WHAT IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB?

WHAT IS THE INTERNET?


NOTE: This essay was originally written in late 1996, and by current standards is a little dated. However, its historical content remains correct, and it is retained here both as a basic lesson in early web history and as a glance back at how things were just as the web was on the cusp of becoming an integral part of daily life for society at large.

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You've heard of them by now: the Internet and the World Wide Web. They've been vilified and glorified and mythologized to the point where their lingo is part of everyday English... but what are they?

Chances are, you'll get a different answer from every person you ask — even if you restrict your questioning to those people who work in, on, and around them every day. The following information is the Spider's Loom attempt at clearing your view of "the 'net" and "the web."

So what is this "World Wide Web" thing that everyone is talking about? In simple terms, the World Wide Web (or "WWW" or just "web") is a graphical interface to the resource- and information-rich confusion that is the Internet. Just as the icons and windows you use to interface with your Macintosh* or Microsoft Windows* computer let you accomplish your work (or play!) without having to handle all the details of the CPU's data processing, the icons and windows of a web browser let you "mine" the Internet for its rich variety of information and entertainment without having to learn the complex lingo of network protocols and operating systems.

And this Internet thing... what is it? A short definition would say that it's a global network formed by the interconnection of national/regional networks, each of which is in turn made up of smaller regional networks. While the term "information superhighway" has been used ad nauseam, it's still a good metaphor: the Internet is the "major highway" that a lot of smaller roads branch off from, with still-smaller residential roads branching off from them... except that it's data that travels on these "roads" instead of people.

Of course, none of this sprang into being overnight... let's take a look at a little modern history...


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Before the Dawn of the Network Era

Although scientists in several other countries (most notably England) were involved in research of cybernetics and electronics, the United States became the first industrialized nation to actively build and make (relatively) wide use of electronic devices for the storage & processing of data: computers. Thanks to a great deal of government and military support (both money and manpower) and to the efforts made during World War II, the U.S. enjoys a comfortable lead over the rest of the world in the technology arena.

Then, in 1956, the Soviet Union put the world's first man-made object (Sputnik) into orbit. Part of the U.S. Government's response was to establish the Department of Defense (DoD) Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in order to re-establish the U.S. lead in military technology.


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The Early Years

From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the danger of having all military communications — then dependent on a relatively small number of key sites — knocked out in the event of a nuclear war between the US and USSR was of real concern. A number of researchers (most notably those at the RAND Corporation "think tank") developed and presented ideas on minimizing this danger. As early as 1962, RAND produced a paper entitled On Distributed Communications Networks which put forth the idea of a "packet-switching network" which had no single point of failure; if one link was knocked out, traffic was simply sent to the desired destination over a different route. A fleshed-out version of the plan was presented at the 1967 Association for Computing Machinery's Symposium on Operating Principles, and a formal presentation was finally made to ARPA in the spring of 1968.

The next year, DoD commissioned ARPAnet as a nationwide test bed of the packet-switching network concept. The first "node" (communications locus) of this new technology was established at UCLA, quickly followed by nodes at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), UCSB, and the University of Utah. Later in 1969, Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc. (BBN) developed the Information Message Processor (IMP) that became standard equipment at each ARPAnet node and joined in.


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The Second Decade

By mid-1971, ARPAnet had grown from the original five nodes (and several more "hosts," or computers that were connected to the network but upon which the network did not depend for operations) to a grand total of 15 nodes (and 23 hosts) by adding nodes at CMU, CWRU, Harvard, Lincoln Lab, MIT, RAND, SDC, Stanford, UIUC, and NASA's Ames Research Center. By the next year, data transfers across the ARPAnet between as many as 40 computers were being demonstrated, the InterNetworking Working Group was created to establish standard communications protocols, and electronic mail was invented. A year later (1973), nodes in England and Norway became ARPAnet's first international links.

The first major commercial application of ARPAnet technology came in 1974 when BBN established Telenet, and large-scale global internetworking moved out of the military realm. The whole idea of wide-area networking caught on so well at the ARPAnet, Telenet, and other sites, that the semi-joking "Jargon Filequot; was released in 1975, giving plain English translations for the growing lingo used by network engineers and aficionados.

