World Wide Web and the internet revolution

The computer networking revolution started many decades ago, even before computers were rolled out to the public in our homes. Maybe you have heard of Morse code and the telegraph? Morse code was one of the first common "protocols”, a "standard” created to communicate from distance in the times of the telegraph.

In the same way, computer network protocols evolved little by little from the times of the ARPANET, the predecessor of the internet, to our current internet. We went from limited interoperability and a huge diversity of competing communication languages to our current well defined and structured protocols (such as layered protocols) and their standards. Currently, we have the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) reference model, a framework that supports us to design standard protocols and services that follow the various layer specifications.

Basically, the internet is the result of standardisation efforts, converging to shared protocols for common communication approaches.

Increasing connectivity

With more and more networks interconnected and making part of the whole internet, the exchange of data and code also proliferated. The internet was used not just to communicate by email and chat forums, but increasingly it was used as a digital traffic infrastructure where data and code could also be exchanged. As networks spread, tools developed in one place could be rapidly promoted, shared and deployed elsewhere. As prices for data storage technologies decreased and computing power increased, system administrators were able to provide extra storage to host repositories that could be accessed globally and provide services remotely.

In the meantime, researchers at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), including Tim Berners-Lee who we mentioned in Chapter 1, created a system for storing documents and publishing them to the internet in 1990, which was called the World Wide Web. It was soon clear that the full potential of the web could only be reached if it was accessible to the public and therefore in 1993, CERN made the source code of the World Wide Web available on a royalty-free basis.

The address of the world's first website and web server was info.cern.ch, running at CERN. The first Web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html. This page contained links to information about the WWW project itself, including a description of hypertext, technical details for creating a web server and links to other web servers as they became available.


The internet and the World Wide Web: are they the same?

Most of us use the words web and internet to refer to the same thing, but they're actually quite different. The World Wide Web – or simply the web – are the pages you see on your device when you're online. On the other hand, the internet is the network of connected computers that the web functions on, but also where emails and files travel across. Think of the internet as the roads in a city, while the houses along the road represent the web. The cars are the data that moves between websites or transfers our emails and files, separate from the web.

Web 1.0

As people started to become more familiar with the internet, they started writing documents specifically for online publication – that is, web pages. It started the era of what is referred to as Web 1.0, or the “read-only web”. The user was limited to reading information provided on the web page, with no option to communicate back or contribute to the web pages. Examples of Web 1.0 are static websites and personal sites. Similar to advertisements in the newspapers, businesses could provide catalogues or brochures to present their products over the web and people could read them and contact the businesses. The main difference was that the web provided exposure – by removing geographical barriers, the information was available to anyone at any time. The technology improved to serve new needs, with security and tools for e-commerce being the main features soon to be added.

Equally important, to view and interact with the web, users needed a special software called a browser that would fetch information from the web. While the World Wide Web also functioned as the first web browser, it was not very user-friendly. With a better graphical interface and a point-and-click use method, Mosaic – launched in 1993 – quickly became a very popular web browser as it was easy to use and thus more accessible to the average person, with other user-friendly web browsers soon to follow. The existence of reliable, user-friendly browsers on popular computers at the time had an immediate impact on the spread of the World Wide Web.

But how does the web work, exactly?

A first step in understanding how the web works, beyond what we see as web pages on our computers, is the client-server relationship that we mentioned in the previous section. Remember, clients are the users’ computers connected to the internet, while servers are computers that store web pages, sites, or apps. Additionally, these elements make the communication between client and server possible:

  • A web browser: An application software on the client computer used to request access and read information over the web.

  • HTTP: Hypertext transfer protocol is an application protocol that creates a common language for clients and servers to speak to each other. Similarly, HTTPS is the protocol where encrypted HTTP data is transferred over a secure connection.

  • URL: The uniform resource locator is the unique address used to identify a website.

  • DNS: Domain name servers are like an address book for websites, locating resources over the internet. To access any web-based service a user needs to use a valid domain name.

  • TCP/IP: Transmission control protocol (TCP) is a communication protocol between an application program and the internet protocol or IP, that we mentioned in the previous section. TCP allows information to be transferred in both directions, meaning that computer systems that use TCP to communicate can send and receive data at the same time, like a telephone conversation.

Navigating the web – what we call browsing – starts when we input into a web browser the URL, for example https://minnalearn.com/. Next, the browser goes to the DNS server to find the IP address of the server that the website lives on.

The browser sends an HTTP or HTTPS request message to the server, asking it to send a copy of the website to the client. This message, and all other data sent between the client and the server, is sent across your internet connection using TCP/IP.

