Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reminiscence -- my early days with the Web

Some have declared this month the 25th birthday of the Web because Tim Berners-Lee submitted a document called Information Management: a Proposal to his bosses at CERN in March 1989.

I am not sure what constitutes the birthday of an application. For example, Request for Comments 1945, defining HTTP/1.0, states that "HTTP has been in use by the World-Wide Web global information initiative since 1990" and the following announcement of availability of running code was posted in August, 1991.

Regardless, by 1992 the Web was well underway and we were surfing using a text-oriented browser called Lynx from the University of Kansas. (Recall that graphic workstations were quite expensive at the time and PC graphics were very crude, so nearly everyone worked with text in those days days, and the first Web release was text only -- no images).

In 1993, I attended a presentation on "The World-Wide Web Initiative" by Tim Berners-Lee at the Internet Society INET Conference. In my usual prescient manner, I found it interesting, but recall dismissing it as "Gopher with pictures." (Gopher was a system for distributed documents, but links were restricted to a table of contents at the start of a document and there were no pictures).

(I was working in developing nations at the time -- my presentation was on "Empowering Low-Bandwidth Users" -- people with no hope of Web access).

My next encounter with the Web was as an instructor in the 1995 Internet Society Developing Nations Workshop. On the last day of the workshop, we installed Mosaic on a Sun Workstation, and showed the students a collection of pictures of dinosaurs at a community college in Hawaii.

That was pretty cool -- I finally got it. I returned to campus and put our university's first Web site online using a PC running Windows 3.1 and an HTTP server written by Bob Denny. It crashed a lot, but my students were able to design, collect data for and publish a Web site with the course catalog and pages for each professor with their photos and interests and the departments and majors. (This was just for the School, not the entire university).

I also got funds from the USC Information Sciences Institute and installed a T1 link to four old NeXT workstations at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles -- we were off and running.
Update 3/13/2014

You cannot trust reminiscence! In looking back, the last paragraph of this post is totally incorrect. We had eight NeXT machines, not four and they were online before I saw the Web! We used them for surfing Gopher sites and for a telementoring project.

Update 3/22/2014

I just came across an old blog post that sheds further light on the early Internet culture -- a discussion of the choice of the top level domain names like .com and .edu.