by Dan Worth
August 5, 2011
The World Wide Web turns 20 -- how it's changed the world forever
On 6 August 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, then a humble scientist at CERN, made the first page on the World Wide Web publicly available in a move that, unbeknown to him at the time, would change the world more quickly and profoundly than anything before or since.
There's something devilishly simple about the web on a theoretical level: create a network of wires, put a terminal in every home and business, and share information on top of it. It could be an idea dreamed up in a novel by Jules Verne or a film by Orson Welles.
Bebo White was a researcher on the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) at Stanford University, the first location to install a web sever outside Europe, and probably sums up the thoughts of most who first used the web.
"I'm often asked if I had any clue at the time of the first web site at SLAC of how dramatically the web would affect society. I certainly did not and I wonder how many did," he told V3.
"It's rather like, did Gutenberg or Bell or Marconi really realise at the time the impact on history of their inventions? I suspect not."
But, like the printing press and the telephone, the web was taken to with relish. Within 20 years it has gone from basic web pages read by a handful of early advocates, to a slick, polished, world-changing system that has altered major industries forever.
One of the first industries to be taken to the cleaners was music. Services like Napster and AudioGalaxy made it clear that there were places where information was available that could be downloaded to your own computer, and from there it was all over.
While the music industry has recovered somewhat, it has never been the same since, with sites like Spotify and iTunes taking the power away from the record labels and making the web the big distributor.
News is another industry that has been profoundly affected. Before the advent of the web, the newspaper industry had it all its own way: it broke the news, outsiders were shut out and feedback was limited to the occasional letter.
Now sites like Blogger, Wordpress and, of course, Twitter make mass publication a viable option for all, while the newspaper industry has to rely on new advertising revenues like paywalls to make money as free news becomes the norm.
The impact on more traditional businesses has been huge too, as Phillip Evison, acting chief information officer and technology partner at Deloitte, explained.
"The web has revolutionised businesses and fundamentally changed lots of sectors, such as the music industry, and it will continue to have impacts on areas such as film, where streaming is going to become more common," he told V3.
"There are some industries, though, where it's not touched at all and where there is still a lot of growth to come."
Evison explained that it is only a matter of time before the web makes its presence felt in all areas as the next generation of business leaders reach the top jobs in areas such as sales, marketing and even government.
"As more tech-savvy executives reach the top positions in companies, they will drive further deployment of web services, such as sales managers using web sites to host information on products and real-time stock updates," he said.
"It's inevitable governments will also make more use of the web, but they have to be careful not to create second class citizens that don't have access to the web and therefore can't access key services."
The web has not only changed existing businesses, though. It has helped to create brand new ones that have taken entire sectors by storm - firms such as Amazon which have thrived at the expense of high street stores like Woolworths and HMV.
An Amazon spokesperson, obviously keen to sing the praises of the web, explained to V3 that the company has thrived by offering "an increase in the selection that customers can choose from, a high level of convenience and low prices".
While Amazon represents an example of a business out-competing those in an existing industry, the web has also given rise to firms that could never have existed before, such as Salesforce and Facebook.
What's driving all these businesses forward now is the mobile web. As tablets and smartphones provide access to information on the go, this has led to the creation of mobile-centric services from new start-ups.
Foursquare is a prime example. The site lets users check into any location on their mobile device so that friends on the application, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, can see where they are and what they're up to at any given time.
As Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai explained to V3, the site has catapulted to success on the back of the mobile internet as people demand access to online services and web sites at all times.
"I think the biggest shift, and the one that means the most to Foursquare, which was born around the tail end of this 20-year period, is that the web has become increasingly mobile," he said.
"We want ever faster, ever more ubiquitous ways to access the web, and mobile is that last field."
With a further one billion connections expected to be made in the coming years on the mobile web, this could well have a major impact on the web's future.
Of course, there are risks to the internet's growth, with net neutrality, web blocking and three-strikes plans all swirling around the corridors of power of governments looking to control this most powerful of media.
The web was built on the idea of openness and freedom, though, and Berners-Lee offered his world-changing idea for free to anyone who wanted it, never thinking to charge a fee. For Foursquare's Selvadurai, this is its supreme achievement.
"I think the greatest thing is that it's stayed independent (and hopefully will continue to do so): no one entity 'owns' the web. This allows anyone (the exception being countries that block the web) to create content and publish it for others to see," he said.
Of course some nations do block the web, fearful that it can be used by 'dissidents' to organise protests and undermine state authority, as was the case earlier this year when governments in Egypt and Tunisia succumbed to mass protests organised online.
While it would be unfair to give the web credit for it all, there is no doubt that the ability for citizens to post messages to the outside world, organise demonstrations and raise awareness of their campaigns is a powerful tool in the fight against tyranny.
Let's not forget, though, that the web is a place of fun and silliness too. Berners-Lee may have enabled the creation of whole new businesses and means of productivity, but he's also responsible for billions of lost hours on Facebook and Lolcats.
The web is whatever you want it to be - a tool to bring down governments, create new businesses, disrupt entire industries, watch celebrities melt down, share stupid links, run your own blog, track the Tour de France live. It's all things to all people.
Its creation is a moment in history that, according to Deloitte's Evison, those in the technology sector should feel privileged to have witnessed, and one that will be regarded as seminal in the evolution of mankind.
"Being involved in the technology space since the web has been around has been a wonderful time to be working in the industry. It's what it must have been like to be around at the time of the industrial revolution," he said.
Roll on the next 20 years.