The Web Turns 21

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Saturday, the 13th of March 2011 will be marked the 22nd anniversary of the World Wide Web. In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, then a little-known computer scientist, wrote a proposal entitled “Information Management: A Proposal”. He was then working as a consultant at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research – now called the European Laboratory for Particle Physics), near Geneva. Mike Sendall, his supervisor, described it as “vague, but exciting”, but, later gave it the go ahead, although it took a good year or two to get off the ground. It was this proposal that paved the way for the World Wide Web and the consequent information explosion we are familiar with today.
Indeed, it is difficult to think of life without access to Internet! Be it access to or sharing of data files and documents, e-mail, banking, chat, news, job hunting, product info, shopping on the net, entertainment, contests, rail or air tickets, downloading software or games, matrimonial alliance and so on – the list is growing! The Internet is the transport vehicle for the information stored in files or documents of another computer. It would, however, be a misstatement when one says, “I found the information on the Internet!” In fact, what one means is that the document was found through or using the Internet on one of the computers linked to the Internet. The Internet itself does not contain any information. Rather, it is the World Wide Web (WWW or the Web, as it is popularly known today) that incorporates all of the Internet services mentioned above, and much more. The Web helps retrieve documents, view images, animation and video, listen to sound files, speak and hear voice, and view programmes that run on practically any software in the world provided our computer has the hardware and software to do these things.

How did it all begin? Let us first briefly consider the development of the Internet that paved the way for the Web. It was in 1960s that Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, embarked upon an ambitious project through its agency ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency) to develop a network of computers in which one computer could communicate with another. The nodes of the network were to be high-speed computers which were in real need of good networking for the national research projects and other development programmes. By December 1969, an infant network came into being with just four nodes, called ARPANET. The four computers could transfer data on dedicated high-speed transmission lines. They could even be programmed remotely from other nodes. Scientists and researchers could share one another’s computer facilities over long distance. In 1971, there were 15 nodes in ARPANET, and in 1972 there were 37. TCP or Transmission Control Protocol converted messages into streams of packets at the source, and then reassembled them back into messages at the destination. IP or Internet Protocol handled the addressing, seeing to it that the packets are routed across multiple nodes and even across multiple networks with multiple standards.
ARPANET itself expired in 1989. However, as the 1970s and 1980s advanced, with availability of more powerful computers, it became fairly easy to link the computers to the growing network of networks. Since the software (network protocol) called TCP/ IP was public domain, and the basic technology was decentralized, it was difficult to stop people from barging in, linking up somewhere or the other. This is what came to be known as the “Internet”. The nodes in the growing network of networks were divided up into basic varieties, say, gov, mil, edu, com, org and net. Such abbreviations are a standard feature of the TCP/IP protocols. The use of TCP/IP standards is now global.

What was the situation prior to 1989? The Internet only provided screens full of text, usually only in one font and font size. Surely, it was good for exchanging information, and even for accessing information such as the library catalogues. But, it was visually very boring. Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) added a bit of colour and layout giving it a slightly better look. In the mid-eighties, personal computers were just beginning to adopt Windows interfaces. One of the significant predecessors of the Web was the Xanadu project, which worked on the concept of hypertext, or the machine-readable text that is organized so that related items of information are connected. Clicking on a hyperlink (a word from a hypertext file) would link the user to another location or file. It is interesting to note that it was to click on the hyperlinks that the mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart. The mouse was to later become a very important part of personal computers. The idea of clicking on a word or a picture to take a user somewhere else was a basic foundation of the Web.

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Next came URL (Uniform Resource Locator), allowing one to find one’s way around by naming a site. Yet another feature was the Hypertext Markup Language (html), the language that allowed pages to display different fonts and sizes, pictures, colours and so on. Before HTML, there was no such standard. The GUIs we talked about earlier only belonged to different computers or different computer software. They could not be networked. This was the situation that existed till 1989, when Tim Berners Lee brought this all together and created the World Wide Web (WWW or the Web). It may not be an exaggeration to say that the Web saved the Internet! Not only did it change appearance of the Internet, it made it possible for pictures and sound to be displayed and exchanged.

How did it all happen?

The Web was, in fact, invented to deal with a specific problem. In the late 1980s, CERN was planning one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. We may note that LHC was started, and then shut down again because of a leak in its cooling system, in September 2008. Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal aimed at keeping track of the huge data LHC would generate, sharing it, and linking of electronic documents in laboratories around the world. The first few lines of the proposal read: “Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question – ‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’ This proposal provides an answer to such questions”. The proposal incorporated three technologies – HTML, HTTP and a web browser client software program to receive and interpret data and display results. An important concept of his proposal included the fact that the client software programme’s user interface would be consistent across all types of computer platforms so that users could access information from many types of computers.

Tim Berners-Lee and his colleague at CERN, Robert Cailliau, came up with the first web browser in October 1990, which looked pretty similar to the ones used today. By 1991, browser and web server software was available, and by 1992 a few preliminary sites existed. By the end of 1992, there were about 26 sites. May 1991 was the first time that the information-sharing system using HTML, HTTP, and a client software programme (WWW) was fully operational on the multiplatform computer network at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland. All of the documents coded with HTML elements were stored on one main computer at CERN called a “web server” because it “served-up” batches of cross-linked HTML documents. There was only one Web server located at CERN, but by the end of 1992 there were over 50 Web servers in the world, mainly used by thousands of scientists around the world to swap, view and comment on their research, regardless of the distance or computer system.

The Web, as we know, has found uses far beyond linking of electronic documents about particle physics in laboratories around the world. Cailliau still marvels at developments like wikipedia that allow knowledge to be exchanged openly around the Web. A search engine is very centralized, while the Web is totally decentralized. From personal and social networks, industry to commerce, it has transformed the business of doing science itself. This is why the number of WWW (Internet) users that was only a few thousand in 1992 – mostly scientists exchanging information in different parts of the world – swelled to 36 million from all walks of life in 2000. In 2008 it was 1.6 billion. In India, there are more than 60 million internet users today as compared to about 4 million in 2003.
How has the Web changed the way we do science? We are familiar with the benefits of journals being published online and links to be made from one paper to another. It has also permitted professional scientists to recruit thousands of amateurs to help them in their research. In one such project, called GalaxyZoo, used this unpaid labour to classify 1 million images of galaxies into various types – spiral, elliptical and irregular. This project, intended to help astronomers understand how galaxies evolve, proved to be so successful that a new project now has been launched to classify the brightest quarter of a million of these galaxies in finer detail. There is also an ongoing project to scrutinize and decipher scanned images of handwritten notes about old plant cuttings stored in British museums. This could allow the tracking of changes in the distribution of species in response to, say, climate change. Scientists have thus been utilizing the Web to further their research. There are also novel scientific applications of the web allowing social scientists to do things that would have been impossible previously, say in studying the phenomena like social networking.
What does Tim Berners-Lee think of the future of the Web? The next avatar of the Web would be one in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation. In the near future, these developments will usher in significant new functionality as machines become much better able to process and understand the data that they merely display at present. Another key future development is the web-to-mobile initiative, he says. The Web is one of the many different applications which are run over the internet. However, the achievement of Tim Berners-Lee was to recognize the power and potential of the internet. Indeed, the Web is really now the web of life!

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