Celebrating 25 Years of the World Wide Web

A look back at how it began and what it will become

16 December 2014

Image: iStockphoto

Three words were scribbled at the top of Tim Berners-Lee’s March 1989 proposal for what would become the World Wide Web: “Vague but exciting.”

Those words from Lee, a computer scientist who is coined as the inventor of the Web, barely hinted at what would work its way into nearly every facet of our lives. Today the Web is ubiquitous—even our refrigerators can be hooked up to it. But back in 1989, going online was a rare experience reserved for those with a real need, access, and an awful lot of patience.  

However, that changed quickly. The first public Web page appeared in 1991. First universities and government agencies went online launching their own websites. Soon after, America Online—now known as AOL—sent its disks to consumers’ mailboxes as a marketing ploy to get them to sign up for its service, which included access to the Web as well as its email service. (In fact, at one point, half the disks manufactured worldwide had America Online logos on them.) Today, our mobile phones, tablets, smartwatches, and other portable devices allow us to be online anytime in almost any location in the world.

Of course Berners-Lee did not create the World Wide Web out of thin air. He built it on existing technology—specifically the ARPANET, the communications network that was first used in 1969 to connect research laboratories. IEEE Life Fellows Paul Baran, Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, and Leonard Kleinrock helped to develop ARPANET, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the World Wide Web and even today’s Internet of Things.

The World Wide Web has done more than give us access to information and videos of funny animals [see Grumpy Cat]. It has also boosted our ability to launch businesses starting with the dot-com boom and has helped many collaborate on scientific research and projects, connect and reconnect with people across the world, and much more. And the Web is still moving at a record pace without any signs of slowing down. In fact, the Web is expected to hit 3 billion users next year (and if Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has anything to do with it, it will be closer to 7 billion before we know it).  

Many of IEEE’s journals covered the new Web technology over the years. This year in June IEEE’s Computing Now magazine published its issue, The Web @ 25 and Beyond. Author’s examined the Web’s evolution—which started as a platform to connect people to information, then connect people to people, and then increase knowledge through collaborative platforms and apps. Today, the authors say we’re at a point that computers and users can interact with one another in which both sides have the ability now to reason, assist, and react to situations. Another article covered the shift from hypertext to today’s cognitive Web—which supports collaboration and decision-making—and has enabled even more advances, including the smart grid and the Internet of Things.

As we look back at the origins of the Web and how far we’ve come in just 25 years, we can only guess what might be in the coming years. As San Murugesan, editor of the Computing Now special issue, wrote: “The Web’s full potential remains unknown, though seemingly vast. At this stage, it’s anybody’s guess what it will be like in another 25 years.”

Now we enter the next generation of the Web—or Web 4.0, which has been called “the ultra-intelligent electronic agent.” Here the Web will know when our flight has been cancelled and automatically book us on the next available. It will remind us to bring an umbrella if there’s a chance of rain. It might also nudge us to take a walk and eat better. With this being the new standard for the Web, the next 25 years could be as transformative as the first, if not more so.

What do you think is the most important contribution the Web has given us? Looking ahead, what else might the Web help us accomplish?

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More