WWW is sixteen years old today

Posted in Technology trends at 6:59 pm by ducky

Apparently, the oldest web page that the W3C knows about is sixteen years old today.

Most of the credit is ascribed to Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Andreessen. I think that the deserve all the credit that they are given — their contributions were very important. However, there are some people and institutions who tend to get left out who were also pretty important.

Robert Cailleau worked with Tim Berners-Lee on the initial WWW, and Eric Bina worked with Mark Andreessen on Mosaic. You haven’t heard of Eric Bina because he’s quite shy, but I bet he did a large share of the work on Mosaic.  Also, he didn’t leave Champaign-Urbana for the bright lights (and fame) of California because his wife is a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I think that the importance of CERN and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications has been understated.

CERN gave Tim Berners-Lee both the funding to work on the project and a public testbed for it. If the Web had been developed at someplace like IBM, it probably would have just been an intellectual curiosity. The Web infrastructure was not all that technically difficult: the hard part was getting people to generate content.

NCSA not only employed Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, but they provided a whole host of support services to the world. While the stories I heard implied that Marc and Eric worked on Mosaic with out permission (perhaps even against orders), I fully believe that without NCSA’s (eventual) institutional support, Mosaic would not have been a success. Mosaic wasn’t the first graphical Web browser — ViolaWWW, developed by Pei-Yuan Wei — was. But NCSA gave technical support for Mosaic, provided documentation, hosted the download traffic, and funded the development of a number of infrastructure improvements (like the httpd Web server and its CGI extension), and so it succeeded.

Looking back a little farther, there were a number of factors that the Web depended on. The Web couldn’t have gone anywhere if it weren’t for widespread use of the Internet, and that really depended upon cheap computers and email. If IBM had not made the hardware design essentially open source, computers wouldn’t have been so cheap and therefore common.

The Web also depended upon networking. It was only because computers were already everywhere and already networked that the Web could take off. The incremental cost of running a Web server on a machine that was already there and networked was trivial, so why not toss one on? 3Com and Cisco can take some of the credit for that, though there were other networking companies as well.

Even Apple played a role. While I found their HyperCard technology slow, clunky, and uninteresting when I saw it in the late 80s, it popularized the idea of hypertext.

So while I think we should give respect to Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen, I think they also had the extraordinary good fortune to arrive on the scene at a time when cheap, networked computers were widespread and to work for public institutions that provided them with a great deal of support.

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