1.II: The Web and Mobile Computing

Mobile computers changed the world just within our lifetime, and we already take them for granted.

A. The World Wide Web

B. Living in the Information Age

C.  Citations

A.  The World Wide Web

The world wide web is mostly the work of British computer scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee. His decision to release its code into the public domain in 1993 opened the floodgates of what we think of as the internet revolution.

The nature of the internet changed drastically in the 1990’s.  In 1989 – 1990, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.  Berners-Lee was contracted by CERN laboratories in Switzerland to help scientists around the world collaborate on massive, complex physics projects.  His 1989 proposal opened with the lines, “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?’ This proposal provides an answer to such questions.” 1 Berners-Lee created the web by combining the internet with hypertext.  Hypertext, which has been around since the 1960’s, refers to the placement of links between computer files.  The term hypertext places it a level “above” linear text, which reads from beginning to end.  Hypertext enables a computer user to transcend straight-line reading and jump around from one paragraph to another, or even from one computer file to another.  Berners-Lee’s web was an extension of hypertext that could point among an entire network of computers, even the global internet.  He also expanded the concept to links between all kinds of files besides text, such as images, audio and video.  Today, the web is more broadly referred to as a system of hyperlinks.

Two notes are worth making about this development.  First, the words internet and world wide web are often used interchangeably.  They are not the same thing.  The internet is the hardware component – the physical infrastructure of connected computers.  As we have seen, the internet has existed in pieces since the 1960’s, and as a whole since 1982.  The World Wide Web is the software component – the system of linked files that are placed online for the purpose of being searched.  Web documents are generally hosted on special centralized computers called servers.  The second point is to note that the web is a prime example of spin-off technology.  It was designed for the specific, narrow purpose of allowing particle physicists to keep track of their research, as the community of scientists and their body of work became too large and complicated for any one person to be familiar with.  This organizing principle had such universal usefulness that the web quickly spread around the world for all persons and all purposes.

Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb used three main features that are now well-known by their acronyms:

(1)    Universal Document Identifiers that could be used to identify and locate files throughout the network.  The term later changed to Uniform Resource Locator, which we know today as URL.

(2)    HyperText Markup Language (HTML) for publishing web documents.

(3)    HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for transmitting information across the internet from one computer to another.  

Berners-Lee and collaborator Robert Cailliau set up the first web server and the first web pages by late 1990.  The very first webpages, such as this one,2 served to describe the WorldWideWeb (w3) project.  The web became available to the public in 1991.  In 1993, CERN announced that the web would be available free of charge or licensing requirements.  That same year saw the advent of the first major web browser, Mosaic (later renamed Netscape, and later yet spawning Mozilla Firefox).  The web browser was a computer application that allowed users to go online, type addresses of webpages they wished to visit, and follow hyperlinks from one webpage to another.  Mosaic combined graphics with text, making it very popular.  Internet usage began to surge.

1995 was a landmark year for the internet and the web.  In that year, commercial restrictions on internet traffic were dropped.  The internet was not just for universities and research labs anymore.  The web became commercialized.  Instantly, marketers realized that they had a goldmine of potential customers, mostly middle-class professionals.  Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, and Craigslist were some of the largest and most enduring websites to go public that year.34  The release of Microsoft’s Windows 1995 included Internet Explorer, which remained the world’s most commonly used web browser until about 2010.5

As the web grew, indexing it became an absolute necessity.  Tim Berners-Lee managed a list of all available web servers until 1992, 6 when the list grew too long to be humanly manageable. 1  A browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer could follow a command to go to a particular website, but it did not provide guidance if the user did not know a specific URL.  The next major development was the search engine.  A user could indicate what content he or she was looking for, and the search engine would check pages throughout the web for matching terms.  The earliest major search engines were WebCrawler and Lycos in 1994.  Google got started in 1998 and, through use of its superior algorithms for ranking search results, quickly rose to prominence.

The late 1990’s saw a flurry of activity as corporations new and old rushed to get online.  Web technology is credited with allowing the global economy to grow at hitherto impossible rates for several years.  On the flipside, it also led to overly zealous investing in the high-tech bubble of 1995 – 2001.  When many e-commerce corporations failed to show profits by the early 2000’s, this bubble burst, contributing to the recession of 2001.

