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20 years of the web: past present and future

In honour of the 20th anniversary of the world-wide web we look at past, present and future web technologies that have propelled the internet in to every corner of human existence.

In this issue of E&T (vol 5, issue 16), we celebrate 20 years of the internet revolution. 


You can download a full-size copy of our double-page spread (shown above) documenting the world-wide web's 20 years of continued growth.

Five technologies that powered the web's growth

1. Sir Tim Berners-Lee's work at CERN and beyond: Universal Document Identifier (UDI), later known as the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) and Uniform Resource Identifier (URI); the publishing language HyperText Markup Language (HTML); and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and subsequently XHTML and XML.

2. CSS and style sheets, as defined by W3C social networks. Designing elegant web pages and retaining a degree of control over how a web site would be displayed.

3. Javascript, initially developed in 1995 by Brendan Eich, then of Netscape, for use within web pages. The object-oriented scripting language that introduced dynamic behaviours to the web and has given rise to the likes of Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XM), a group of interrelated web development techniques used on the client side to create interactive web applications.

4. Content aggregation and syndication (RSS): easy worldwide dissemination of content, sharing made easy.

5. Distribution of digital media online: introducing the concepts of downloadable, uploadable and streaming media for music, video and images gave consumers reasons to engage and entwine their lives with the Web, whilst concurrently opening up a Pandora's Box for copyright holders.

Five future technologies that will drive the web forward

1. The Semantic web aka Web 3.0: first introduced by Berners-Lee in 2001 as a group of methods and technologies to allow machines to understand the meaning (semantics) of information on the world-wide web. The Resource Description Framework (RDF); data interchange formats (e.g. RDF/XML, N3, Turtle, N-Triples); notations such as the RDF Schema (RDFS) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL) - all are technologies in place for true Semantic web sites to be built, but is it too late?

2. HTML 5: this is highly likely to be the bedrock language on which the future web is built, whatever Adobe - owner of Flash - might say. HTML5 is an open standard, where Flash is proprietary, and with major technology players such as Apple ( and Google ( firmly behind it, showcasing its potential, HTML5 appears destined to shape our online lives in the future.

3. Mashups and APIs: a fresh way of approaching data, using the application programming interface (API) implemented by one software program that enables it to interact with another. In tandem with apps on myriad mobile devices, the possibilities seem endless.

4. Augmented reality, location-aware services. With almost every new mobile device and smartphone now shipping with a GPS inside it, location-based services are becoming increasingly sophisticated, whether it's being directed to landmarks of interest in a foreign city, crowd-sourcing main course recommendations at the restaurants in a quarter-mile radius of your current location or any combination of GPS and local data from multiple sources that programmers can conceive of. 

5.  Mobile web. With powerful new processor designs, customised full-blown operating systems and browsers, today's mobile devices can deliver an always-on, instant-update web experience 24/7. The Internet now fits in your pocket. 

The world-wide web

The first web browser was Mosaic. 

More information on Mosaic is available from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications:

The full history of internet browser development can be explored in Wikipedia, e.g.:

If you actually want to relive the internet like it's 1997, Mosaic is still available to download:

A blast from the past: relive early days online 

It is also possible to revisit web pages from years gone by, courtesy of The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine

Pick a URL, see if the site has been captured at any time over the last 14 years and then enjoy the slightly odd sensation of surfing websites from days of yore, the design of which often seems laughably crude, even though you remember being bedazzled by them all those years ago.

Remember Y2K, the Millennium Bug? Due to early computer programmers' being economical with the date format - preferring a two-digit year rather than four - when the computer code rolled over to 2000, rather than 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, there was genuine fear that computers would fail, planes would fall out of the sky, nuclear power plants would implode, etc. 

Being Y2K-compliant was the watchword for any IT department worth its salt.  Thanks to the Wayback machine, you can relive those heady end-of-the-millennium days: for example, we looked up Microsoft's Y2K Readiness Disclosure and Resource Center (you'd better believe they were taking it seriously).


For fun, we thought we'd also look in on Apple's offerings from 1999. Not an iPad, iPhone or even iPod to be seen, although there was the "Re-birth announcement" of the next-gen translucent iMac in Bondi Blue.


Apple was also enthusiastically promoting the charms of its bright orange iBook G3, "powered by a blazingly fast 300MHz PowerPC G3 processor... with a 56K modem, a 10/100BASE-T Ethernet port, Mac OS 8.6 and all the right software already installed, it’s as Internet-ready as a notebook computer can be."  Quaint, isn't it?

The Museum of the Internet

Yes, there is an official Museum of the Internet, although it only goes up to 1992! Created for the Supercomputing '97 Conference as a forty-foot long by ten-foot high wall, it does a good job of capturing the back-story of the Internet and how everything developed.

Finishing in 1992 and the debut of Mosaic, the timeline ends with the pithy line, "The WWW bursts into the world and the growth of the Internet explodes like a supernova." The rest, as they say, is history.

Who rules the web today?

Currently, there are three big players that are likely to continue to be the primary content delivery platforms: Twitter, Facebook and Google. This represents a fundamental shift from how many people have historically perceived the Internet and the world-wide web.

So is the web dead? This was an argument advanced recently by an article in Wired magazine. The concept is that the Web as it has been known for the last 20 years is finished and that a new generation of apps are "less about the searching and more about the getting". It's a very interesting read and there is an equally valid and readable dissection and rebuttal of the concept at BoingBoing's website.

Whichever article you go to, there are some very pretty graphics to illustrate the argument :-)

No logo?

Finally, did you know that the world-wide web had a logo? Quite when or where this would be used, we don't know, but here it is all the same.


It was designed by Berners-Lee's CERN colleague Robert Cailliau in 1990. Cailliau later co-developed the first web browser for the Apple Mac OS, MacWWW (aka Samba). 

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