What began as an information management project, “the web” is an invention that most of us can’t imagine life without. In this retrospective article, Michael Dargue looks at the history of the web, chronicling the events and inventions of how it has changed our lives in the last 25 years.
By happy coincidence, the history of the web is a close fit for the 25-year timeline of our series of retrospective articles. Yet despite its short history, I found this a tough topic to tackle in a short article: it was hard to think of any facets of the modern world that the web has not touched somehow.
The Early Life of the Web
The web began life as a research project at CERN, the European physics research center. Sir Tim Berners-Lee secured funding for a research project on information management in 1989, and brought the web to life with the first server and browser in December 1990. The following year saw the first web servers outside of CERN and the web’s first steps to becoming “world wide”. Little did anyone realize how far-reaching this invention would become.
I first encountered the web two years later, in 1993. I was fortunate to be working for a firm that already had internet access and I compiled the Mosaic browser on my Unix workstation. Although Mosaic was not the first web browser, it was arguably the most successful in making the web accessible, having a graphical user interface and a (relatively!) simple installation.
Although rudimentary by today’s standards, what was immediately apparent was the way in which the web transformed the organization of online information. In stark contrast to the rigid hierarchies that existed before the web (see for example, Usenet and Gopher), the web enabled an organic, decentralized mesh of information. These factors – and the decision by Berners-Lee to make his invention freely available – provided the foundations for rapid growth.
Growing Up in the 90s
Back in 1993, the web had very little content – only 623 websites according to one study[i]. These included some familiar sites such as Bloomberg, IMDB and Wired, however, the web was already a home for the irreverent and bizarre. Early examples included online comics, the ever-popular Darwin Awards and, in 1994, the Amazing FishCam (a webcam pointed at a fish tank).
By 1997, the number of websites had surpassed 600,000, doubling in size about every 4 months. As the web experienced this tremendous expansion, it was clear that users needed assistance with content discovery. It seems surprising now, but several efforts were made to catalog the growing web. For example, Yahoo! started out this way in 1995 as a hierarchical directory. Search engines also emerged at around the same time, with early examples including AltaVista, Excite and Lycos. It wasn’t until 1998 that Google arrived on the scene.
The late 90s saw all sorts of companies rushing to get online and establish their web presence. For many companies, the web offered a new location for a shop window or brochure. Some, however, saw it as a new channel for commerce.
Going into Business
From the early days of the web, advertising was an important source of online revenue. The first banner ad appeared in 1994, promoting AT&T on the Hotwired website. Other sites followed suit and agencies and ad networks soon stepped in to aggregate this inventory and effectively monetize it. From an industry perspective, the late 90s was a time of rich innovation in online advertising; however, from a user perspective this was a period plagued by blinking banner ads, animated GIFs, pop-up windows and other distractions.
The frenetic online activity was only matched by the appetite of investors ploughing into the new digital sector. Looking back, it’s easy to say that the valuation multiples were clearly unsupportable, but it was a shock to many when the dot com bubble burst. Over the space of two years – from March 2000 to October 2002 – the NASDAQ index lost $5 trillion in value and many firms hit the wall.[ii]
The crash may have rocked investor confidence, but it did nothing to halt consumer appetite for online consumption. Commerce followed advertising, and the web became an important sales channel in its own right. It’s estimated that in 2016, worldwide retail e-commerce sales will hit $1.9 trillion, representing almost 9% of total retail sales.[iii] These figures are a testament to the trust that consumers now place in e-commerce. It took some years for consumers to get comfortable with submitting their bank details online, but once these fears were overcome, the positive factors of convenience, choice, and cost won out.
Giving Everyone a Voice
The next major evolution of the web was the rise of user-generated content: the ability for anyone to become a publisher rather than just a consumer. In the period from 2000 to 2005, a raft of new websites emerged including Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Myspace, Wikipedia, WordPress, and YouTube. These new platforms (loosely termed Web 2.0) made it simple for non-technical users to upload and share content. The fact that we can all now share our photos, music, videos and blogs on a world stage is quite remarkable if you stop to think about it. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, online content is now awash with everything from cat photos to ice-bucket challenges and every meme in between.
Whilst easy to trivialize, these developments led to significantly more engagement in the web as a media channel. And as the web has grown in importance, so traditional media has faced a painful – and at times, sudden – decline. For example, the rise of online news outlets has seen newspaper circulations fall dramatically (in the UK, a decline of 40% since 1997)[iv]. In response, some titles have sought to build an online business (e.g. Financial Times, Wall Street Journal) whereas others have abandoned charging for their print editions and have instead switched to ad-funded model (London’s Evening Standard).
Linear TV has also been hard hit, as viewers have favored on-demand video streamed from the web. Some broadcasters have made a notable success of this but even so, they face new competition from web giants such as Netflix and YouTube.
Besides media, other sectors have witnessed the disruptive power of the web, for example Amazon in the case of retail and Expedia in travel booking. In many cases, new entrants used the speed, reach and economics of the web to undercut or outperform traditional business models. Elsewhere, firms have sought to disintermediate their neighbors in the value chain – brokers, agents and distributors – to reach their customers directly.
Communicating at Web-Scale
The web has also changed the way we communicate. The global reach of the web allows information and ideas to be shared faster and more widely than ever before, without editorial control and – for the most part – free of state censorship. Society and individuals are still adapting to this new world which promises greater transparency, yet at the same time, provides greater scope for hoaxes and misinformation. In many ways, we have found that the web can amplify traditional human communications, both good and bad.
The role of the web in inter-personal communications has been further solidified through the rise of the mobile web in the last decade. Mobile sites and apps for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have blended seamlessly with their desktop counterparts, enabling users to engage in online conversations whilst on the go. In fact, in many countries, mobile usage has now outstripped desktop access as smartphones adoption has become widespread.
Looking back, it’s incredible how far we have come in these 25 years: from a few text-based pages on Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer to a global platform for communication, entertainment and commerce. Looking ahead, the web is so intertwined with business and society that it’s hard to disentangle it from technological progress more generally. I expect to see more mobility, more intelligence and more machines in the next quarter-century. Where do you think the web will take us next? <>
To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector
[i] Gray, Matthew. “Web Growth Summary”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
[ii] Gaither, Chris and Chmielewski, Dawn C. LA Times: “Fears of Dot-Com Crash, Version 2.0” July 2016.
[iii] eMarketer: “Worldwide Retail Ecommerce Sales Will Reach $1.915 Trillion This Year.” August 2016.
[iv] Audit Bureau of Circulations. Wikipedia: “List of newspapers in the United Kingdom by circulation.”
[v] Netcraft, January 2017 Web Server Survey.