All this spring and summer, we’ll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web’s breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible “birthday” date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN’s announcement wasn’t really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.
Why are exact dates so difficult to determine when tracking the history of the Internet, and of the open source software that powers it? This is because Internet projects and software releases don’t tend to get released with a bang. They sneak out as beta versions, passed from friend to friend. They go through major changes and revisions before they are released as version 1.0. By April 1993, the chain reaction of the Web craze had definitely begun. Even so, the web was still small enough on this day 20 years ago that the starting page at CERN’s primordial website could still attempt to include all the web servers in the world on a single list.
Perhaps coincidentally, a touching article by a journalist named Paul Miller about his experience staying off the Internet for one year made the rounds on the week of this 20th anniversary. The story reaches a conclusion that seems to have surprised the author himself:
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
Twenty years ago, we all lived without the Internet. Today, it often feels so central to who we are that we easily forget it’s there. Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is not about how much the gigantic phenomenon of the World Wide Web has changed us in the past twenty years, but about how much it has not.