A 20-year-old web

Published : 8 August 2011, 05:46 PM
Updated : 8 August 2011, 05:46 PM

As the Arab Spring continues across the Middle East, as I reach out to you, my distant friends, as our lives have become increasingly connected, as the printed word fades and the e-world not only dawns but enjoys its high noon, this week we celebrate an important anniversary.

A mere 20 years ago, On August 6, mankind took one small step which was truly the giant leap. It involved the powering up of a single machine in Europe. On that day, The European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) launched info.cern.ch.

It was the world's first website. It coined the phrase "World Wide Web" in the title of its homepage. It was a simple text document with links. If it was August, I was out in the woods gathering nuts and berries to bring home to my wife and infant child, who had been born in December. I know that when I thought about my child's future, I knew she would be able to write, and garden, and survive off the land. I could have never predicted that my writings would be stored in a "cloud", or that in four years' time, by 1995, most of the money I earned would involve the use of this World Wide Web.

How the world has changed in the last 20 years! Here's a little history of the internet in a nutshell:

By 1992, a group of students in Finland created a web browser capable of downloading images. The software, created for Unix systems was called Erwise, and was the world's first graphics web browser.

In 1995, hotmail offered the first free email service. The same year, I received my first piece of spam.

And then came the search engines. Computer indices actually predated the internet, but in 1994, Virtual Library was created, which, in a way, is the oldest search engine on the internet. That same year, "David and Jerry's guide to the World Wide Web" was launched.

This hierarchical search soon became one of the web's hottest sites… It was renamed in 1995, and still bears the name today: Yahoo. By that time, I worked at an Internet Service Provider in New York City, and my job required me to surf the web for hours each day, looking for hot sites to point our subscribers toward, and in those days, I think the number of hits a website revived was more a matter of macho pride than an indication of business success, since no one knew anything about making money of the World Wide Web… yet.

In 1998, while two PhD candidates from Stamford decided to create web page rankings using a special system of scanning for frequency across websites, Robin Lee, a Chinese student at the State University of New York at Buffalo was coming up with his own. The Stamford-based service was called BackRub. Back Rub became immensely popular, and was renamed Google. Imagine if it hadn't!

Instead of saying "Please google that for me-" You'd be saying "Please give me a backrub," a statement that could be socially dangerous, especially for a computer geek. Robin Li's Buffalo University search engine became the top-ranking censored Chinese search engine, Badu…

Up until 1994, the internet was more of an online magazine, a place to advertise services. However, in 1995, Pierre Omidyar, attempted to sell a broken laser pointer, for 14.83, auctioning it off to the highest bidder. He created a site called AuctionWeb. The programmer and auctioneer later renamed his website "ebay". But aside from a few successful websites, no one really knew how the internet was going to make money.

The easiest way seemed to be by appealing to venture capitalists, promising the moon technologically, and hoping that the capitalists would be too excited to ask questions. This is pretty much what happened, as a flurry of internet businesses started to crop up, created by college students and computer engineers with little experience in business, or in management skills. One exception to this rule was a business that honestly stated in its business plan that it would not become profitable for the first four or five years. Founded in 1995, its assumptions turned out to be incorrect. It did not achieve profitability until 2001. Today, with a net income of 1.52 billion per year, Amazon.com is the world's largest online retailer.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Ward Cunningham developed a collaborative data gathering system that was "fast"- "wiki" in Hawaiian. Thus, wikis were born, and eventually wikipedia. That same year, 1995, Microsoft entered the browser market with Internet Explorer. In 1998, the first online poker game was played. Dor com business was booming. But really, no one seemed to be making money except those who catered to start-up businesses.

By March 2000, someone finally noticed that most of these new companies, while they were innovative weren't the least bit profitable. The industry came crashing down. The dot com bubble burst. The same year, a small non-profit corporation that had existed in San Fransisco as an exchange, a free classified ad paper, went global. Craigslist grew rapidly. The year 2000 also saw the emergence of paypal, which, in 2002 was purchased by ebay.

I remember thinking, 'never before has participating in communities of common interest been easier. Thanks to this internet, I can correspond with anyone. I can read the news of the world, and chat with people halfway across the world without leaving my bedroom.

Did this isolate me? Today, even when I want to get around, I use Google Maps, although MapQuest is really the original online cartographer, up and running by 1996. Do I make less trips out into the world than I would have in 1991? Online shopping was born in 1994, as was online dating (a non-issue for me. By 1994, I had two children and was expecting a third. Maybe it wasn't the internet as much as children that limited my mobility).

