Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Xanadu to World Wide Web

Posted on | June 11, 2016 | No Comments

Tim Berners-Lee, a British citizen and a software consultant at CERN, or Centre European pour la Recherche Nucleaire developed what came to be known as the World Wide Web (WWW). Located in Switzerland, CERN was Europe’s largest nuclear research institute, although the name was changed to European Laboratory for Particle Physics to avoid the stigma attached to nuclear research. In March of 1989, Berners-Lee proposed a project to create a system for sharing information among CERN’s dispersed High Energy Physics research participants. This information management system would form the basis of the global Internet.

Berners-Lee wanted to create a system where information from various sources could be linked and accessed, creating a “pool of human knowledge.” Using a NeXT computer built by Steve Job’s post-Apple company, he wrote the prototype for the World Wide Web and a basic text-based browser called Nexus. The Next computer had a UNIX operating system, built-in Ethernet and a version of the Xerox PARC graphical user interface that Jobs had transformed into the Apple Mac. Berners-Lee credited the NeXT computer with having the functionality to speed up the process, saving him perhaps a year in the coding process.

Dissatisfied with the limitations of the Internet, Berners-Lee developed this new software around the concept of “hypertext,” which had originated in Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib, a 1974 manifesto about the possibilities of computers. Nelson warned against leaving the future of computing to a priesthood of computer center guardians that served the dictates of the mainframe computer.

Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project allowed him to coin the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” as early as 1965. Xanadu is the original name for Kublai Khan’s mythical summer palace, described by the enigmatic Marco Polo. “There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gold and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” Nelson strove to transform the computer experience with software and display technology that would make reading and writing an equally rich “Xanadu” experience.

An important transition technology was HyperCard, a computer application that allowed the user to create stacks of connected cards that could be displayed as visual pages on an Apple Macintosh screen. Using a scripting language called HyperTalk, each card could show text, tables, and even images. “Buttons” could be installed on each card that linked it to other cards within the stack with a characteristic “boing” sound clip. Later, images could be turned into buttons. Hypercard missed out on historical significance because of Apple’s “box-centric culture,” according to HyperCard inventor Bill Atkinson. He later lamented, “If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser.” [1]

Berners-Lee accessed the first web page, on the CERN web server on Christmas Day, 1990. He spent the next year adding content and flying around the world to convince others to use the software. Concerned that a commercial company would copy the software and create a private network, he convinced CERN to release the source code under a general license so that it could be used by developers freely. One example was a group of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications that was part of the NSFNET. Marc Andreessen and other students created the Mosaic browser that they distributed for free using the Internet’s FTP (File Transport Protocol). They soon left for Silicon Valley where they got venture capital to create Netscape, a company designed around their Web browser called Netscape Navigator.[2]

Berners-Lee designed the WWW with several features that made it extremely effective.

First, it was based on open systems that allowed it to run on many computing platforms. It was not designed for a specific proprietary technology but rather would allow Apples, PCs, Sun Workstations, etc. to connect and exchange information. Berners-Lee compared it to a market economy where anyone can trade with anyone on a voluntary basis.

Second, it actualized the dream of hypertext, the linking of a “multiverse” of documents on the WWW. While Ted Nelson would criticize its reliance on documents, files, and traditional directories, the “web” would grow rapidly.[3]

Third, it used a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) to create a direct connection from the client to the server. With this protocol and taking advantage of packet-switching data communications, the request for a specific document is sent to the server and either the requested document is sent or the client is notified that the document does not exist. The power of this system meant that the connection was closed quickly after the transaction, saving bandwidth and freeing the network for other connections.

Fourth, it also worked with the existing Internet infrastructure and integrated many of its basic protocols including FTP, Telenet, Gopher, e-mail, and News. FTP was particularly important for the distribution of software, including browsers. Newsgroups informed people all around the NSFNET that the technology and associated browsers were available.

Another crucial feature was that content could be created using a relatively easy to use interpretation language called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). HTML was a simplified version of another markup language used by large corporations called Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). HTML was more geared towards page layout and format, while SGML was better for document description. Generalized markup describes the document to whatever system it works within. HTML and SGML would form a symbiotic relationship and eventually lead to new powerful languages for e-commerce and other net-centric uses like XML (eXensible Markup Language) and HTML 5.

Finally, Berners-Lee developed the uniform resource locator (URL) as a way of addressing information. The URL gave every file on the WWW, whether it was a text file, an image file, or a multimedia file, a specific address that could be used to request and download it.[4]

Together, these features defined a simple transaction that was the basis of the World Wide Web. In summary, the user or “client” establishes a connection to the server over the packet-switched data network of the Internet. Using the address, or URL, the client issues a request to the server specifying the precise web document to be retrieved. Next, the server responds with a status code and, if available, the content of the information requested. Finally, either the client or the server disconnects the link.

The beauty of the system was that its drain on the Internet was limited. Rather than tying up a whole telecommunications line as a telephone call would do, the HTTP allowed for the information to be downloaded (or not) and then the connection would be terminated. The World Wide Web began to allow unprecedented amounts of data to flow through the Internet, changing the world’s economy and it’s communicative tissue.

Notes

[1] Kahney, L. (2002, August 14). HyperCard: What Could Have Been. Retrieved June 10, 2016, from http://www.wired.com/2002/08/hypercard-what-could-have-been/
[2] Greenemeier, L. (2009, March 12). Remembering the Day the World Wide Web Was Born. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/day-the-web-was-born/
[3] Banks, L. (2011, April 15). Hypertext Creator Says Structure of World Wide Web ‘Completely Wrong’ Retrieved June 11, 2016. Also Greenemeier, Larry. “Remembering the Day the World Wide Web Was Born.” Scientific American. N.p., 11 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 May 2017. .
[4] Richard, E. (1995) “Anatomy of the World Wide Web,” INTERNET WORLD, April. pp. 28-20.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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