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Twenty-five years and counting: How the web changed everything

And how it's far from done transforming our world.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Twenty-five years ago everything changed. The Cold War ended; the United States put its first boots on Middle East ground in the Gulf War; and Tim Berners-Lee created the web. Of these, and many other events in 1991, I'd argue the birth of the web was easily the most important of that year.

Mosaic Web Browser

Mosaic was the first popular graphical wen browser.

Why? Because governments rise and fall, war will always be with us, but thanks to the web, the entire world became a single neighborhood.

In 1991, I, and perhaps a million other people, were already internet users.

Our Internet was accessed almost entirely by ASCII-based applications. For communications all we had was e-mail with programs like pine and elm. For downloading and finding files we had hard-to-use shell programs such as ftp and Archie. For finding information instead of Google, the best we had was Gopher, a Yahoo-like guide to internet resources. Then, Tim Berners-Lee invented the web and everything changed.

No one realized a revolution was happening. Only serious researchers and internet engineers had even heard about it. It wasn't until early 1993 that the public learned about the web and I wrote one of the first popular stories about it.

In my first web article, I focused on WAIS. WAIS was Google's first ancestor. There had been many other search engines before it -- such as NASA RECON, Dialog, and OCLC -- but they were for private users, not the public. WAIS was the first to try to make the internet searchable for all.

What I had ended up doing was foreseeing Google, rather than the web itself, as being the most important development. I may have been on to something there! Here's what I had to say about the web.

World-Wide Web (WEB) is still a development project, but it is publicly accessible and it provides Internet information hunters with greater power. WEB brings hypertext to the Internet. What is hypertext, you ask? It's a way to look at documents that, while not unique to computers, makes full use of a computer's ability to interconnect data. In a hypertext document, certain words are links to other documents or files. For instance, in a biography of Grace Hooper, you could jump from a description of her inventing COBOL to a manual on the language, and from a reference in it to Unix to an article by yours truly on our favorite operating system.

WEB takes the hypertext idea and applies it to information available on the Internet. The result is potentially the most powerful automated information-gathering tool in existence.

Alas, for now, WEB remains mostly potential. The WEB server is only available by telneting to info.cern.ch or nxo01.cern.ch. Its full hypertext informational resources are limited at this time, but they are growing. WEB is the informational wave of the future.

Like Gopher and WAIS, WEB boasts several easy-to-use interfaces. Of course, the read-only version of WEB really only has two commands, so it's not hard to make it easy to use. These are: Start a search and follow a link. That's it. WEB takes care of the rest. This leads to a quite different way of looking at information. For example, you can use WEB to wander about WAIS libraries and leap from term to term, regardless of a document's format or location.

Unfortunately, since much of the data that WEB deals with isn't in hypertext format, WEB usually comes across as a slower version of WAIS with a more consistent interface. This is true now, but as more true hypertext documents become available, WEB's uniquely strong searching capacities will stand out more and more.

I was certainly right about its potential. Those hypertext documents are, of course, web pages.

What I didn't see was how the web would change the entire economy. Amazon and its imitators have replaced brick-and-mortar retail.

Say hello to the early days of web browsers

It's not just retail. I'm hard pressed to think of any business -- music, TV, movies, real estate, journalism, etc. etc. -- that hasn't been transformed by the web.

Of course, business is only part of it. I can now video-conference with friends in the UK more easily than I could call a co-worker in New York -- if it would even occur to me today to call when I can instant-message them instead.

In addition, when a terrorist attack happens in Nice, France or the UK votes for Brexit, it feels like local news. As sad as those stories are, it gives me hope. I hope that some day the web will help bind the world together instead of just making remote horrors seem as if they're happening next door.

By itself though the Web wasn't enough to kick-start this revolution. No the other part, which also happened in August of 1991, was the establishment of the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX). CIX made it possible for commercial, e.g. business traffic to travel over what had been the military/research/academic internet. Yes, that's right. There was a time when you couldn't even offer your used IBM PC XT for sale, never mind a million chips. CIX also introduced the concept of network neutrality.

This matters because while the web made it easy for people to create and connect documents together, CIX made it possible for ordinary people and businesses to get on the internet.

In 1991, CIX and the web raised the curtains on the modern internet. Today, the show is still going on and still transforming the world. Today's biggest "hotel" chain? AirBnB. The world's most important taxi service? Uber. Easiest way to find a house to buy? Zillow. None of them would exist without Berners-Lee's web.

Where will we go next? I don't know. I'm not that good of a prophet.

The one thing I do know is that the internet and web aren't done changing our world in radical new ways. Let's find out together, shall we?

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