From W3 to the World Wide Web

Fifteen years ago this week, on the 30th of April 1993, two directors from the CERN Particle Physics Laboratory signed and published a document which relinquished "all intellectual property rights to" and permitted "anyone to use, duplicate, modify and redistribute" a technology they referred to as W3.

Today W3 is better know as the World Wide Web, but the concept is the same; a scalable, platform independent information medium where documents are connected through hypertext links. This ground breaking idea was the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, now the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium and a respected technology visionary.

It would be easy to say that, fifteen years ago, no-one could possibly have anticipated how the release of W3 into the public domain would change the way that information is created, recorded, transfered, used and (unfortunately) abused. However, it is clear that Berners-Lee and CERN developed W3 with a specific set of activities and applications in mind and, broadly speaking, those same applications still drive how the World Wide Web is used today.

In one paragraph of CERN’s original two page press release the organisation outlines the application areas for which W3 was well suited. The list includes :

  • technical design notes
  • documentation
  • news
  • discussion
  • educational material
  • personal notes
  • publicity
  • bulletin boards
  • live status information
  • numerical data

Other than some obvious scientific and research overtones, these key application areas still hold true today although the terminology has evolved. So, for example, discussion now takes place in forums, publicity is sought through corporate websites and personal notes appear in blogs and on the pages of social networking sites.

In fact only in the last couple of years have we really begun to see the web grow out of it’s infancy and push CERN’s original vision further than may have been anticipated at it’s birth. YouTube, deviantART and Google Maps don’t easily fit into any of CERN’s original application types and, as such, mark the beginning of what may be the second age of the web. Some refer to this adolescent web as Web 2.0 but personally I’m not keen on that label since it hints towards a step change in the infrastructure whereas in reality todays web is more about evolved applications than a revolution in the underlying technology. The term Web 2.0 only really exists because we don’t have a snappier way to describe the trend towards web applications based on collaboration, software services and multimedia data that we are now witnessing.

And where does the evolution of the World Wide Web take us next ?  Well, those eager to get some pointers may be interested to read about Semantic Web, an evolution of the World Wide Web proposed by Berners-Lee which provides a data sharing framework and enables a highly integrated "web of data". Lets not give it a version number yet – let’s just look forward to the more mature years of a "middle aged" future web.