This article was originally published in Project Magazine, a Canadian periodical written by engineering students, for engineering students. The original publication date is unknown, but it was some time in 2008. I am publishing it here because it is still a relevant read, especially in light of our growing use of social networking tools.
Like many widely present inventions, what we know today as the World Wide Web began its life as a simple research project. In the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee, often attributed with the creation of the Web, sought to provide a system of distributing, sharing and publishing information for the academic community.
Independent of Berners-Lee’s work, the University of Minnesota developed the Gopher protocol as a universal document retrieval system, marking a revolutionary shift in thinking; it was an attempt to model the intricate relationships between documents in a way that computers could understand. The links between these resources, or hypertext, would pave the way for the Web to evolve over the next three decades.
Based on the Gopher’s hypertext linking capabilities and the Generalized Markup Language developed at IBM, the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) enabled the Web to incorporate more advanced features such as embedded media (images, but later sounds and video) and formatted text. Interest in the World Wide Web as the next communication medium became apparent, due largely as a result of the ease of publishing information.
Over fifteen years to follow, many companies including Netscape and Microsoft were in an arms race to develop new features to cater to an exponentially growing market space. During this time, browsers added countless extensions to HTML, some of which became de-facto standards, albeit different from Berners-Lee’s vision for the Web. By the release of HTML 3.0, browser support for tables and other complex formatting became widespread, enabling the publication of an ever-increasing array of scientific and literary works.
By the 21st century, software such as blogs, social networking, wikis and podcasts marked the birth of a second generation of the World Wide Web. The idea of Web 2.0 indicated the transition of many websites from isolated systems to an interlinked, global computing platform. Ultimately, Web 2.0 is about increasing the socialization of the Web, enriching collaboration and utility for users. This had significant implications for both individuals and businesses because it provided a means to make sense of the growing amount of available information.
The progress in the field of web standards has been relentless, and gradual. Under the guidance of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a multinational non-profit organization founded by Tim Berners-Lee, standards are developed through several stages of peer review, and then officially published to the community-at-large. This ensures that updates are logical and consistent with the W3C’s goals of interoperability, flexibility and extensibility.
The largest step forward so far has been a separation of document structure from its presentation in code. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) enable this by providing a separate language to describe the way data should be output to various devices. This is important particularly for accessibility purposes: after all, information such as fonts being red or bold have no meaning for alternative display systems such as screen readers (text-to-speech) and Braille outputs. In this way, multiple style sheets can be created for each document, allowing them to behave differently depending on the output media.
So what is the future direction of the Internet and the World Wide Web? As we are able to gather increasing amounts of information from our outside environment, we need a way of gathering and organizing the information in an interoperable way. Tim Berners-Lee envisions a Web that is connected not with the data itself, but with computers understanding the meaning of the data. While likely to yield some notable results, another browser war will inevitably prevent this dream from coming into fruition. This is the reason why initiatives proposed by institutions such as the W3C must be adhered to by industry.
In everyday use, the Semantic Web will provide the ability to interpret information in unprecedented ways: for example, the transactions on your bank statements can be overlaid onto a calendar, or inserted into graphs based on arbitrary criteria. Indeed, the possibilities are endless and the technology already exists to make this happen—all we need is one last push to implement it. We are looking to a future where computers can do an increasing amount of work and provide detailed analysis through the implementation of Web standards.