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Where Did This Thing ComeFrom, Anyway?
Sometimes the best things happen almost by accident.
That's certainly the case with the Internet and the World Wide Web. There's a good chance that someday we may look back and consider them the happiest accidents in the history of the planet. In the last six or seven years they've changed the way we communicate more rapidly than any development in history.
At its most basic, this remarkable technology allows us to send messages to one another. Whether you work for a small company, a large corporation, a university, a government agency, or even have your own business in your home, there's a good chance that most of your day-to-day communication is now done electronically via e-mail. Type in a message, hit a button, and in an instant it's delivered to the computer of a friend or colleague around the corner or around the world.
And what's happened to your telephone? Well, if you're like me, you use it to call your mom, who, if she's like mine, hasn't even mastered the automated teller yet, let alone attempted to communicate in cyberspace.
But that's just the ground floor. On more sophisticated levels, the Internet and World Wide Web are electronic reference libraries, research data bases, books, art galleries, newspapers, magazines, literary salons, catalogs, stores, gambling parlors, and even village gathering places. The Web's ability to transmit images, sound, and other media give it almost unlimited potential, and people are dreaming up new uses for it almost everyday. As amazing as things havebeen so far, they've only scratched the surface. It's sometimes hard to believe that most of this has only been around since 1994. The next ten to twenty years are going to be a lot of fun.
The Internet Vs. The World Wide Web
Before we go any further, we need to clear up something that confuses a lot of people. They hear Internet. They hear World Wide Web. Are these two the same thing, they wonder, or is there a difference?
The answer is they're both the same and different. The Internet is the global linkage of computer networks that allows information to be sent at breakneck speed around the world. The only catch is that the information that can be sent is limited to text. Think of it as the hardware for the whole endeavor.
The World Wide Web, on the other hand, is what most people think of when they talk about the Internet. This is because the Web is what finally attracted them into cyberspace. It has the ability to transfer not just text, but also images, video, and audio. When the technology began to catch on in 1993, it single-handedly turned the Internet from a medium that was largely the realm of researchers and academics who were connected at work and a relatively small contingent of computer geeks who logged on from home to a place where everyone can find something of interest. At that point, there were maybe two million people connected to the Web. Today there may be as many as forty million, and their numbers are growing exponentially. For people who plan on doing business there, every one of them is a potential customer.
How It All Started
In a sense, we can thank the fears that gripped the nation during the Cold War for the creation of the Internet. It all started in the late 1950s, when the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a project called Arpanet.
The idea was to create a nationwide linkage of large (and, supposedly, immune from nuclear attack) mainframe computers to support military research projects. The users agreed to a standard operating protocol that allowed them to communicate with one another.
By the mid 1960s, the network had begun to expand. There were a lot of civilian institutions collaborating with the military on its projects, including a number of the country's biggest corporations and foremost research universities. Involved in their own research as well as working with the military, they realized the network was a wonderful tool for communicating, sharing data, and collaborating on projects. In the 1980s, the introduction of the personal computer and electronic workstation increased the demand for presence on the Internet even further. People were discovering the vast wealth of information that could be accessed over the giant network. Eventually, as more and more independent networks wanted to come online, overloading became a serious issue.
In 1985, to help solve the problem, the National Science Foundation established four super computing centers at Cornell University (where I spend much of my time), the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Illinois, and the University of California at San Diego linked by high-speed lines capable of carrying an extraordinary amount of data. Much like the airports in Atlanta and Chicago act as hubs for major airline routes, these four sites act as hubs for the trillions of bytes of electronic information that whiz around the country every second of every day.
In its earliest days, most Internet users were engineers, physicists, and other technical folks working on complicated projects. Data transmission was limited to text, and most communication centered on research and the sharing of data. Nothing real exciting happened, at least not in the popular culture sense. Gradually, though, as more people discovered the Internet, other uses popped up.
E-mail began to supplant the telephone as a convenient means of communication. More and more information became available on electronic data bases maintained by universities and corporations. People began gathering electronically in "chatrooms" devoted to the discussion of virtually every topic imaginable. A person could (and still can) sit in his study and have an earnest discussion on Shakespeare, sitcoms, sex, or whatever else tickled his fancy with people he'd never met or even heard of.