A brief history of the internet: How the World Wide Web has changed our lives over the past 20 years

Updated 25 May 2014, 15:11 AEST

By Felicity Sheppard, staff

Twenty years ago Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web in a bid to better share information.

Twenty years ago Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web in a bid to better share information.

Little was known about the technology and even less about the possibilities it would bring to those in the years ahead – that we would shop from the comfort our lounge rooms, doctors would examine patients from miles away and information would be at our proverbial fingertips.

With the support of his employer, CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), Sir Tim invented the World Wide Web in 1989.

It was released to the public by CERN in 1993, launching entire industries and revolutionising old ones.

The World Wide Web arrives (1994)

On May 25, the first International Conference on the World Wide Web opened in Geneva, Switzerland. Attendee Mark Pesce says, “if the web can be said to have had a starting gun, it fired on that Wednesday morning at CERN”.

Mr Pesce says a packed auditorium listened to Mr Berners-Lee and other experts in the emerging technology discuss the potential of the World Wide Web.

He says one speaker spoke of a fully interactive television programming broadcast, something that is now commonplace as viewers watch Twitter commentary appear at the bottom of their television screens on their favourite programs.

Such was the excitement on the first day of that conference, Mr Pesce says Mr Berners-Lee noted that more people filled the room than had been allowed to register for the conference.

Post moves into the digital age (1995 – 1999)

Embraced in the earlier days by the tech-savvy, the internet soon appealed to the average user through commercial ventures, such as online bookstore Amazon and AuctionWeb, which would later be rebranded as eBay.

History of the internet gif

 

For some, the internet offered more than just a trip to the bookstore, with Match.com launching its dating service.

Mr Pesce, also an honorary associate in the Digital Cultures Program at the University of Sydney, says Netscape’s Navigator browser offered many people their first opportunity to surf the net.

“It was people’s first stop on the web,” he said.

In 1996, Hotmail appeared on the web offering users an email account hosted online. It meant emails could be accessed anywhere, anytime. The success of the venture was not lost on Microsoft, who purchased the email service a year later for a reported $400 million.

While email was faster than traditional post, instant messaging offered an even speedier solution to personal communication.

One of the first mainstream instant messaging services was ICQ, which launched in 1996.

 

While some were using the internet to chat, many others were exploring the opportunity to enjoy audio, often streaming live from concerts and other events.

Mr Pesce said it was around this time that “there was a sense this [web] thing was more than just text”.

After launching the domain Google.com, Google began to build momentum using its new search algorithm which proved to be more successful than that of earlier search engines, which were struggling as the web increased in size.

Meanwhile, a community of writers began sharing their likes, lives and thoughts with the World Wide Web via the emergence of early blogging sites.

Peer-to-peer file sharing website Napster arrived, and grew enormously in popularity as music fans began illegally sharing files. The website was shut down by court order in 2001.

The emergence of social networking (2000 – 2004)

 

By 2001, online information hub Wikipedia emerged. Initially hosting a similar number of entries to a children’s encyclopaedia, the website grew when the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 edition entered the public domain, Mr Pesce said.

“There was a noticeable upslope in 2002-03 when it starts taking off,” he said.

Apple’s iTunes soon arrived to provide music enthusiasts with a legal alternative to downloading their favourite commercial tunes. Despite launching with just 200,000 songs, it reached sales of 250,000 within 24 hours.

Building on the concept of peer-to-peer networks such as Napster, Skype was soon born. Using similar technology, it allows users to make free calls to others using the program.

It later branched out to include video messaging, videoconferencing and began offering an alternative telecommunications service for users wanting to call regular phone numbers.

Video technology was soon considered for use in other industries, such as medicine, allowing doctors to examine and in some cases treat patients thousands of kilometres away.

While chat rooms and instant messaging proved popular in the preceding years, social networking sites started to emerge offering an alternative.

Professional networking site LinkedIn launched in May 2003, followed by MySpace in August.

Meanwhile, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg introduced his peers to Facebook, a social networking site he built for students at the university in 2004. More than 1,000 students signed up in the first day.

With web-based mail proving popular, Gmail entered the market enticing users with four megabytes of storage, compared to the two megabytes being offered by competitor Hotmail.

The smart phone revolution (2005 – 2009)

Ten years after the World Wide Web was released onto an unsuspecting public, 70 per cent of households had internet access. But for many, using the internet was slow on dial-up connections.

Nearly half of all subscribers used dial-up internet with DSL growing in popularity. Only 10 per cent enjoyed speedier cable access.

With audio sharing already proving popular, a group of ex-Pay-Pal employers developed YouTube. The first video uploaded to the site showed one of the founders discussing elephants.

The potential of the video-sharing website was noted by Google, who purchased YouTube for a reported $US1.65 billion.

Meanwhile, blogging became a whole lot more compact with the emergence of microblogging site Twitter.

Enjoying popularity in the Harvard community, Facebook opened its site to those outside the university in 2007.

In the same year, the first iPhone arrived on the market to be followed by a host of similar smartphones offering web access on the go.

The smartphone revolutionised the way in which people accessed information.

“You were no longer bound to the desktop. You could access it everywhere,” Mr Pesce said.

Catering to the increasing iPhone market, Apple launched their App Store, carrying a selection of 552 applications.

Android soon followed with their own application store and the number of apps quickly grew to a vast number allowing people to play games, share photos and videos, check in for flights on the move, and perform countless other tricks and tasks.

Using the web for social good (2010 – 2014)

The social networking steam train showed no sign of slowing following the introduction of new sites, including “visual discovery tool” Pinterest and photo-sharing mobile app Instagram.

The power of social media has not gone unnoticed in troubled regions of the world, with young Egyptians using social media in 2011 to organise protests against then-president Hosni Mubarak.

Facebook and Twitter were soon blocked in the region and the internet shut down.

At the time, US state department spokesman PJ Crowley tweeted: “We are concerned that communications services, including the internet, social media, and even this tweet are being blocked in Egypt”.

By 2012-13, 7.3 million, or 83 per cent of Australian households had home access to the internet. More than 77 per cent of all households had access to the internet via a broadband connection.

Faster connections helped to grow websites such as YouTube, hosting billions of videos including Psy’s Gangnam Style, which has been viewed nearly 2 billion times.

Music videos continue to dominate YouTube’s most viewed video lists, but it has not stopped thousands of others uploading their own home videos for the entertainment of others.

The platform also gave rise to a host of “video bloggers”, who post everything from beauty and fashion tips, to comedy skits and film reviews.

The hobby is now a multi-million-dollar industry, blurring the line between opinion and advertising.

The power of the web has also been used in the #bringbackourgirls campaign, urging Boko Haram to release of hundreds of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls.

Brett Goodin, a PhD candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University, says Twitter has become an indispensible tool for civil society campaigns.

However, he also says “critics argue that online tools like Facebook and Twitter are ineffective and had led to casual ‘clicktivism’, rather than long-term activism”.

The future of the World Wide Web

Mr Pesce says the greatest change to the World Wide Web is likely to come from a flood of new users.

“In the next five years, we’re going to go from 1.9 billion smartphones to 6 billion,” he said.

“Most of those are going to be in China, India and Africa.”

He says smartphones selling for as little as $25 will provide endless opportunities for 3 billion new users to harness the commercial opportunities of the web.

“You’re connected to a commercial world with a mobile device,” he said.

“We use it because it’s convenient; [new users] will use it to make money.

“It will blows our minds … things are not slowing down.”

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