Do you remember the dawn of the Internet in the mid 1990s? Everyone was talking about the “Information Superhighway” (a cheesy term for the Internet back then) and how it would change everyone’s life. Then people starting talking about the World Wide Web (WWW) and email and facebook.
Still today, many people don’t know how to properly define the World Wide Web and the Internet. At dinner parties with non-geek friends, I like to bring this up by asking, “So, can anyone here tell me what the Internet and World Wide Web are?”. People start by blurting out things such as email and text messaging and doing taxes online, and usually someone argues that it is a social phenomenon or something, but eventually people start to realize that they really have no idea what the Internet and World Wide Web actually are. I can be a bastard sometimes, but it is fun.
Then, of course, I enlighten everyone.
Early Home Networking and BBSes
Computer networks have been around since the 1970s. In the 1980s, you could buy a modem that allowed your computer to connect to other computers (called servers) that would serve you some information if you requested it. If your computer served the information during a particular exchange, your computer was then called a server as well. By 1990, most people who had modems used them to connect their 386 computer to a Bulletin Board System (BBS) by dialing the telephone number of the server that had files that you could download (mostly programs, games and pics). None of this really had anything to do with the Internet or World Wide Web.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Internet was called the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) due to its government/university funding and usage. It was basically a way of connecting existing computer networks (mainly at universities) together so you could send files and emails to others. If you were a university student in the 1980s, you probably sent emails using ARPANET on the schools terminals, but few outside academia knew of its existence. If you were a home computer user and wanted to connect your home computer to another computer, you probably dialled up a BBS because the ARPANET was limited mainly to universities.
In the early 1990s when the U.S. government ran out of money to maintain ARPANET, parts of it were essentially sold off to companies such as AT&T, who became commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that you could pay to access the Internet from home or business (if you had a dial-up modem or router). Thus, the Internet (or Internetwork) is simply a large collection of publicly-accessible computer networks. It consists of all the physical components that allow a company/individual to send information around the world. It is similar in scope to the telephone lines and switching stations that have allowed us to make calls around the world for almost a century.
The Internet was gradually developed into its current form by many different organizations over the past 30 years. Today, we don’t use modems to dial up ISPs to get Internet access, we typically use high-speed routers (the black box you get from your ISP is typically a DSL/cable router).
The World Wide Web (WWW)
The World Wide Web is different from the Internet. As people were thinking about what the ARPANET could be used for outside academia, the most obvious use was global information access.
But what format should this information be in?
HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) was eventually selected as the main format of information transmitted on the Internet - you simply connected to a server that gave you a page formatted in HTTP that your computer could understand. This HTTP page would then contain links to other HTTP pages (called hyperlinks) on other servers so that you could “browse” the world to obtain information quickly.
This approach to information access was called the World Wide Web (WWW). You browsed “web pages” on a “web site” by connecting your “web browser” program (Netscape, Internet Explorer, Firefox) to “web servers” that gave you the actual HTTP pages. You could then read these web pages and click on hyperlinks to carry you to other public web servers and read more web pages, and so on. Web servers are typically accessed using names that start with www and underlined text can be clicked to obtain other resources on the World Wide Web (e.g. www.google.com).
HTML and the WWW were conceptualized in 1989 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, working at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. The official paper that described the WWW was published on this day in 1990 (November 12th, 1990). As the Internet became more commercialized in the early-mid 1990s, web sites kept popping up all around the world, making the World Wide Web a reality.
Today, we obtain information from servers on the Internet that participate in the World Wide Web. So what about email, instant messaging, downloading music, etc.? Well, those are other Internet technologies that arose as technology and the Internet advanced over time……..and a whole other story.
NOTE: Do not confuse the “World Wide Web” with the “World Wide Wedge”, which was invented in 1996 by Ronald “Wedgie” Jackson, a high school student in Springfield, Missouri.