December 11, 2019

The World Wide Web


The ideas for the WWW had been developed over a number of years by the likes of Bush and Nelson. Tim Berners-Lee, who was employed at CERN, named the "information space", used as the environment for hyperlinked documents, the World Wide Web. However, intially this name was given to the browser software, written by him, used to display these Web documents. TBL also developed the protocols for the client/server communications. These, together with the browser, were released in 1991.

The rapid growth of the Web was not secured until 1993 with the introduction of the Mosaic browser. It was developed by Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. Their software provided PC users with the means to access the Web and view both text and images via a GUI. In conjunction with Jim Clark, formerly of Silicon Graphics, Andreesen and Bina formed Netscape and launched the Navigator browser in 1994.

Tim Berners-Lee and CERN

Berners-Lee was employed at CERN in 1980 and developed a program named ENQUIRE which he described as a "memory substitute". TBL claimed to have a poor memory and as such required a means of storing useful information which was linked to other documents. He also claims that this was influenced by the Mac's HyperCard.

TBL returned to CERN in the the late 80s to support particle physicists with their storage and retrieval of data. The complex nature of their work, together with the disparate nature of rapidly changing teams of multinational researchers, meant that much of the data being accumulated was creating a huge storage and retrieval problem. He eventually convinced his colleagues that a new system was needed. He indicated that information was not only being lost, but that valuable time was also spent by researchers looking for data. In a dynamic organization such as CERN, the means of information storage would in itself have to reflect that ever changing environment.

The proposed system would require documents to be a linked in some way. Berners-Lee's solution to CERN's predicament was the use of hypertext.

He believed that he special requirements of a hypertext system for CERN should:

  • Allow for remote access across networks
  • Be heterogeneous (i.e. allow access to the same information from different types of computer system)
  • Be non-centralised
  • Allow access to existing data
  • Provide the means for users to add their own private links to and from public information, and to annotate links, as well as nodes, privately
  • Enable "live" links to be made between dynamically changing data

Berners-Lee proposed three specific application areas within CERN for such a system:

  • Development project documentation
  • Document retrieval
  • Personal skills inventories (important in an organisation with a large floating population of differently-skilled experts)

He also said that CERN should "work toward a universal linked information system in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities". This statement goes some way to explaining his far from happy response to Mosaic when it eventually appeared.

Integral to the WWW would be its connection to the Internet. TBL and Robert Cailliau wrote the browser software to view the Web and also the server software to deliver the Web files. Nicola Pellow wrote a "line mode" browser for non GUI machines. During 1991 the software was released and postings made to newsgroups. The whole project had taken a year.

The underlying model for the Web is a client/server system. Files are held on networked servers, which respond to requests from client programs such as a Web browser. Existing systems were already used by the online community. Telnet and FTP established a means for accessing remote servers. However, this community was essentially "UNIX-savvy" and exclusive in nature. Many of these "members" wished for it to remain that way. Berners-Lee hoped this would change. He wanted to provide users with the means to edit and customise documents. Web page editors (Dreamweaver, FrontPage) now offer the means to achieve this, but certainly the advent of a user-friendly, self-customised, browser environment has not been fully realised. Some progress has been made, but generally this can be described as one affecting presentation. Modern Web browsers can, to some degree, modify the appearance of Web pages. For example, if you are using IE6, you can change the text size of this page to suit your viewing preference (View/Text Size etc.). However, without Web editing skills, users cannot readily modify Web documents in the manner suggest by Berners Lee.

WWW went public on the 15th Jan 1991, when the line-mode browser became available as a FTP download. Other UNIX browsers were subsequently released during that year. Within two years the number of Web servers numbered approximately fifty, but it was to be Andreesen and Bina who would develop a browser for the masses.

Andreesen had the initial idea for Mosaic whilst working for NCSA. Although budgetary cuts from government had not affected the supercomputer community, the number of projects were beginning to diminish. Andreesen claimed to be bored and turned his attention to the Net. He realised that the software used to access the Internet lagged behind the more user-friendly programs that were running on the likes of the Mac. With Bina, he determined to produce a browser with a GUI. They wrote the program on UNIX machines in less than three months. Others ported the program to PC and Mac and also wrote the server software. Mosaic was released to instant acclaim in January 1993.

Apart from its typical desktop-app "look and feel", Mosaic extended HTML to incorporate image files. The <IMG> tag was a significant factor in the proliferation of the Web. This did not meet the approval of everybody. Berners-Lee believed that the medium was to be used for serious purposes and this extension would result in the degradation of content. Of course given TBL's original design criteria, in particular his creation of a system for the scientific community, he would be proved correct, but Andreesen and others had opened the way for millions of users to access and contribute to the Web. The infrastructure was already present with data readily accessible via phone lines and millions of desktop computers installed in homes and offices across the USA. Mosaic triggered the Web "explosion".

NCSA was unprepared for these events and yet, with the use of supercomputers somewhat in decline, senior management attempted to wrest control of Andreesen's creation. He quit NCSA at the end of 1993 with the intention of leaving the Mosaic work behind him. It was only through the intervention of Jim Clark, who had left Silicon Graphics, that the Andreesen/Bina team was reformed. With an intellectual property suit filed by NCSA in the pipeline, they realised that a completely new program would be needed. Speed in development would be essential. Clark had the money and the desire to form a successful business. Netscape was formed in April 1994 and Netscape Navigator (NN) 1.0 was released in December of that year. NN was given away free on the Net, with Netscape making its money from sales of business licences for multiple users together with further revenue from its production of server software.

In four months, Netscape's market share went from zero to 75%. The company had revolutionised the distribution of a product with its speed of development, approach to distribution and by maintaining low overheads. Netscape floated on Wall Street in August 1995, ensuring huge profits for its founders.


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