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The Web In Its Mid-Twenties

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Link-Up Digital

Gadget-savvy teens today sometimes dis the web, calling it by its old-fashioned name, the World Wide Web. Other passé ways to refer to the web are WWW and W3. 

But it wasn't until Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist and computer scientist, had the gleam in his eye that became that web that today's connected world became a realistic possibility. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that gleam. 

The Internet pre-existed the web, with the U.S. government building connected computer networks in the 1960s to support its research activities. But it was Berners-Lee who wrote a proposal in 1989 that became the web of linked sites and later the graphical, clickable web of photos, music, video, and everything else we take for granted today. 

It took almost two years for Berners-Lee to post a summary of his "WorldWideWeb" project to the alt.hypertext Usenet discussion group and put online the world's first website, using Steve Jobs' NeXT machines. A version of that site, at, is still up today. 

Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN currently operates the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest subatomic particle accelerator, which sits underground along the border between Switzerland and France. 

The web or something akin to it was predicted by the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in his groundbreaking novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in 1968. Even earlier another science fiction writer, H. G. Wells, predicted a "World Brain" in a collection of essays between 1936 and 1938. 

In 1991 the web's first substantive data, the CERN telephone directory, was put online. The next year its first photo, a picture of CERN's in-house musical band, was uploaded. The web was intended from the start to be nonproprietary, and in 1993 CERN announced that it would be free to anyone, with no fees required for its use, though this wouldn't prevent companies from later charging fees for access to their particular sites or parts of them. 

The web's first rise in popular consciousness came that same year, 1993, with the release of the first popular graphical web browser. Mosaic was developed by a team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The team was led by Marc Andreessen, who went on to found Netscape Communications. 

Mosaic let website authors place text and graphics on the same page and let web users point and click their way from one site to another to another, virtually ad infinitum. Mosaic was free for users, with public funding provided by programs initiated by Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, future U.S. vice president, future presidential candidate, and future Nobel Prize winner for his work on climate change. 

The following year, 1994, Berners-Lee moved from Switzerland, where CERN is still headquartered, to the U.S., where he founded the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military and which had pioneered the Internet in the 1960s. The World Wide Web Consortium's purpose was and still is to create standards and recommendations to improve the quality of the web. 

Private companies began realizing the profit potential of having a web presence beginning in 1996, and the commercialization of the web kicked in between 1996 and 1998. This led to the dot-com boom and bust of 1999 to 2001 when trillions of dollars were made and lost as a result of what Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan at the time accurately termed "irrational exuberance." 

Nonetheless, the web has transformed the business landscape. It did in previous online services, such as CompuServe and Genie, which forced many newspapers and several prominent encyclopedias out of business, and altered the television, music, radio, film, and travel industries, among others. 

Multimedia offerings have been made possible with the popularization since 2000 of high-speed cable, fiber-optic, and satellite access to the Internet. The web has also become even more interactive with the introduction during this time of social networking sites, blogging, wikis, and photo and video sharing sites. 

Berners-Lee today is still the director of the World Wide Web Consortium. Among his honors, in 2004 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Recently, as part of an effort called Web at 25, he proposed a "bill of rights" for the web to help prevent countries from censoring it and companies from thwarting competition. 

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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