Web celebrates its 20th birthday

It was 13 March 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee, working at Cern in Geneva, came up with the concept that became the worldwide web. On that day, Berners-Lee presented his visionary paper on a simple mechanism for allowing the particle physics research community to share documents, based on a simplified form of Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML).

It was 13 March 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee, working at Cern in Geneva, came up with the concept that became the worldwide web. On that day, Berners-Lee presented his visionary paper on a simple mechanism for allowing the particle physics research community to share documents, based on a simplified form of Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML).

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And so was born HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a language for describing how to present text and images in an electronic document, along with a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which allows users to access documents in a standard way using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

The genius of Berners Lee's idea was that the documents were somehow intelligent, containing hypertext links that allowed a researcher to access additional information by following an embedded link. Users take this for granted now, but without it the web would simply have become a library of discrete pages, instead of the dynamic environment that users see today.

Arguably, the most significant development in the last 20 years has been the web browser standard. Andy Mullholland, global chief technology officer at Capgemini, says, "The development in browser technology has changed how we use the web."

The browser is the universal window on all types of text and multimedia content. Thanks to Java, ActiveX and Ajax, it is now possible to plug in additional functionality into the browser to allow it to support new types of content.

Speed is everything

Broadband has driven the popularity of the web. In the early days people connected to the internet using a dial-up modem. If they were lucky they achieved access speeds of 56Kbps.

Tasks that users take for granted, such as near instant access to Hotmail or other webmail systems, took several minutes. According to Gartner principal research analysts Fernando Elizalde and Amanda Sabia, "The actual physical connection to the web - the broadband connection - has been on the rise and at the end of 2008, 20% of all households globally had a broadband connection. This is on pace to increase to 25% by 2012. In conjunction with the rise of broadband connections is the speed of the connection. This is especially important as the content on the web becomes more complex, moving from text to video."

So what of the future?

Nelson Mattos, vice-president of engineering for EMEA at Google, says the web is becoming more global and more mobile. "There are only about 1.2 billion fixed connections to the internet right now.

That will increase in the coming years. More and more people will get access to information globally, regardless of their location, time zone or the device they use to access the cloud, and an increasing number of developers and content creators will contribute to the information base shared via online applications."

The National Computing Centre predicts that within 10 years the semantic web will become a reality. The semantic web intelligently responds to queries and questions rather than just responding with data files. This could lead to a possible Big Brother outcry as the web becomes really all pervasive.

Over the long term, Ted Schadler, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, points to some of the work IBM is doing, which provides a glimpse of where the web may be heading. IBM's "smarter planet" concept includes intelligent power grids, buildings, and transportation systems.

"It is essentially the web as a system of intelligent connected devices rather than web as point-to-point links," says Schadler.

Internet business

The web has clearly shaped business. Ollie Ross, head of research at The Corporate IT Forum, says, "It is supporting real-time working between individuals and distributed teams, and enabling organisations to truly leverage internal capabilities and knowledge across continents and time zones." This trend is set to continue.

For instance, IBM is also working on a project called Blue Spruce, which takes the web beyond the browser-user interface. The idea is to create a collaboration platform, where multiple users can view and edit documents in real-time. It is a bit like web conferencing but uses a standard web browser, so there is no additional software required.

With events changing so quickly, it is hard to see where the web will be in just a few years from now. What is clear is that the web will be everywhere, accessible by anyone, on any device. Devices will talk to each other via the web and web searching will be more intelligent.

Alan Pollard, president of the British Computer Society, says that within 20 years electronic information storage will become the norm and printed publishing will become a dying art.

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