Here’s a note to self: If you’re in Silicon Valley, never mistake the web for the Internet. It’s sort of like being in France and asking, ‘So what’s the difference between Champagne and bubbly?’
That’s what Don Nielson taught me. In the 1970s, Nielson was a computer scientist at the SRI, a tech research company, and he was on one of the teams that started the Internet. And when I met him, I said, “You were one of the guys who helped created the web!”
“Absolutely not, I had nothing to do with the web,” he said.
Nielson doesn’t have a problem with the word “web.” He’s got a problem with the fact that I don’t know the difference between said “web” and “the Internet.” He says back in the 1960s, when we relied on the telephone and the telegraph to communicate, the U.S. Military wanted another way to interact, and they wanted to do it through computers. So Nielson’s team basically wrote the protocols — or rules — that got computer networks around the world to talk to each other. And really, simply put, that’s what the Internet is — a global connection of computer networks.
“Arcane as it may be, this was absolutely revolutionary. And the World Wide Web would not have functioned without the Internet,” Nielson said.
Marc Weber is a curator at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. He says back then, computers were huge and mostly owned by universities, governments and large computing companies like IBM. And they saw the value of the Internet as a fast way to communicate and to gather and transfer large amounts of information.
“In the late 80s, the Internet was growing really fast. It’d gone from 200 computers or so back in the beginning of the decade to over half a million,” Weber said.
But as the Internet grew, there was no “easy to use” system that let you find all the information online. Companies were trying to fill the gap by basically creating toll roads. For a price, you could connect to their network and get all the information you needed.
“The easy to use interfaces were in the commercial systems, so like Compuserve, which had its own network, was easy for anybody to use,” Weber said. “Minitel in France — which by that time well over 10 million users — was also easy to use, but that was owned by France telecom.”
Their vision of the Internet was a patchwork of information superhighways owned by companies, said Brad Templeton, a professor at Singularity University. He says the Internet could have evolved that way if not for Sir Tim Berners Lee, who published a paper 25 years ago, proposing a different system for managing information — one that came to be known as the World Wide Web.
“So Tim called it ‘Information Management, a proposal,'” Templeton said.
And it was a manifesto of sorts. Berners-Lee argued that information on the Internet shouldn’t be confined to a structure.
“One of the great realizations: You think want to do it structured, you think you have a vision of the order of how it should all work and be laid out,” Templeton said. “[But] the idea is that you don’t have an official hierarchy. Remember the dewey decimal system? You’d go in and say ‘Let’s look up information on a science, and in science there’ll be anthropology, and so you’ll go down and find things. Instead, it’s just a big sea of documents,” he said.
These “documents” came to be known as “web pages” that could be found quickly, by punching in an address or a URL. Information would be linked to other websites, thereby creating a “web of information.”
It took Berners-Lee a couple of years to actually create the first website and when he did, he made the technology free for anybody to use. Templeton says, it wasn’t until 1994, when the web browser Netscape was introduced, that the web became accessible to the general public. But Berners-Lee’s proposal established the ethos that allowed the web to flourish and become a commercial success.
“Look at Google, and Facebook, and all these other companies that didn’t have any idea how they were going to make money when they began,” Templeton said. “And they were able to become some of the world’s biggest companies because they got that zone and didn’t need to ask anybody’s permission to do it. That’s what gave us all this innovation.”
And Templeton said, it’s that idea that we’re celebrating today.
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