Proposal for the web began 30 years ago

March 8, 2019
by Mark Ollig

March 12, 1989, a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee presented a document proposal on how to share information within his organization.

Berners-Lee was working in Geneva, Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research; better known as CERN.

He wanted to make it easier to exchange data within the CERN organization.

The name of Berners-Lee’s document was “Information Management: A Proposal.”

Berners-Lee wrote a software program for allowing information contained within different types of computers to be distributed over a shared network among thousands of scientists and researchers working for CERN.

His solution: a distributed hypertext system.

To be fair, Ted Nelson coined the word hypertext in the early 1960s.

While writing about a “simple user interface” for use over a computer network, Nelson used the word hypertext in describing his Project Xanadu, which never became a working reality for him until 2014, with the release of OpenXanadu.

In the 1989 proposal, Berners-Lee described his experience with hypertext, “In 1980, I wrote a program for keeping track of software with which I was involved in the PS [Proton Synchrotron] control system, called Enquire. It allowed one to store snippets of information, and to link related pieces together in any way. To find information, one progressed via the links from one sheet to another.”

Berners-Lee diagramed a flowchart showing how users of the CERN network could distribute, access, and collaborate on documents within electronic files located on various data servers.

Electronic documents could be viewed and modified by a user, no matter which type of computer or operating system they used.

Berners-Lee wrote about a generic client “browser” software program which would allow a user of the CERN computer network to interact with the hypertext data servers.

While reading through his proposal, I smiled upon seeing an analogy between “the telephone book” and hypertext. Berners-Lee said both contained “links between people and sections, sections and groups, and people and floors of a building.”

The “people and floors of a building” sounds like he was describing a telephone extension directory used in large organizations having their own internal telephone system; such as a PBX (private branch exchange).

“Most systems available today use a single database. This is accessed by many users by using a distributed file system,” Berners-Lee wrote.

Granted, the database could store a lot of information; however, it was all in one place, he stated.

Berners-Lee would create protocols for a computer to link to and connect with different computer databases storing electronic documents on a shared network, no matter where they resided.

What Berners-Lee was proposing to his colleagues 30 years ago, was the foundation for today’s World Wide Web.

When you see “http” in your web browser, the “ht” stands for HyperText. The “tp” means Transport Protocol, thus the abbreviation: HTTP.

The “s” in https means it is a “secure” version of HTTP, and the communications between your web browser and website are encrypted for privacy.

Berners-Lee wrote the code used for the start of all web addresses; HyperText Transfer Protocol, the web’s programming language; HyperText Markup Language (HTML), and the first web browser; WorldWideWeb, on a NeXTcube workstation.

The NeXTcube was built by NeXT, Inc., which was owned by Apple Computer’s co-founder, Steve Jobs.

Nov. 12, 1990, he and colleague Robert Cailiau began work on making hypertext accessible via a gateway over the Internet. Their written proposal was called “WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project.”

Dec. 25, 1990, they finished the software called WorldWideWeb and had it up-and-running on a CERN computer server.

The next year, they introduced the WorldWideWeb to the internet.

Aug. 6, 1991, is the official date when public computer users outside of CERN were able to use this software over the internet.

Jan. 23, 1993, the web became seen in a whole new light with the release of the first fully-graphical web browser called NCSA Mosaic.

I recall first using the Mosaic version 1.0 client web browser on my HP Omnibook 300 laptop, realizing the internet would never be the same again.

Mosaic was free and could be downloaded from the NCSA website. It included icons, bookmarks, pictures, and an uncomplicated user interface, which made the software easy to use and appealing to the “non-geeks.”

The developers of Mosaic and AOL (America Online) launched the Netscape web browser, which AOL purchased in 1999, for $4.2 billion.

Today, parts of the Mosaic programming language are still used in the popular Mozilla Firefox web browser.

I think of the web as an application program. It contains an information system running as an overlay program on top of the internet; its web elements operating in harmony with today’s internet protocols, which, by the way, were created by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn.

Today’s web is thriving, with links to millions of data servers providing not only information, but voice, video, social media networks, commerce, government resources, and more.

Tim Berners-Lee’s historic 1989 proposal can be seen on the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) website: https://bit.ly/2eOwOYN.

The web’s beginning started out as a tool to help search for, create, and distribute information for the people working at CERN.

I wonder if Berners-Lee considered the impact on the world his creation would make when he proposed it to CERN 30 years ago?

What will the next 30 years bring?

Stay tuned.

Visit my weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com and see a photo of the NeXTcube computer Tim Berners-Lee used as the first web server on the World Wide Web.

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