The Advance of the World Wide Web

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The Advance of the World Wide Web

It is hard to believe that the graphic browser has been around for less than 20 years and really did not come into common use until 1995 to 1996. In that short time, it has changed how we gather information, shop, pay bills, advertise, and keep in touch with family and friends - in short, just about everything we do.

As with most innovations, the graphic browser did not just fall out of the sky. It was the confluence of years of thought with hardware and software development. Throughout the history of scientific progress, many innovators and science fiction writers have seen things as they should be or would be long before the technology was available to implement their vision. Perhaps the most famous is Leonardo DaVinci's drawings of submarines and flying machines - long before the technology existed to make these visions viable.

The idea that later became the World Wide Web originated as World War II was winding down. Two great discoveries came out of World War II: the atomic bomb and the first working electronic digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), both of which were developed under government funding.

The ENIAC development effort set the standard for major computer systems development in the future - it was late and over budget - but it was a landmark development that paved the way for all future computer development. While the reason for its development was the rapid calculation of gunnery trajectories, those involved realized that computers would have uses other than those related to the military. One of the developers, J. Presper Eckert, suposedly envisioned that 25 computers like this could satisfy all the country's business needs through the end of the 20th century. Althoug he underestimated a tad - the iPhone4 has much more power than the ENIAC and doesn't come close to meeting the needs of an entire business - he was right about one thing: computers were here to stay, and would become a key part of business operations.

An Idea: The World Wide Web

A more prescient view was put forth by Vannevar Bush in a July 1945 article for The Atlantic titled "As We May Think". Bush, former Dean of the MIT School of Engineering and science advisor to President Roosevelt (from which position he oversaw both the development of both the atomic bomb and ENIAC), saw computers as tools that would aid humans in research. While he had the equipment all wrong - what was needed to make the system he envisioned work was actually decades away - his idea of a computer that had access to and could retrieve all possible information that one might need became the basis for what we now know as the World Wide Web and many of its most popular tools, such as Wikipedia and Google. (Read more about the history behind the Web in The History of the Internet.)

Bush also pointed out that we think and want information in an associative manner, which is different from the linear way in which we read (start to finish, top to bottom). When reading an article or discussing a subject, our minds constantly jump. Unlike in a book, Bush envisioned a Web that could take you from information about the World Wide Web, to WWII, FDR or the atomic bomb, and to delve even deeper to learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, Japan or Alan Turing. Which, through the power of linking, is now a common way in which people explore and retrieve information.

Bush's theories were further refined by Theodor Holm "Ted" Nelson, who, in 1964 coined the term hyertext to refer to material that went "deep" rather than "long." So, for instance, if you wanted more information about Alan Turing, as mentioned above, hypertext is what allows you to "click" Turing's named and find out more about him. The term hypertext was eventually expanded to hypermedia as audio, graphic, and video computer files came into being.

On to Xanadu

Nelson had begun work in 1960 on a system that he called Project Xanadu to bring his ideas to fruition. (He documented his efforts and plans in a very interesting and unusual book called "Computer Lib/Dream Machine" (1974). His work continues to this day.

The GUI Emerges

Another key player in this story is Alan Kay. A computer scientist and visionary, Kay is well-known for coining the phrase, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." As it turns out, he had a hand in inventing the future in two ways.

While at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), Kay wrote an article in Byte Magazine in 1978 describing the "Dynabook", his vision of a computer the size of a yellow pad. Students would carry this around and, when information was needed, would obtain it from an invisible net in the sky. It sounds plausible now, but Kay's vision came long before laptops, tablets, or an accessible Internet.

At Xerox PARC, Kay was part of a team with Adele Goldberg, Larry Tessler, and others, that developed the first object-oriented program language, SmallTalk, and then used it to develop the first graphical user interface (GUI). The GUI was used on Xerox's Alto and Star systems but became prominent when it was licensed by Apple Computers and used on Apple's Lisa and Macintosh systems. Apple later licensed the GUI to Microsoft.

The Push for a Network

Parallel to the GUI development was the search by British programmer and consultant Tim Berners-Lee for a system to better manage the great amount of information developed by visiting and resident scientists at the Particle Physical Laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland (abbreviated as CERN). Faced with a multitude of operating systems and word processing programs, Berners-Lee came up with a method of "tagging" information so that it might be found through a common text-based interface. The system, which Berners-Lee called the World Wide Web, was soon opened to users on the Internet who would telnet to to access the gateway to information.

While the Web was very useful to scientists and educators, it required users to understand the arcane interface of the Internet, including the telnet utility, and was not something that appealed to the general public.

From Windows to the Web

Parallel to the development of the Web was Microsoft's progress in its development of the GUI it called Windows. Microsoft's early attempts in this area had been plain awful (due more to the limitations of its MS-DOS operating system and the poor displays available for PC-compatible machines than to poor design of the GUI interface). When Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0 and ported over GUI versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint from the Macintosh, it seemed to have finally gotten it (mostly) right.

There was, however, an aversion to the adoption of GUIs by the "techie" types. They felt that one could do more at the command line and that Windows slowed down machines. As a result, the adoption of this technology was slow at first.

Mosaic Breaks Through, Netscape Navigator Seals the Deal

The slow adoption of both the Web and GUI interfaces changed dramatically when Marc Andreessen, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Eric Bina, a co-worker at the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), develope Mosaic, a graphic Web browser that allowed users to use the World Wide Web through a GUI interface. Once the computing world was exposed to Mosaic, which only ran on systems with a GUI (Macintosh, Unix with an "X-Windows" interface," and MS-DOS systems running Windows 3.1.1), the demand to use GUI systems overwhelmed techie opposition and the large majority of computer users migrated to GUI interfaces.

Shortly after Andreessen graduated, he, Bina, and Jim Clark, ex-CEO of Silicon Graphics, founded Netscape Communications, which created the first truly successful commercial Web browser, Netscape Navigator.

The Early Days of the Web

Bob Metcalfe, an ex-PARCer who developed the Ethernet networking standard, writing in the August 21, 1995, issue of InfoWorld, described the early years of Web development as such:

"In the Web's first generation, Tim Berners-Lee launched the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and HTML standards with prototype Unix-based servers and browsers. A few people noticed that the Web might be better than Gopher.

In the second generation, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed NCSA Mosaic at the University of Illinois. Several million then suddenly noticed that the Web might be better than sex.

In the third generation, Andreessen and Bina left NCSA to found Netscape..."

Netscape's Navigator Browser eventually begat Firefox, which was followed by Microsoft's Inernet Explorer, and Google Chrome. These browsers came to dominate the market. Access to the Web became a major impetus for people to buy smartphones and tablets and, within 20 years, the Web became a major part of many people's lives.

In the words of Billy Pilgrim, "... and so it goes."

John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on  Full Bio
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