Thursday, March 19, 2009

The World Wide Web at 20

You might not have noticed it, but the World Wide Web turned 20 years old last week.

It seems as if it has been ingrained in our lives forever, but the Internet Society held a quiet celebration in Geneva, Switzerland last week to honor Tim Berners-Lee on the anniversary of his proposal for a technology to save and access vast amounts of data.

"I would be at a loss to quantify the impact of the Web on the world," said Leslie Daigle, chief Internet technology officer for the Internet Society. "People have access to the world in ways they didn't before the Web. It has become the killer app for the Internet."

Indeed, the Web is often seen as synonymous with the Internet, although the Internet was around for a good 15 years before the Web made its appearance.

There could be a number of birthdays for the World Wide Web. The concept of hypertext dates back to the 1960s, and the Web debuted as a publicly available service in August 1991 when Berners-Lee posted a summary of his project by using his own Web server.

"But the date of record is usually considered March 13, 1989," when Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for the technology to CERN, the European physics consortium.

CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), just now being brought on line, is spurring new developments in high-capacity networking and advanced routing over the Internet and associated high-performance science networks, and it was the LHC that spurred development of the Web.

"Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question, "Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?' " Berners-Lee wrote in his original proposal. "This proposal provides an answer to such questions. Firstly, it discusses the problem of information access at CERN. Then, it introduces the idea of linked information systems..."

That non-linear linkage was to be done through hypertext, an idea that had been around for a while. Berners-Lee's contribution was to tie hypertext to the Internet.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"In a lot of ways, the Web was the capstone of a number of things that already were underway," such as development of smaller, faster computers, Daigle said. "Proposing this technology gave a lot of impetus to other organizations to step up and take part in the development."

It is that collaborative development, which has included small organizations and individuals along with large enterprises, that has set the Web apart from other technologies. Unlike earlier advances such as aviation, radio and television, which rapidly outgrew the ability of amateurs to make substantive contributions, the Web has been driven largely by small developers who have leveraged it for their own uses.

"Nobody could have predicted Google or Facebook," when the Web was launched, Daigle said.

Although a lack of security in the Web's infrastructure can be seen as a weakness today, Daigle said that security always must be weighed against innovation, and she does not think that the Web has gotten the balance wrong.

"I'm not sure that there is much that could have been done differently that wouldn't have stifled that development," she said. "And we have to consider that going forward."

Going forward, the Web is going to "look a lot less like a computer interface," she said, a process that already is well underway as the functionality is being ported to a greater variety of mobile devices in a variety of formats.

The next big step will be the move to the next generation of Internet Protocols, IPv6, Daigle said. Although adoption of IPv6 so far has been slow, Daigle said it is mirroring the adoption of the current IPv4.

"What you are seeing at this time is that it is becoming integrated into a fabric, the way IPv4 was," with pockets of adoption, she said. "At some point, those pockets are going to coalesce into pools, and then it will start to look like something more familiar to us."

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