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Reports of the Web’s demise are premature

THE SEPTEMBER 2010 ISSUE of the US edition of WIRED magazine had a very striking cover. In a huge headline it pronounced: “The Web is dead”.

 

Wired likes to forecast the future; it's the main point of the magazine, and it previously forecast something similar in 1997 when it declared that new technologies such as Pointcast would create a “radical future of media beyond the web”.

 

Today, nobody remembers Pointcast, and billions are using the web, so how valid is their prediction this time? As I pondered this, I remembered a meeting that I had had exactly twenty years ago this month.

 

In November 1990, I was attending a technology conference at Versailles near Paris when a neat, tall, slightly intense, man approached me. “Are you Ian Ritchie?” he asked, and after confirming that I was he introduced himself.

 

His name was Tim Berners-Lee and he wanted to talk to me about the system he had devised at CERN in Geneva for sharing and browsing documents. It was, he said, called the ‘World Wide Web’, and it was running on the computer in his office.

 

His system was being used by researchers at CERN to access documents, and via a hypertext linking technique they were navigating from document to document, which they found to be a useful feature.

 

I knew all about hypertext systems. My company was then the largest supplier of hypertext authoring and publishing tools in the world (this being, at that time, a ‘zero billion-dollar’ business). Our system showed documents with real typefaces, illustrations, photos and graphics, even video sequences, and ran on a modern mouse-based windows system. His system was text only; it had no ability to show real typefaces, or illustrations, and didn't use a mouse - the links were fired from keyboard keys.

 

He felt we were ideally placed to write a graphic browser for his World Wide Web, as indeed we were, but unfortunately I really couldn’t see the potential in his system. There were several other hypertext systems around the world at that time, most of which were much more sophisticated than the CERN one.

 

Tim Berners-Lee had no such doubts however. I remember being somewhat puzzled when he was so very sure that his World Wide Web system was the means by which mankind would communicate in future - he was totally convinced of that.

The important bit that I missed was the Internet. His system was designed from the ground up to exploit the Internet.

 

Our systems worked over networks, such as those used by corporations to link their various offices, but we weren't able to use the Internet. The Internet was still publicly owned and funded and was restricted to government, academic and military users.

It was not possible for commercial users to access the Internet until late 1992, and it wasn't until 1995 that the Internet backbone switched to commercial funding. Networks such as AOL and Compuserve quickly came on board and everybody saw the benefit of being on the Internet - the ‘network of networks’.

 

Berners-Lee, being an academic researcher, didn't even think about this. The Internet was what CERN already used in 1990, and his World Wide Web was designed to exploit it from the get-go.

 

So, is Wired magazine right this time? Is the Web dead? No, of course not. People might find ‘apps’ on their smartphone useful, but the web remains the best way of publishing to all mankind, as predicted by Tim Berners-Lee at our meeting exactly twenty years ago.

 

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