, I thought at the time that Wide Area Information Server (WAIS), one of the first public Internet search services would be more important than the Web itself. Looking back, I see I was already thinking about how important search would be to the Internet. I may have been more on to something. Today, we talk about "Googling" for everything from the latest news from Libya to our date tonight.

The pre-Web Internet was an almost entirely text-based world. There were ASCII-based end-user programs such as gopher, which let you use a menu to search through organized collections of files. You might think of this as a predecessor to Yahoo!, and you wouldn't be far wrong.

Much more typical though were command line driven programs such as Archie, which we used to try to find particular files. If this makes the pre-Web sound like a place that was only welcoming to techies in those days, you're right, it was.

The early Web was also pretty much text-based. It wasn't pretty at all. The innovation that the Web really brought to the Web wasn't graphics or audio, it was that it made it possible to easily connect files to one another using hyperlinks.

Today, we take it for granted that everything on the Web is connected, ultimately, with everything else. Then, almost nothing was connected to anything else. Each file, each document was an island onto itself. By using hypertext techniques, we could build bridges between those islands. By the mid-90s, the Web really had become the Web of information that we'd recognize today as our 21st century Internet.

It wasn't just the Web though that changed everything though. The Web was the technology that transformed the Internet, but equally important was another change that happened 20-years ago: the coming together of the major Internet Service Providers (ISP)s of the day into the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX).

Largely forgotten today, CIX is what brought the various ISPs together to agree to let traffic run back and forth between them without restricting their traffic. It was the first, and most important, move to net neutrality, which is now endangered by those who have forgotten why network neutrality was important in the first place.

Before CIX, everyone on the Internet was already using the TCP/IP network protocol and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standards based application, but it was a loose organization. For example, in the late 80s I was an e-mail administrator and just getting a message from one part of the Internet to another often required wildly varying addresses. How complicated was it? I think the title of an essential book of the time, !%@:: A Directory of Electronic Mail Addressing & Networks, which looks more like a typo than a title, says it all.

With CIX though, the ISPs agreed to bring down their traffic walls. Afterwards, you could send traffic across the entire Internet without jumping through gateways.

It was more than just that though. Before CIX, acceptable usage policies (AUP)s made it almost impossible to use the Internet for any business purposes. Remember the Internet started as ARPANet, a military and research network. By the early 90s, it had expanded, but it was still not open to most people and commercial traffic was forbidden. With CIX's AUP agreement it became possible for people to subscribe to Internet services, which is what almost of you do today, and, for better or for worse, online shopping, cue Amazon, and advertising.

Thus, it was that the Internet I knew back in 1991 became the Internet we all know in 2011. It's really been an amazingly fast journey and we owe it to the Web and CIX. Now, the question is, "What will it look like in 2031?" By that time, I suspect we'll be 'viewing' the Internet through our own eyes-or contact lens-thanks to implantable computers and network equipment.

We shall see what we shall see.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

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