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Unraveling the web's story

History of the Web, the First 10 Chapters

This is it! As of today, I’ve put all of the chapters I’ve written up on it’s own site. I’ve also finally given the whole thing a name: Vague, But Exciting: The Story of the World Wide Web. If you want to know why, keep reading. I’m working on Chapter 11 right now, but more on that next time. For now, I thought it might be best to quickly recap where we’re at, as concisely as I can.

Side note: thanks to Jeremy Keith, each chapter also has an audio version (and the whole thing is available as a podcast feed).

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his bosses at CERN titled ‘Information Management, a Proposal, which contained all of the essential elements for what would soon become the World Wide Web. It was returned with a comment at the top: “Vague, But Exciting.”

Berners-Lee had been thinking about the web for years, building on previous work with the Internet and hypertext, but his work at CERN finally brought it all together: the URI, hypertext, and the HTTP protocol. Within a couple of years, Berners-Lee had a browser and a web server ready to begin serving the first websites. In 1993, CERN agreed to release the web to the public domain, so it could belong to everyone.

Academics and programmers from around the world began developing unique browsers for the web, some that were quite complex, and others that were entirely text-based. Within a year there were dozens. The most popular of the bunch was known as Mosaic, from a team at the University of Illinois. Of course, browsers could only serve the websites that were out there. Slowly but surely, people began launching small personal sites, research hubs, and information resources, but there were two standouts: the SLAC website which let users search through academic papers and GNN, the first editorial site on the web. Both helped lay the groundwork for an increasingly mainstream web.

And once websites exploded beyond what one could reasonably catch up with in a single day, search engines and portals rushed to fill the gap. What started with a more curated form of discovery in the early 90’s with sites like Excite and notably, Yahoo!, eventually transformed into automated tools and extensive crawling and scraping of the web’s content, culminating in the release of Google in 1998. Seeing the potential audience grow, publishers began to move online, ranging from the edgy and offbeat zines to relatively mild and established news publications. They used new design techniques, borrowed and evolved from print and graphic design, but remixed for the new, interactive medium. By the late 90’s, web design was big business, and multinational agencies sprouted above to provide full digital services to a growing client base hoping to capitalize on an online audience.

The technology of the web also began to develop alongside its needs. In 1994, Berners-Lee created the W3C to be the steward of technical standards on the web, using the consortium model to source consensus from a wide set of groups that worked with the web. This led to deeper specifications for HTML, and made room for the creation of CSS, the design language of the web.

After a flurry of content sites, the mid to late 90’s saw the growth of new communities on the web, interactive sites that invited visitors to actively participate in generating its content. That community manifested in sites ranging from Wikipedia and Geocities that brought the web sharper into mainstream focus.

Standards work, meanwhile, opened up even more possibilities for web design, and standards in general began to even out the look and feel of websites among web browsers. But not without a fight. After the initial rise of Netscape, on the heels and reputation of Mosaic, Microsoft entered the browser market with an intent to dominate it. The two spent years going back and forth, grabbing larger chunks of a growing market share. But when the dust settled, Microsoft would ultimately be the victor.

All of which continued to drive more commercial entries into the web market, that by the late 90’s and early 2000’s was ready to boil over into the dot-com era…