IT Unit 6: The Rise of the World Wide Web

Listen to the recording as you read the text. Then complete the activities.

By the early 1990's, people were using computers in many different ways. Computers were already installed in most schools, offices, and homes. They were commonly used for writing papers, playing games, financial accounting, and business productivity applications. But very few people used them for communication, research, and shopping the way we do now. A man named Tim Berners-Lee changed all that. In 1990, Lee added an exciting hypertext and multimedia layer to the Internet and called it the World Wide Web. The rest, as they say, is history.

Believe it or not, the Web was not the first attempt at building a worldwide online community. Cutting edge geeks have been using online services such as Compuserve all the way back to the early 1980's. There were thousands of other privately run Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) as well, which served the general interest of curious nerds and researchers from around the world. Perhaps the most ambitious project was the French system Minitel, but it never caught on in the rest of the world and eventually faded into obscurity. Experiences on these BBS was poor by today's standards. There was no graphics or even color. There was no sound except of course the obnoxious beeps and gurgles a modem makes when it it initiates a dial-up connection to a server. Bandwidth was also very slow compared to today's speeds. Typical operating speeds were between 300 and 1200 baud. Today, a typical broadband connection is thousands of times faster than this.

The Web was not built for geeks. It was built for everyone. It was built with very high ideals. No single company, government, or organization controls it. It was new and exciting. New ideas and words appeared almost daily. Obscure technical terms became household words overnight. First it was email. Then it was URL and domain name. Then rather quickly came spam, homepage, hyperlink, bookmark, download, upload, cookie, e-commerce, emoticon, ISP, search engine, and so on. Years later we are still making up new words to describe our online world. Now we "google" for information. We "tweet" what's happening around us to others. The new words never seem to stop!

Just because the web seems so chaotic and unorganized compared to more structured companies and governments, doesn't mean it's total anarchy. In 1994, Tim Berner's Lee started the W3C, a worldwide organization dedicated to setting standards for the Web. This group is probably the most respected authority for what should and should not be Web standards. W3C's mission is to lead the Web to it's full potential.

As a student of English and Technology, you will hear people use the words 'Internet' and 'World Wide Web' almost interchangeably. They are, of course, not the same thing. So what is the difference between the two? Perhaps a simple answer is that the Internet is the biggest network in the world, and the World Wide Web is a collection of software and protocols on that network. I guess a more simple way to put it is, the World Wide Web is an application that runs on The Internet.

The original backbone of the Internet is based on an old military network called ARPANET which was built by ARPA in the late 1960's. ARPANET was built so information could withstand a nuclear war. The idea was not to have a single point of failure. This means if part of the ARPANET was blown up in a nuclear war, the rest of it will still work! What made ARPANET so successful was it's packet-switching technology, invented by Lawrence Roberts. The idea is that "packets" of information have a "from" address and a "to" address. How they get from point "a" to point "b" depends on what roads are open to them. Packet switching is a very elegant thing. Without it, the Internet would simply not work.

People view the World Wide Web through a software application called a web browser or simply a "browser" for short. Some popular examples of web browsers include Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari. Browsers allow people to search, view, and even add and edit data on the World Wide Web.

The Web is not supposed to be a passive experience. Creating new pages for the Web is getting easier all the time. Web editing software is specially designed to work with hypertext languages such as HTML, which is the original specification for the Web. Web editing software normally allows for the WYSIWYG creation of text, images, and hyperlinks between related documents. With web applications such as wikis, MySpace and FaceBook, a typical user can create his or her first online presence in a matter of hours.

In the year 1999, the Internet suffered it's first financial crash. Many companies selling products and services on the Web were not living up to sales expectations. This was known as the Dot Com Bubble. There were many reasons why this happened, but perhaps the two most important reasons were a combination of slow connection speeds and too much optimism. Very few people had fast internet connections and many people thought the Internet was "just a passing fad". But we know now that the Internet is not a fad. So what happened? Web 2.0 happened!

What is Web 2.0? It's very hard to say. It's just a phrase to describe a transition from the pre-existing state of 'Web 1.0', which was slow, static, and unusable, to a new, 'second web', which was faster, more dynamic, and more usable for the average person. How did these things happen? Easy. Broadband modems enabled sites like video-streaming YouTube to become possible. Better design and development practices enabled social media sites like MySpace and then Facebook to attract hundreds of millions of users. Finally, search engine technology improved on sites like Google where people could actually find the information they were looking for.

What will be the future of the Web? Easy. More speed and more power. In the future, digital distribution on the Internet is likely to replace all other forms of media distribution including CDs, DVDs, and even radio and television broadcasts.

I personally feel lucky to be alive in the age of the Web. It is one of the coolest things ever invented. It is unlikely that such another wonderful and major revolutionary invention will occur in our lifetime. But I can still dream about the Next Big Thing. And who knows? Maybe you will invent it.

Now continue to the Activities