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A Brief History of the Web and Internet

The Internet goes back some 40 years, but it's only in the last decade or so that it's become the humongous phenomena seen today.

One of the first applications of computer technology was the attempt to decode German military intelligence during World War II. The earliest commercially available computers were prohibitively expensive to all but the wealthiest corporations and public bodies. They were enormous in size and miniscule in processing power. Continued exponential improvement in technology has seen processing power increase many-fold while price and size of hardware have plummeted.

With the exponential improvement in technology came change in the nature of the technology. In the corporate world the dumb terminals on every desk which were connected to a centralized "brain" were replaced with autonomous personal computers (individual "brains") - on every desk. In our homes intelligent but isolated boxes gained the ability to communicate with the wider world, first through dial-up modems, and now increasingly by permanent broadband connection.

In the late 1960s the U.S. Defense Department developed a secure and robust communications network (ARPANET) linking organizations engaged in defense research, which was designed to be able to continue functioning even if part of it was damaged, e.g. by nuclear attack. During the 1970s ARPANET became increasingly used by academics for sharing research material and eventually evolved into the Internet.

In 1989 Tim Berners Lee proposed the World Wide Web (WWW or web) while working at CERN, the Swiss based scientific organization for research into sub-nuclear physics. Berners Lee initially envisaged a text based global hypertext system enabling fast and efficient communication between scientists located around the world and released the first text based browser in January 1992.

In addition to the dramatic developments and improvements in the technology, the nature of our interaction with it also changed.

The 1990s saw the advent of affordable desktop computers together with the emergence of Microsoft's Windows as the dominant personal computer (PC) operating system. Its point-and-click graphical interface replaced the previous blank screen with flashing cursor. Windows utilized a set of (supposedly) universally understandable icons to represent tasks such as file management and printing. Essentially, computing's potential and power became accessible to the masses.

September 1992 saw the release of Mosaic. Developed by Marc Andreesen and others at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Mosaic was the first web browser with a graphical interface. The web started to become the familiar face of the Internet, providing easy access to a wealth of text and images, and later, animation, sound and video too.

I still recall the enormous sense of wonder and empowerment the first time I connected to the WWW in 1995 with Netscape 1 on a 486 PC with 28k modem. It was slow as treacle and, prior to the rise of the Web design profession, every page looked the same with Times New Roman on a dull gray background. The 'net has come a long way since then. Many countries have near-ubiquitous home broadband access and the Web is routinely included in elementary school curricula.

Technology such as CSS, Javascript and Flash have revolutionized the appearance and interactivity of the Web. Server-side languages and utilities such as PHP and MYSQL power the content management systems (CMSs) that create and format Web pages on the fly in response to user requests. It is these technologies that enable the latest, and arguably most significant, step in the Web's evolution - Web 2.0.

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