If the server approves the request, it starts sending the website's files to the browser as a series of small packages of information called data packets. The browser then puts together the packages into a complete web page and displays it to you.

What do you need to know about web browsers?

  • The majority of browsers use an internal cache (pronounced “cash”) to improve loading times for subsequent visits to the same page. A cache is a special storage space for temporary files that makes a device, browser or app run faster and more efficiently.

  • While you are browsing, browsing history cookies received from various websites are stored by the browser. Cookies are small pieces of data that contain information useful to a website — such as password, preferences, browser, IP address, date and time of visit, etc. Every time the user loads a website, the browser sends the cookie back to the server to notify the website of the user’s previous activity. Although cookies and cache are two ways of storing data on a client’s machine, the main difference is that cookies are used to store information to track different characteristics related to the user, while the cache is used to make the loading of web pages faster.

  • Don’t confuse browsers with search engines though! They are quite different. A search engine is a software program that searches information on the internet based on keywords that the user types in. You use a browser to access information on the internet, while you use a search engine to point you in the right direction of a website that relates to the words you type in. You can choose from many browsers, but the most commonly used right now are Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Apple Safari. You actually have to use a browser to get to a search engine. Examples of search engines are Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, Duckduckgo and many others.

How does a search engine work?

Search engines use automated computer programs that browse the internet called “web crawlers” or “spiders” to create a copy of all the web pages they have been to. Once a spider has visited, scanned and categorised a page, the search engine can then index the pages to create website listings that facilitate faster searches. The spider will continue to crawl from one site to the next, which means the search engine's index becomes more comprehensive and robust. A user types a keyword into the search engine, the search engine then sorts through millions of pages in its database to find a match to that specific keyword. The search engine then displays the results to your keyword in a ranked order depending on relevancy.

Cat images are looked at through a magnifying glass
Cat images are looked at through a magnifying glass

Improvements of the different technologies used over the web made it ever simpler to use and soon it became mainstream, immediately attracting numerous users to the web. The 90s brought commerce online, with the first sale on "Echo Bay” – later to become eBay – made in 1995, and Amazon.com launching in 1995. Internet service providers arose rapidly to meet the enormous demand for servers to link people to the internet.

While most people working on personal computers used dial-up connections to connect to the internet, which required a phone line to operate – meaning you could not be connected to the internet and call someone at the same time – these connections were slow, downloading a file was often a time-consuming process, and streaming music or video wasn’t possible.

The benefit of broadband and wireless

It was the arrival of broadband technologies that changed web browsing as we knew it. Broadband, meaning “broad bandwidth”, provided a faster, high-capacity, "always-on" two-way connection between the end user and access network provider connection. The advent of broadband networks meant that people were able download files, songs, TV shows and movies at greater speeds. This opened up a whole new world in online media. By the early 2000s, millions of homes and offices were connected to the web through broadband on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis.

At the same time, wireless internet was introduced and quickly became the norm, replacing Ethernet cables that had to be physically plugged into a computer to work. Wireless Internet was soon adopted in many places, such as coffee shops, retail stores and offices.

Mobile broadband

In parallel, the progress of mobile broadband technologies enabling faster internet speeds contributed to the increasing popularity of mobile phones.

  • The first wireless internet access became available in 1991 as part of the second generation (2G) of mobile phone technology.

  • Higher speeds were made possible in 2001 and 2006 as the third generation (3G) became available. This changed the course of wireless communication systems, as in addition to voice telephony and SMS services, data transfer capabilities increased, leading to the rise of new services such as video conferencing, video streaming and voice over IP (such as Skype). Smartphones then boomed in the mobile phone market, attracting more customers to use the internet.

  • The fourth generation (4G) broadband cellular network technology was introduced in 2009. It offered fast mobile web access facilitating gaming services, high-definition mobile TV, video conferencing and even 3D television.

  • The next generation of cellular network technology, 5G, is expected to change the way people live and work. It will be faster and able to handle more connected devices than the existing 4G network, improvements that will enable a wave of new kinds of tech products. 5G networks were deployed in 2018 in different regions globally and are still in their early days.

A chart comparing mobile broadband speeds
A chart comparing mobile broadband speeds

With the available technologies in place to allow high capacity and faster connectivity, the internet quickly transformed from a nationwide infrastructure network to an international phenomenon. However, a key aspect enabling the internet revolution is accessibility.

Accessibility refers to the availability of the technologies that make it possible for users to connect to the internet. On one side, accessibility is determined by the geographical coverage of the technical infrastructures providing network connectivity, while, on the other side, the resources needed – finance and knowledge – influence users’ access to the internet.

In the next section we will explore how the confluence of internet and web accessibility have shaped the world we live in today.

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III. Implications of connectivity and accessibility