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The Once and Future World Wide Web

Do you know who Tim Berners-Lee is?  You should (I had forgotten)

20 years ago this month, on March 13th 1989, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was working at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). He gave a proposal (“Information Management: A Proposal”) to his boss, Mike Sendall, who described the idea as “vague but exciting”.

This vaguely exciting idea described the creation nodes of computers containing hypertext pages that you could view with browsers on a network.

Of course this was the birth of a little something called the World Wide Web.

Sir Time Berners-Lee back in the day

---Sir Tim Berners-Lee back in the day---

Shouldn’t this formal proposal be considered the conception of the web?  I would think the birth happened a couple of years later when it debuted on the internet ready to go.  Anywho…

Surprisingly, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is partly responsible for birthing the web. Scientists at CERN were already planning for this collider back then and many meetings would end with the question:

‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’

This is what prompted Berners-Lee to write the proposal. In it he wrote that this paper…

“discusses the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.”

He presciently realized that this proposed tool for CERN would soon be needed by the world at large:

“CERN is a model in miniature of the rest of world in a few years time. CERN meets now some problems which the rest of the world will have to face soon”

He didn’t invent hypertext though. This is a document that contains hyperlinks to other information that could be immediately followed. This concept had been around since the 1960s and was even being implemented on small scales in various applications. Of course, all these previous implementations were completely overshadowed by the web and its incredible proliferation.

Berners-Lee may not have thought up hypertext but he did create fundamental aspects of the web that survive to this day:

HTTP: Those four letters that precede every website address. It stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol and is the primary protocol for websites.

URL or URI: Uniform Resource Locator (Indicator). This is the full address that every website needs like www.theness.com

HTML: This is the Hypertext Markup Language that billions of webpages to this day still use.

The internet itself was around for more than 15 years before the Web arrived. At that time, the public saw it (if they considered it at all) as merely corporate email or the domain of nerds. Those who did use the internet were likely related to our defense department or pursuing academic goals. Communication was purely text-based but there was lots of information and resources available back then if you could only find it.

The problem was it wasn’t browsable. You had to seriously want to get to information and know exactly what you were looking for. To get to information you had to know protocols like ftp and telnet. If you had the gall not to know the exact address you wanted you needed to use tools like gophers, archies, and veronicas to find the site.

I remember trying to get online at this time. I had read a lot about the internet and tried to get on at a local college and with little guidance I failed utterly.

The web changed all that by making it simple to find information. The telnet and ftp functions became invisible to users requiring little more than mouse clicks.

I love reviews and predictions about game-changing technology that are so far off that it should be criminal.

In late 1994, Time magazine explained why the Internet would never go mainstream:
“It was not designed for doing commerce, and it does not gracefully accommodate new arrivals.”

Newsweek described the situation in 3 words in a February 1995 headline: “THE INTERNET? BAH!”

Of course, hindsight is 20-10 and no one in the early 90’s predicted the full extent of the Web’s impact on communication, publishing, shopping, business practices, and don’t forget porn. I think even today we’d be surprised if we could see the web in 20 or 30 years.

So what is the future of the web?

One change that’s slowly happening now is the transition from IPv4 to IPv6. This is the Internet Layer protocol that manages how data packets are handled on the internet. Among many other improvements, this will primarily allow for an vastly increased number of potential addresses. This could come in handy if IPv4 runs out of addresses in a few years as some predict.  “Vastly increased number” is actually an understatement. V6 could offer a staggering 2 to the 95 power addresses for every person on the planet.

I think getting the web on all cell phones is another near-term change that’s inevitable.Berners-Lee has said:

“Getting the web onto phones is very important, as there are many more browsers on phones than laptops, and in developing societies it’s really exciting as that’s the only way people use the web”

There maybe more than a billion people online now and that’s cool but that means there are many billions that aren’t. Ubiquitous web-phones could vastly increase the already sizable penetration of the web.

Berners-Lee himself thinks the future of the web is all semantic.
He’s been pushing for the semantic web for years now and it does seem promising. The idea here is that websites would be coded in such a way that programs could be used to extract meaning from them instead of people doing it. This would in essence make the web machine-readable removing much of the mind-numbing work people do now to find information, share it, or combine it.

Like the early days of the web, this could morph into something far beyond our current ability to prognosticate.

What will the web be like for our kids or grandkids?  I imagine the web embedded in everything man made. Everything could have a web address. The web would likely be embedded in people as well. Our connection to the web will be no farther away than spoken words or even gestures.  Never mind sitting down and googling something. Just ponder a question during a conversation and helpful information will appear on your digital contact lens.

I think I’ll call this googleplexing.

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