Robert Hampton

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12th March 2014


Today the tech world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the world wide webnot to be confused with the Internet itself, which came into existence much earlier.

Even more pedantically, today actually marks the anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for the web in March 1989. It wasn’t until Christmas 1990 that the first working web browser, imaginatively titled WorldWideWeb, became available, and the first web sites began to appear.

For its first few years, the web was mainly a curiosity used by students and scientists at various academic institutions. Then, around 1994, the original Netscape Navigator browser was released, and web usage began to grow significantly.

I remember the first day I got online – 30th August 1997 (sorry to say, the date sticks in the memory because Princess Diana was killed the very next day). I eagerly tore open the package containing ArgoNet‘s Voyager Internet Suite, listened as the US Robotics modem made various screeching noises, and gazed in wonder at the text and images that were very sloooowly downloaded. Grey backgrounds. So many grey backgrounds! Still, to a 14-year-old who still considered Bamboozle on ITV Teletext the height of sophistication, it was amazing.

Then my mum picked up the phone downstairs and the connection dropped.

It’s fun to think back to those early days. By the time I got online, the web had already evolved past its primordial stage and was becoming commercialised. Some of today’s major web sites were already online. including IMDb, Yahoo! and (very much a US-centric operation in those days). 1997 was, however, one year BG (before Google) – AltaVista was my search engine of choice back then. And, of course, if you wanted to shout nonsense online, you didn’t start a blog, you opened a GeoCities account.

We were just entering the dot-com boom, as gullible investors threw billions of dollars at anyone whose business plan included the word “web”. That bubble subsequently burst, and many of those early businesses went bust, but the web itself was here to stay.

Many organisations were slow to catch on to the new technology. The BBC’s nascent web presence in 1997 would have filled only a few pages of Ceefax, although that changed in October of that year, when the BBC News web site launched.

It was, in fact, the stuffy old Daily Telegraph that led the way in the online news stakes: the Electronic Telegraph was born in November 1994. I wonder if the founders of that site knew what a devastating effect the web would have on the business model of their print brethren? Who, in 1994, would have predicted that, twenty years later, paid-for newspapers like the Telegraph, Daily Mail or Guardian would let people read virtually all their content for free?

The proliferation of online news sources is great for consumers, but less so for publishers who have seen their readers abandon print in favour of free online alternatives. It’s not just free online news that has caused problems for newspapers. I remember in the 1990s, the Liverpool Echo‘s classified ads section was so jam packed with ads that the paper gave them their own 16-page pull-out section, the Best Seller. These days, in the age of eBay and Gumtree, there is often barely a page or two of ads in print. Why advertise your unwanted birthday gifts in the local paper when you can flog The World According to Clarkson to anyone, anywhere in the world, and accept payment by PayPal? So, there are fewer ads in the papers, and less revenue as a result.

The “old media” have dealt with the problem in different ways. The Times and the Sun have disappeared behind paywalls, as have some specialist publications like the FT. Everyone else still has to figure out how to make money from this web thing.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the shake-up brought on by the web came in 2011 when the venerable US magazine Newsweek merged with The Daily Beast web site. Then, in 2013, the Washington Post was bought by head honcho Jeff Bezos. The new media consuming the old.

Bricks and mortar retailers suffered too. In the US, the Borders bookshop chain went out of business, finding itself unable to compete with Amazon. In this country, HMV also crumbled in the face of online competition. Sadder still are the smaller independent bookstores and record shops, where personal service and specialist knowledge was no match for the “pile it high, sell it cheap” ethos often found online.

I’ve even heard complaints that gay bars are losing business because gay people can now meet and talk to each other through web sites.

Despite the drawbacks, the web generally remains a huge force for good. Anyone can now publish online and, although the quality of that material is still very variable, the best web sites can easily match the traditional media. People who previously didn’t have a voice are now being heard. Meanwhile, while many old-style retailers are suffering, there are handsome rewards for savvy businesspeople who can take advantage of the opportunities out there on the web.

The world owes a huge amount to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who made it all possible. Not only did he invent the technology in the first place, but by making it freely available for anyone to use. The current web, with its rich multimedia experience, is a world away from the largely text-based pages served up by that NExTcube at CERN, but it’s important that we maintain that philosophy of openness. Governments the world over are seeking to restrict and censor the web, and we should not let them succeed. After all, as Berners-Lee himself tweeted during the London 2012 opening ceremony: THIS IS FOR EVERYONE!

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