ARPAnet and its siblings & offspring continued to grow quietly throughout the 1970s, with new protocols and networks being invented and installed almost every year. Arguably the two most famous, USENET and BITNET marked the change of the decade.

Other notable networking events in 1981 included the establishment of CSNET (Computer Science NETwork) in the U.S. specifically to provide networking services to university scientists with no access to ARPANET, and the deployment of Minitel (Teletel) across France by French Telecom.


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The Beginning of Life As We Know It

The beginning of the 1980s marked a major explosion in wide-area networking, with new advances and networks coming in rapid succession:

Just as at the end of the previous decade, things changed seriously as the Eighties passed into the Nineties. The first sign that things were no longer the same came in 1988, when a graduate student at UC-Berkeley (accidentally, he claimed) let loose a self-replicating, self-mutating program that used a security "hole" in the e-mail software used by the Unix operating system to jump across the Internet from host to host to host, turning each machine into a "factory" that spewed even more copies of the program out onto the network. In just under 24 hours, the Morris Internet Worm caused all Internet communications to grind to a halt, either through making individual CPUs too busy copying the worm code to communicate with each other or through the panicked actions of system administrators "pulling the plug" to keep the worm off their computers.

The rest of 1988 was relatively quiet, as system & network administrators licked their wounds and began to finally pay serious attention to the issue of data security on a global network. The Morris worm did no actual damage to the systems it infected — but now there was a thought in the back of everyone's mind, "what if that program included a routine to erase every hard drive it encountered?"

Things picked up again in 1989. The total number of Internet hosts now passed the 100,000 mark, and the NSFnet backbone in the U.S. was upgraded to carry more traffic, from a speed of 56,000 bytes per second to 1,544,000 bytes per second — and pundits began to seriously wonder if it would be enough. European service providers banded together into the RIPE organization to coordinate operation of a pan-European network, and the first e-mail gateway between the Internet and a commercial network service (Compuserve) was installed.


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Ending the Century with a Bang

The beginning of the century's last decade was marked with a major milestone in network history: in 1990, ARPAnet ceased to exist. The old warhorse had been pushed harder than ever envisioned, by more people than ever envisioned, for far longer than ever envisioned, and had far surpassed its original intent of proving the viability of packet-switched wide area networks. With MILnet folded into the Defense Data Network, CSNET and BITNET essentially "swallowed whole" by the Internet, and the NSFnet backbone carrying all of the old ARPAnet's traffic, the Internet took on the same basic shape we recognize today.

As 1990 drew to a close, MCI added an Internet e-mail gateway to their repertoire (MCI Mail), and the Electronic Freedom Foundation was founded. Then, in 1991, the last major hurdle to true "wide open" networking was passed as the NSF began backing out of the business of managing the U.S. backbone network, allowing for the commercialization of the Internet. The Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX) Association, Inc. was formed by network service providers General Atomics (CERFnet), Performance Systems International, Inc. (PSInet), and UUNET Technologies, Inc. (AlterNet), to take advantage of this. The U.S. Congress ratified the High Performance Computing Act, calling for the establishment of the National Research and Education Network (NREN), which almost immediately picked up the unfortunate nickname of "information superhighway" due to the involvement of (then) Senator Al Gore, whose father made his name building interstate highways in the 1960s.


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The Web: First Light

Two extremely important new technologies hit the Internet in 1991 as well. The first was WAIS, a network-based file indexing and lookup system from Thinking Machines Corporation that allowed a researcher to submit keywords for an information search to an automated server, which would then search through its collection of indexed files and return a list of documents that matched the keywords listed in order from most to least matches (it only took a few weeks for people to realize that "and," "the," "or," and similar words were not good keywords for searching!). The second major technological jump on the Internet that year involved the University of Minnesota releasing Gopher, which replaced the somewhat arcane telnet, ftp, and similar remote login/file transfer commands with a user-friendly menu interface. Usually hailed as the dawn of the World Wide Web, the release of Gopher marked the beginning of easy access to any information anywhere for anyone.

