Internet History

A Brief Look at the Key Events in Internet History

To understand emerging web trends, it is helpful to understand Internet history and how it has evolved into what some call the dawn of the Age of Information.

My own personal Internet history began in the fall of 1988 when I enrolled in college as a Computer Science Engineering student. At this time, the most popular use of the Internet could probably be best explained as college students goofing off.

Certainly, it had more useful applications, but there were also many late nights spent in Internet relay chat channels with students exchanging such brilliant ideas like what they were watching on television and what they had for dinner.

During this period of Internet history, a popular activity was sending text pictures through email. This was before the age of graphics hit the Internet, and a text picture filled with ASCII symbols (i.e. text like 'X' and 'O') was used to create a picture. The most popular picture floating around was a big picture of spam, no doubt a reference to the famous Monty Python skit. This picture, along with students jokingly repeating the word 'SPAM' in chat channels, solidified the word in our dictionaries as any unsolicited text or picture sent through email or posted on message boards.

Internet History - Its Humble Beginnings

Despite popular myth, Internet history does not begin with Al Gore slaving away in a workshop.

The Internet was an evolution of computer networking that began in the late 50's, hit a turning point in 1969 when ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) connected UCLA to Stanford Research Institute's Augmentation Research Center, and became official in 1983 when all hosts hooked up to ARPANET were switched over to TCP/IP.

So, where does Internet history begin? It is really a matter of opinion and depends largely on what the person thinks made the most significant impact. Personally, I'd call 1969 its humble beginning and 1983 its official beginning. The Internet is based on a standard protocol for computers to exchange information, and that standard protocol was launched in 1983.

Internet History - A Tale of Two Networks

The Internet evolved from more than just schools and government institutions connecting their computers together through a standard protocol called TCP/IP. There was another emerging network in the 1980's that also played a part: the bulletin board system.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) became popular -- at least among technology geeks -- in the mid-80s when modems were priced low enough for the average person to afford them. These early BBSs were run on 300 baud modems which were so slow you could literally see the text scroll from left to right like someone was typing. (In fact, it was slower than some people's typing.)

As modems became faster, Bulletin Board Systems became more prominent and commercial services like CompuServe and America Online began popping up. But most BBSs were run by individuals on their own computer and were free to use.

In the late 80's, when modems became fast enough to support it, these BBSs began creating their own little network by calling each other and exchanging messages.

These public forums weren't much different than the forums here at About.com. They allowed people all over the world to type in posts and exchange information. Of course, very few message boards actually spanned the world since calling another country to exchange messages was too expensive for most individuals.

In the early 90s, many of these BBSs began hooking up with the Internet to support email. As the Internet grew in popularity, these privately owned BBSs began to vanish, while commercial BBSs like America Online merged with the Internet.

But, in many ways, the spirit of BBSs continue in the form of popular message boards across the Internet.

The Internet Goes Mainstream

Early Internet history was dominated by government institutions and the academic world. In 1994, the Internet went public. The Mosaic web browser had been released the year before, and public interest turned to what was formerly the domain of academics and technology geeks. Web pages began springing up, and people everywhere began realizing the enormous possibilities of an interconnected network that spanned the globe.

These early websites were more like an interactive word document than anything else, but combined with popularity of email, Internet relay chat channels and BBS-centric message boards, they became a great way for people to stay connected to friends and family and business to reach a broader audience.

This web explosion brought with it the browser wars as Netscape and Internet Explorer duked it out to become the de facto standard on people's desktops. And, in many ways, the browser war continues with Netscape stepping into the shadows and Mozilla's Firefox emerging as competition to Microsoft's popular web browser.

The early websites were a great way to exchange information, but HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) is very limited in what it can do. It is much closer to a word processor than an application development environment, so new technologies emerged that could help businesses do more with the Internet. These technologies included server-side languages like ASP and PHP and client-side technologies like Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX.

It was through a combination of these technologies that businesses could overcome the limitations of HTML and create web applications. The simplest application that most people have run across is the shopping cart, which allows us to order our goodies on the web instead of driving to the store. And many people have turned to the Internet to do their taxes instead of filling out all of those crazy forms.

It is safe to say that the business world was in awe of the raw potential provided by the Internet and that awe was quickly transferred to investors. Internet companies (called Dot-Coms) began popping up left and right while companies like Amazon.com became worth more than their traditional counterparts like Sears and Roebuck even if they had never posted a profit.

The Fall of the Internet

The Internet and the 'dot-com bubble' fueled a runaway economy that drove up stock prices for companies that didn't have the profits to support them.

Dot-com startups became a dime a dozen, each coming with a promise of latching on to the Internet pie.

Eventually, someone was going to introduce the Internet to reality, and that happened in 2000 when the technology-heavy NASDAQ index peaked at over 5,000. And, like many relationships, the small fights between the Internet and reality turned into big fights until, in 2001, they had a huge disagreement and by 2002 they had decided to call it quits.

Web 2.0

With people back to reality, the Internet as a solid investment emerged again in 2003 and has been steadily rising. Equipped with technologies like Java, Flash, PHP, ASP, CGI, .NET, etc., a new trend of social networking began to rise in popularity.

Social networks aren't anything new. They've existed long before the Internet and date back to the dawn of mankind. If you've ever belonged to a group of friends or a 'clique', you have belonged to a social network.

Online games have been using them for years with 'guilds' and 'friends list' to help connect players to other players. Social Networking websites date back to the mid-nineties with websites like classmates.com. But they came to the forefront of the web in 2005 when Myspace rose in popularity.

Social Bookmarking, Social Networking, and emerging technologies have given rise to 'Web 2.0'. Today, Web 2.0 is mostly a marketing term and can be used to describe anything from the 'new use' of the Internet emerging through the popularity of blogs and RSS feeds to the utilization of technologies and methodologies like Social Networking and AJAX to bring together a new user experience.

If we were going to be technical, today's web is probably more accurately described as 'Web 3.0' or 'Web 4.0', but attaching a generational version number to anything is a dicey business at best.

What we can say is that the web is evolving as more people use the Internet to connect with friends and family, to meet new people, to share information, and to do business.

If I had to best describe the phenomenon called 'Web 2.0', I'd say that as a society we were using the Internet as a tool, and now as a society, we are merging with the Internet. It is becoming a part of us and a part of how we live instead of just something we use as a tool.