Analysis: When was the Web really invented?

12 March 2014 marks 25 years since the birth of the protocol and mark-up language that has made the Internet familiar to anyone who has accessed a computer or smartphone. But is this really the anniversary of the World Wide Web?

Or should the 25th anniversary actually be held in December 2015?

This may sound a tad fatuous given that the WWW Foundation has given its 'official' stamp of approval to today's date. According to CERN, where Web creator Tim Berners-Lee worked and came up with the idea in the late 1980s, 12 March 1989 was the day a memo appeared [] that described what Berners-Lee wanted to do to make it easier for scientists to keep track of work at the institute. Although the word 'web' does appear early on, the original proposal, which his boss described as "vague but exciting", was for a system called Mesh. It was an evolution of ideas that Berners-Lee worked on for his Enquire software almost a decade earlier.

If you read the document that Berners-Lee prepared for his management, the architecture of the system has somewhat more in common with the later XML and XLinks standards that were intended to give the nascent Web a semantic underpinning. Rather than naked links of 'stuff pointing to other stuff', the links between elements in Mesh carried meanings such as 'is a parent of' or 'passes data to'.

Even now, somewhat sadly, this kind of link annotation is a part of Web technology that has barely been touched upon outside some specific implementation such as the 'friend of a friend' or FOAF standard used to describe the relationships between people and which turns up in the Wordpress blogging software, among other places. Facebook, which is far more popular for that purpose, flattens everything into just 'friend' and 'like', even when the 'friends' may be companies, recording artists, or floor-cleaning products.

A more detailed proposal turned up at CERN exactly 19 months afterwards on 12 November 1990 [] in which the name 'WorldWideWeb' first appeared, co-authored by Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, that outlined what would turn into the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP) and the concept of a web browser. By that time, however, the software was clearly underway as the first page on the NeXT workstation that CERN bought for Berners-Lee was up and running just before Christmas 1990.

However, it took until some way into 1991 for the second website to appear. And usage of HTML didn't really take off until CERN made a crucial decision: to put the protocols into the public domain and not charge royalties. Within a matter of months, work started on third-party browsers, such as Mosaic, and usage of the Web spread like wildfire, sweeping protocols such as Gopher out of the way.

So then: in the light of all this backstory, which is the best anniversary date?

Given the less ambitious nature of the second proposal and its more specific requirements, there is a strong and compelling argument for the November 1990 date; however, this is not the first time the technology celebrates dates for events that aren't quite what they seem.

For instance, the integrated circuit that Jack Kilby demonstrated in September 1958 did not resemble very closely the chips that followed. Bob Noyce, who Kilby beat to the patent by starting work earlier, had a proposal that was much closer to the techniques ultimately used for mass production. But we accept the date for Kilby's invention because he outlined a powerful idea. History will determine which date the world ultimately accepts for the anniversary of an idea that has brought people around the globe together.

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