20 years ago today, on April 30 1993, CERN contributed the technologies underpinning the World Wide Web to the royalty-free public domain. These simple technologies — the humble URL, HTTP, and HTML — were developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in the early ’90s, but it wasn’t until they were open-sourced that the WWW actually became the web. If CERN had decided otherwise, much of what you consider to be the internet probably wouldn’t exist, including Facebook, Steam, and the humble website that you’re reading right now.
In 1989 and 1990, Berners-Lee began toying with the idea of an information management system, where hypertext pages (records) are linked together via hyperlinks. This might seem like an incredibly obvious concept now, but the web was really the first system to achieve this kind of interlinking on a broad scale. Prior to hypertext, all that really existed was searchable databases, with no way to jump between pages and records. Imagine Wikipedia without links, or ExtremeTech without links, where you have to type in the exact name/location every page, or find the exact search term every time you want to visit a page. To celebrate the WWW’s 20th birthday, CERN has re-released Berners-Lee’s original website, at its original address: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html.
To accompany hyperlinks, Berners-Lee also created the UDI (universal document identifier), which would later be known as the URL (uniform resource locator) or URI (uniform resource identifier). The basic concept of URLs is to provide a single, global format that can be used to describe or locate any resource on the web, irrespective of where the resource is hosted, which web server software is hosting it, which protocol is being used (HTTP, FTP), and which ISP is connecting that resource to the internet.
The final corner of the WWW tech triad was HTTP, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. HTTP is essentially a client-server protocol for getting HTML pages from a server, and (though this wasn’t in the original spec) posting data from the client to the server. Berners-Lee had created HTML and URLs, but without HTTP there was no way to serve HTML pages from a server, and no way for a client to request a URL from a server. Incidentally, Berners-Lee also wrote the first HTTP server, called CERN httpd, to serve the world’s first website (hosted at http://info.cern.ch). As a fun aside, all of Berners-Lee’s early WWW work was done on a NeXT Computer (created by Steve Jobs, after he left Apple in the ’80s.
Which leads us neatly onto browsers. Berners-Lee developed a simple text-based browser called WorldWideWeb in 1990 to accompany the project, but it wasn’t until the release of Mosaic by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1993, following the open-sourcing of the WWW technologies, that the web really began to grow in earnest. Mosaic was a free-for-non-commercial-use graphical browser developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, with funding from Al Gore’s High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 (yes, this is the basis of the Al Gore invented the internet story.) After graduating from university Andreessen went on to form the Mosaic Communications Corporation, in 1994 Mosaic changed its name to Netscape, in 1997 the first Browser War was sparked by Microsoft’s release of Internet Explorer 4 — and the rest, as they say, is history.
As for Tim Berners-Lee, he went on to found the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT, with support from DARPA, after leaving CERN in 1994. From there, he continues to guide the development of standardized, open web technologies, and thus the future of the web. The W3C’s primary goal is to ensure the continued compatibility of dozens of browsers, used by billions of surfers, accessing millions of web servers — and so far, despite a few spats involving WebGL and HTML5 DRM extensions, the Consortium seems to be doing rather well.