Sunday, 16 March 2014

Happy birthday WWW

The World Wide Web celebrated 25 years on 12 March – although that’s really 25 years since conception rather than since birth. It was on the 12 March 1989 that Sir Tim Berners-Lee first put forward his proposal for what became the World-Wide Web.

The 34-year-old software engineer at CERN physics lab in in Geneva wrote a paper called, “Information Management: A Proposal”. The driving force was the need to not only communicate with colleagues, but also keep in contact with the many scientists who had worked at CERN and were now working elsewhere.

It soon became clear that the idea could be extended beyond CERN and in 1990, working with Robert Cailliau, proposed to use hypertext. The first Web site was created that year. Their thinking at the time was that there would be a web (the WorldWideWeb) of hypertext documents, and people could view them using a browser.

Steve Jobs is strangely linked to this story, and that’s because the first server was a NeXT Computer. These workstations were built by Jobs and his team, which included other ex-Macintosh staff. There was actually a note on the computer telling people not to turn it off. By late 1991, people outside CERN could access the Web as a service available on the Internet. By 1992, there was a server outside of Europe. It was set up in Palo Alto at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

What Berners-Lee did that was special was to combine hypertext and the Internet. He also developed three technologies that we take for granted nowadays. They are: Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP); Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML); and unique Web addresses – URLs (Uniform Resource Locators).

In 1993 the Web browser called Mosaic was released. This had a graphical user interface and made browsing the Web easy and quick. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded in 1994. The rest, as they say, is history.

Using the 25th birthday as a springboard, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has called for a bill of rights to protect freedom of speech on the Internet and users’ rights following leaks about government surveillance of online activity. Berners-Lee has said that there is a need for a charter like the Magna Carta to help guarantee fundamental principles.

Edward Snowden’s leaking of so many documents revealing (or confirming) that governments all over the world are monitoring Internet activity (as well phones) has brought Web privacy to the attention of the public. It seems that the NSA has been collecting personal data about Google, Facebook, and Skype users.

And now we can use the Web on our tablets and smartphones. We can buy just about anything from Amazon. We can look-up everything on Google, find out the details on Wikipedia, keep up with our friends on Facebook, watch videos on YouTube, shop, bank, and choose the best deals for insurance. We can send e-mails, and tweet about what we’re doing and who we’re with. We can also apply for a job, listen to music, read a book, and browse photos. In fact, we can do just about anything it’s possible to do.

It’s true that there is a dark side to the Web. People can find out a lot of information about you from a quick online search, and organizations, many of which are part of the government, can find out even more about your browsing habits etc. But on the whole, for most people, getting online is a natural part of the day – and it’s a very enjoyable part of their day. So well done TimBL, great idea. And happy birthday to the World Wide Web.

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