Opinion: Defining moments in web history

Glyn Moody was Computer Weekly’s first web columnist. Here he recounts the key events in the webs 20 year history.

Glyn Moody was Computer Weekly’s first web columnist. Here he recounts the key events in the webs 20 year history.

Although Tim Berners-Lee made his “Information Management” proposal back in March 1989, the key moment for what became the World Wide Web was October 1994, when the start-up Mosaic Communications – later known as Netscape – released its browser, optimised for PC users and dial-up modems.

Netscape turned the Web into a mass medium, and invented a new business model by giving away its main product.  It confirmed its position as the first significant Internet company with a hugely successful IPO in August 1995 – and guaranteed that Microsoft, hitherto sceptical about the Internet, would place it at the heart of its strategy.

The first sign of this was Internet Explorer, originally a rather feeble add-on to Windows 95.  As Microsoft honed its product, Netscape lost its way – and its market share – until it took the unprecedented step of opening up its browser code, in 1998. 

The Mozilla project gave a huge boost to open source, and led ultimately to Firefox, now gradually regaining Netscape's lost browser crown.

Microsoft dominance

Microsoft's dominance of the Web and its standards was held in check by another free program, Apache, the leading Web server almost from the moment it was introduced in 1995. 

But as VC money flowed into e-commerce, following in the wake of pioneers like Amazon and eBay, it was Sun's costly Web servers that became one of the hallmarks of the dotcom delirium. 

Bizarrely, it was thought that the key to success was to build up a large user base first, and worry about money later.  This produced companies like Boo.com, Pets.com and Webvan, which collectively burned through billions of dollars of funding before collapsing in the dotcom crash after 2000.

Another company that amassed a huge following but no profit was the file-sharing site Napster - a missed opportunity for the music industry, which chose to destroy rather than build on its innovative P2P distribution system.

Dotcom death

As the dotcom dinosaurs died out, the Web mammals emerged: sites like Blogger, Wikipedia, del.icio.us, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.  Typically, they were built on commodity hardware and open source software – one of the most important consequences of the Internet – which allowed them to scale while keeping costs low.  They were based on social interaction and sharing user-generated content - not on selling stuff.

The quintessential Web 2.0 company is Google, running today on more than a million GNU/Linux servers. 

There had been Web search engines before, such as WebCrawler, Lycos and Altavista; what set Google apart was its ranking system, based on users' links – and its ambition. 

As it began sifting through online images, videos (boosted by the acquisition of YouTube in 2006), journals and blogs, Google soon became the Web's unofficial index.

At the same time, by offering services like Gmail and Google Docs through the browser – “in the cloud” -  it helped transform Berners-Lee's modest tool for CERN into a global computing platform for the 21st Century.

Glyn Moody can be followed on Twitter.

This was last published in March 2009

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