Since 1995, the World Wide Web has kept the same basic character, but has grown by leaps and bounds.  As of 2013, there are tens of billions of webpages, of which billions are indexed.7  The web has about two billion users, almost 30% of our entire species. 8 The table below shows the top ten most visited websites of 2012.  Google, the most popular website in the world, receives about 170,000,000 unique visitors per month as of 2013. 9

Rank

Website

Description

Online since

1 Google Search engine / web portal / content provider 1998
2 FaceBook Social network 2004
3 YouTube Video sharing network 2005
4 Yahoo General purpose web portal 1994
5 Baidu Chinese search engine 2000
6 Wikipedia Open-source encyclopedia 2001
7 Live Microsoft’s portal 2005
8 Twitter Mobile social network 2006
9 QQ Chinese instant messenger / web portal 1999
10 Amazon Etailer 1995

Simultaneously with the development of the web, information technology has become increasingly lightweight, wireless, mobile, and personalized.  Mini computers gave way to “desktops,” then “laptops” and tablets.  Small, affordable mobile phones were commonplace by 2000.  In the ‘00s, as integrated circuits became ever smaller and lighter, they were incorporated into smart phones that can now possess as much computing power as the revolutionary desktop computers of 20 or 30 years ago.  A phone has become a “poor man’s computer,” and is the only personal computer that many people have.  Moore’s Law continues to describe the advancement of technology fairly accurately – integrated circuits double in power about every two years.  This makes for a thousand-fold increase in computing capabilities every two decades, a million-fold every four decades.  The computing power that I can carry around with me today would have served a major city at the time I was born.

In the last few years, tech companies have focused on dynamic apps and personalization.  Rather than directing all users to one universal webpage, computers now bring up-to-the-minute information to each user according to location, demographic, and browsing history.  If you like Thai food, your phone might start alerting you to nearby Thai restaurants (or even catering trucks) at lunchtime.  A smart car can tell you how much traffic is up ahead, and how to avoid it.  In fact, real-time traffic information can be obtained by tracking the phones or other GPS units on the road, an application of Big Data.

B.  Living in the Information Age

Almost everyone living today understands how the telecommunication revolution has changed our lives and our world.  I am only in my early 40’s as I write this chapter, yet some periods of my past already feel impossibly old-fashioned.  I remember the days of phone booths and TV’s that only got four channels.  I still have a landline telephone, a film camera, and a portable CD player, now all collecting dust in my closet.  It doesn’t seem very long ago that “research” meant trips to the library, rooms full of microfilm, or maybe thumbing through the 30-volume encyclopedia at home.  Now I am able to research the contents of this entire book from my desk, or out at a café if I prefer.  I have used my modest home computer to compile a family tree spanning three continents and two millennia, an accomplishment that recently would have required numerous handwritten letters, trips abroad, translators, and hours in the record halls of church basements.  In the 2010’s, every child grows up taking for granted that information, music, text messages, pictures, and videos are instantly accessible with the touch of a button.  Just hours before I sat down to write this paragraph, I saw a friend’s status update on Facebook:  “I’m on an airplane and my laptop is connected to the internet and running on A/C.  This century rules!”

The computer revolution has done more than bring us numerous toys and conveniences.  The world is fundamentally different, now that information can flow freely and instantly.  For instance, it is getting very difficult to monopolize knowledge, the kind of knowledge that can be used to turn a profit or to commit fraud or to lord over people.  In an age of online reviews, small businesses must compete for good online reputation, an increasingly valuable asset.  Privacy has become more precious, more difficult to protect.  Personalization is a double-edged sword, driven by advertisers as much as consumers.  We must implicitly or explicitly indulge personal information about ourselves in exchange for information that we value.  We never know exactly “who knows what” about us anymore.  Social networks have been used to thwart crime, to conduct presidential campaigns, and to leak information from areas where journalists are not allowed, but also to organize terrorist attacks and to bully teenagers to suicidal despair.  Any ordinary person can communicate or conduct business with someone across the globe in real-time.  And since each person’s sense of reality is what he or she sees on a daily basis, our very sense of reality and normalcy are being expanded, for better or for worse.  These are just a few themes of internet philosophy.  All of these threads of technology are inextricably woven throughout the history of the past few decades.  That’s why Chapter 1 had to begin with this theme.

Back to Section 1.I:  Overview

Continue to Section 1.III:  Geopolitics and Current Events

C. Citations

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