The World Wide Web

What it is and why you should care


The World Wide Web (the Web) is a collection of programs and computer systems that let people publish words, pictures, sounds, video, and computer data to be used by other people. The Web is the closest thing there is to a uniform view of the Internet.

Centralized Computing

When computers were first invented, they were large, bulky machines, often filling a room and sometimes even an entire building. They were also terribly expensive. When there were only a few computers in the world, there was no need to link them together. If you wanted to work on a particular computer, you went to where that computer was.

Beginnings of Networking

As computer science and computer engineering progressed, computers became faster, smaller, and cheaper... and as a result, much more prevalent. It soon became apparent that it was inconvenient to have to go to where a particular computer was in order to use it. Also, one might want to use computers at different sites at essentially the same time. Various technologies for connecting computers together were developed in order to solve this problem. During the 1960s the Department of Defense sponsored the development of the ARPANet, which connected together many different computers in a uniform way (Walrand 1991).

Development of the Internet

The ARPANet was so successful that in 1987 a similar network called the NSFNet was created by the National Science Foundation (Amdahl 1994) . The NSFNet combined with regional networks all around the world formed what is called the Internet (Amdahl 1994) .

The Internet, which connects together thousands of different computers and lets their users send mail, log in directly to a remote computer, transfer computer files, and do other useful tasks. The problem with the Internet as it stood was that each of these tasks required that the user learn a completely different way of interacting with each program. This situation can be very frustrating.

Development of the World Wide Web

Then onto the stage comes the Web. The first project proposal for the Web, written by Tim Berners-Lee, was circulated at CERN in March 1989; the first prototype was developed in November 1990; the first browser (line mode only) was released to a limited audience in March 1991 (W3 Consortium 1995) . It was not until the development of graphical browsers such as Mosaic, however, that the Web really took off. In January of 1993, there were about 50 known Web servers; Mosaic was introduced as an alpha version in February 1993 and as a working version in September 1993, and by October 1993 there were over 500 known Web servers (W3 Consortium 1995) . The Web continued to grow at near-exponential rates. By January 1995, there were over 12,000 known Web servers and the growth does not show any signs of slowing (Gray 1995).

The Internet viewed through the World Wide Web

To the Web, everything on the Internet is a resource and you can get to anything if you know its Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Not only that, but Web browsers provide a consistent way of accessing and using resources. This obviates the need to learn different command systems when you want to use different features of the Internet.

Is the World Wide Web really the information superhighway?

Yes and no. The World Wide Web provides uniform access to distributed heterogenous data (lots of stuff and easy to get to). However, as of 1995, it is not yet really adept at handling video and voice data. If you have the hardware you can get this sort of information, but there is still a good deal of work to do on this.

There is also the question of access. About 10-15% of the American population is embracing technology; the rest range from ambivalent to fearful (CBS 1995). Those embracing technology are not a representative sample of the American population. In particular, the demographics of the Web do not match the demographics of the United States as a whole. For example, over 90% of Web users are male, and over 35% of Web users are graduate or undergraduate students (Pitkow and Recker 1994) . Another disperity is in economic and social status; there are some public access systems, but the fact that a great deal of computer equipment is needed to access the Web builds in a tremendous bias against the poor and disadvantaged. There is indeed a new division emerging between the "knows" and the "know-nots" (CBS 1995) but it is much easier for the "haves" to become "knows" than for the "have-nots" to become "knows". In the end this may change, but for right now, the Web is more like a "members only" club than a public access highway.