The Web "for Real"

In recognition of the increasing impact the Internet was having on day-to-day life (at least in the industrialized nations), the Internet Society was founded in 1992 to provide more people with more of a voice in deciding its future. Just in time, too — because the 1,000,000th Internet host was registered early the same year! The NSFnet backbone was again upgraded, this time to "T3" speeds (44,736,000 bytes/second), and almost immediately new technologies were introduced to slow it down again: MBONE audio multicast (first appearance, March 1992), which literally broadcast sounds over the Internet like radio, and then MBONE video multicasting (November 1992), which did the same thing for video over the Internet.

What few people realized at the time was that these technologies' effect on the Internet and the general population of the world would be eclipsed by another technology introduced in 1992: CERN in Switzerland developed and released something called the "World Wide Web", which had the potential to give anyone a nice graphical interface to all the other "neat stuff" already happening on the Internet.


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Life as We Know It, Finally

If a one-word description is needed for the Internet in 1993, it could arguably be "KABOOM!" — because it was early this year that an application called Mosaic was released to take advantage of the new World Wide Web technology. All of a sudden, everyone and everything went on-line: e-mail addresses were released for the U.S. President, Vice President, and First Lady; "Internet Talk Radio" began regular audio broadcasts worldwide over the Internet; the United Nations and the World Bank created "web sites" for easier access by the masses; and the NSF finally backed completely out of the Internet picture by handing over its Internet services to AT&T (directory and database services), Network Solutions Inc. (name/address registration services), and General Atomics/CERFnet (information services).

By the end of 1993, WWW use was growing at a rate of 341,634% (yes, that's over three hundred and forty-one thousand percent), while Gopher use grew at a measly 997%. Businesses and the mass media sat up and began to really pay attention to the Internet phenomenon, and as 1994 rolled in the first "shopping malls" were established on the Internet through the World Wide Web about the same time that a small flower shop began taking orders directly over the Internet. The U.S. House and Senate got into the act with information servers of their own, and shortly thereafter the media began to ensure there was no way anyone anywhere could avoid hearing about the Internet and World Wide Web.


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So Now What?

Some of the old standbys — ARPAnet and BITNET being two of the biggest — are no longer with us, while Usenet News has come to be considered a necessary part of anyone's basic service and Mosaic's continued success has been eclipsed only by a small upstart company called Netscape (whose "Navigator" web browser was based on Mosaic). Industry giant Microsoft is fighting tooth and nail for market share with its own web browser (Internet Explorer), while communications giants AT&T and MCI are offering their subscribers "free" Internet service. Cable television companies are clamoring to be allowed to bring the Internet into everyone's living room, and it has become almost impossible to buy a home or office computer that does not have Internet capability bundled in along with the usual games and word processing software. In fact, the Internet has gotten so crowded that seven new domains (essentially blocks of addresses) are scheduled to supplement the existing domains in mid-1997. URLs (Uniform Resource Locators, Internetspeak for "addresses") can be seen in print ads, on TV commercials, and in movie trailers, and some studies show web browsing and Internet surfing beginning to equal or even surpass television and movie rentals as a primary form of personal entertainment. Even more recently, stock offerings by companies based entirely on the Internet (e.g., Netscape, Yahoo!) have caused mass rushes on in global stock markets, turning hard-working computer geeks into multi-millionaires overnight.

It took the Internet almost two decades to grow to 1,000 hosts, then just 2-1/2 years to increase by an order of magnitude to 10,000 hosts. Two years later it had grown by another full order of magnitude to 100,000 hosts, and just over two years to grow by yet another full order of magnitude. This is a trend that currently shows no sign of real slowing, with the majority of hosts slowly moving from university and corporate machines to computers in people's homes (as one recently seen T-shirt said: "Internet tour of the world: London, Paris, Moscow, Bangkok, some guy's basement in Utah.").

We now live in a time when four-year-olds can swap war stories of their latest network surfing discoveries, where real-time multimedia communications between points on opposite sides of the planet is an everyday occurrence, and where the lingo of the computer nerd is the slang of the hip street kid. Where do we go from here? Stay tuned — we're sure to rewrite history by, oh, next Tuesday...

 

* "Macintosh" is a trademark of Apple Computer Corporation. "Windows" is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

 


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