From Hypertext to the World Wide Web
As incredible as it may seem, the web is a relatively recent development in the life of computing. Up until the early 1990's, very few people would foresee the amazing explosion that computing experienced with the development of the web, the online libraries, e-Commerce, the dot-com boom (and plop). Computers used to be isolated, and email was the most common way to communicate with others. We will examine here briefly how all this changed.
Hypertext refers to the familiar action of clicking on a word (or chunk of text) to take you to another page. As a term, it was coined by Ted Nelson in Literary Machines in 1965:
Note the comment on interactive screens. In 1965 most computers did not have a monitor as we know it today. People were communicating with computers through paper-based, typewriter-like devices on which both the human and the computer would write (when they weren't using punched cards). In fact, the mouse had not been invented yet. It was invented a couple years later by Doug Engelbart who also gave a demonstration of one of the first hypertext system, NLS. NLS (for oN-Line System, though it was not what we call today “on-line” — there was no “line” to start with) contained 100,000 papers and cross references.
The idea of hypertext, however, is much older than the term. In his seminal article entitled "As we may think", published in the July, 1945, issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Vanevar Bush, the science advisor to President Roosevelt descibes a system for "Memory Extension". Take a look at the way he describes memex, a deceptively desk-looking piece of furniture:
Memex was never built, but the ideas introduced by Bush were remembered, or re-invented, a couple dozen years later. And in 1978, extending the idea of hypertext, the first hypermedia document was created. The Aspen Movie Map allowed the viewer to visit Aspen, Colorado, by turning any town corner they wanted independently of the sequence of filming. Memex was supposed to be customized and would help the user in 'his library':
Note that Bush is trying to descibe his invention in terms of the technology of the time, microfiche and dry photograhy. And he is probably overly optimistic of this technology, too:
Associative indexing... What is he talking about? Do you recognize the concept of hyperlink behind the term he invents? Further down he introduces the concept of online research using a search engine, and describes it with an example:
Why does he come up with the idea of associative indexing? The inspiration comes from the troubles that people always had with indexing:
The World Wide Web
The late '60s and early '70s saw an amazing amount of innovation in Computer Science. The first hypertext system was implemented in 1967 (at Brown University by Andy van Dam), the mouse was invented the next year (at Stanford by Doug Engelbart) enabling the development of WYSIWYG applications, the windows GUI environment was implemented in 1972 (on XEROX's Alto computer by Alan Kay), the internet was born (around 1972), and protocols of allowing computers to exchange information (the TCP/IP protocol in 1978) were also developed. Even the idea of linking all documents on earth was under way, due to Ted Nelson's XANADU project.
All the components of the web were in place by the late 1970's. The only thing one would have to do is put these pieces together and allow users to create their own documents and link them on the internet. Yet, it would take more than 10 years for the web to be born. Why might that have been the case?
Tim Berners-Lee, programmer at CERN (Centre European pour la Recherche Nucleaire -or- European Laboratory for Particle Physics) was trying to help physicists exchange their papers and was frustrated by the cumbersome process it involved. It was possible for a physicist to post and retrieve papers from a few servers, but it would take a couple of minutes and a few unreadable lines of code to do that. Geeks were happy (even proud) with this process, but the CERN scientists were not.
After an initial attempt at the problem, when he developed the 'Enquire' system, he submitted a proposal to CERN entitled simply Information Management: A Proposal . In this, he describes "a simple scheme to incorporate several different servers of machine-stored information already available at CERN." It has been reported that the proposal's main objectives were:
The first three provisions resulted in the development of the first hypertext protocol, HTTP, which appears on the top of your browser. The first browser, Mosaic, was released in 1990 and the WWW was born.
Note that in Tim Berners-Lee's vision, the system is not controlled by a superior entity, it is extendible, and free. All of these reasons made it quickly acceptable and successful. There are many interesting lessons to be learned by the history of the development of the web. Note that Berners-Lee did not made huge amounts of money out of his contribution, though many made out of his.
For more information on the web, you may want to take a look at the A Little History of the World Wide Web: From 1960s to 1995 that resides are CERN.
The term Web 2.0 was invented in 2004 by O'Reilly media (a technical publishing company) and CMP media (a multi-media company) at a "brainstorming session". Since then, O'Reilly media has organized a series of conferences about Web 2.0 and the term is becoming widely adopted.
In 2005 Tim O'Reilly published a paper which defines Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is not a new version of the web. The term generally refers to using the web as a "platform" and encompasses services that enable communities, collaboration and sharing among users. For instance, O'Reilly cites Google, Napster, Wikipedia, blogging and social networking sites as examples of Web 2.0 features.
Many people have questioned whether the term is actually meaningful because many of the features of Web 2.0 have been present since the origin of the World Wide Web. Web 2.0 is a relatively new concept and its meaning continues to be understood as it grows in use.
Check out this clever video describing Web 2.0.
© Panagiotis Takis Metaxas
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
Date Modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2009