By 1998, Project Gutenberg, a book digitising project started in 1971 that actually anticipated the Internet, had taken off, digitising and distributing 2,500 books per year by 2000 and doubling that number the subsequent year. By 2008, Project Gutenberg allowed a reader to access a library of 25,000 books and in the comfort of one's own home. Today that number is closer to 40,000, and includes a collection of thousands of pages of sheet music.

The winning formula to gain traffic on the internet has always been to provide some services for free. A free computer operating system, competing with Mac and Windows, Linux was available by 1996. In the year 2000, Open Source Development Lab (OSDL) was created, and Linux really took off. Microsoft was outraged, calling Linux "a cancer" and "communist" (which may have been true. The founder was French, after all)

In 1997, RealNetworks introduced live streaming video, a free software application.

Another free piece of internet software, Skype (which was recently purchased by Microsoft for 8.5 billion) became the next exciting internet innovation in 2001. Skype allowed for online telephony and videoconferencing. Free internet telephony made outsourcing possible, and transferred customer service from developed countries to developing nations with English fluency and willing to work for lower wages. The Ipod was also released in 2001, and the I-tunes store opened in 2003. Another innovation of 2001 was wi-fi internet.

One of the Internet's most profitable ventures, Netflix (founded in 1997) became a publicly traded company in 2002. Today Netflix streaming video is responsible for almost one quarter of all net traffic demand in the United States.

From 2002-2004, in the wake of terrorist attacks in the US, the bursting of the dot com bubble, and, frankly, a clueless Bush administration, the internet innovation of the 1990's slowed.

With the collapse of the dot coms, the mood became less razzle-dazzle. Many people had internet access, but didn't use it except for basics like email. Throughout the world, people were communicating more easily because of the internet, and email was replacing the telephone as a primary means of communication. In that environment, social networking was born.

Friendster.com was the first social networking site, followed by a very popular myspace in 2003 (both were created by the corporation eUniverse). The well-financed venture exploded, and by 2007, was valued at $12 billion. The following year, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. By 2009, it had overtaken My Space in popularity. I could tell you more, but it'd spoil the movie.

In 2005, in Bangladesh, this online newspaper bdnews24.com was born, although its format changed during a friendly takeover in 2006. That same year, a Bangladeshi programmer working for PayPal in the US filmed himself in front of the elephant cage. Jawed Karim, one of the three founders of youtube, was also the star of its first video. Today, youtyube.com is the third most visited site on the internet.

In 2007, social media began branding an Illinois senator as a potential US presidential candidate. The internet-based strategy out-manoeuvred Hillary Rodham Clinton's approach. The Clinton campaign saw the internet as a television with a small screen, whereas Obama used the internet to establish support networks. His strategy gave him the national status he needed to defeat Clinton in the primaries.

Blackberry and mobile phone access to the internet was initially only popular in Asia. By 2002, most of the citizens of the developed countries in Asia were using cellphones as the primary means of accessing the internet. Soon, this phenomenon spread throughout Asia. It took until 2008 for there to be more internet access via phone than personal computer in the United States. To this day, I have yet to access the internet via cellphone.

But from 2007 on, internet innovation had to take into account that most users, worldwide were accessing the internet via cellphone. This changed the scope and design of web pages, which could account for the rise in popularity of short, text-based internet websites like facebook and twitter.

Data sharing both of the legal and illegal variety have been a key part of the copyright debate in recent years. Utorrent, a service providing sharing of data (like dvd's) became universal, offering free software for linux, Windows, and Mac by 2008.

Wikileaks is another grey area website leaking classified information into the public sector. It began changing the way governments protect information, as the internet has made privacy less and less possible.

In 2009, bitcoin came into being. This is a global, anonymous online currency. Bitcoins now trade at about seven dollars per coin. I imagine that the system is so complicated that it will someday be replaced by some other system, not so well designed or open, but more user-friendly.

I know that web television will continue to expand, websource projects will continue, and now, with the invention of the 3D printer, we will have "China on the desktop". I also foresee checkups and medical history going online.

As I sit here and write this online article, my daughter, who was an eight month old infant when the World Wide Web first came into being, is in the woods, teaching children how to hunt and gather and live off the land. Her students include my own younger children and a grandchild. It's nice to know that while I never anticipated how much the world would change due to the internet, at least there were some things I was able to predict.

These 20 years have been extraordinary. Who would have thought that a Bangladeshi, by inventing youtube, would be partially responsible for the rise of Justin Bieber? (thanks a lot, guys!)

What is increasingly sure is that the next 10 years will restructure the face of world politics as people become more informed and are willing to tolerate less nonsense from their governments. In the long run, that could only be a good thing for both our nations. So, happy 20th birthday, World Wide Web!

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Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called "You Think What You Think And I'll Think What I Know." He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, "Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling", is scheduled to be released by Findhorn Press in May of 2011.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher