There’s a lot of great hay being made this week about the World Wide Web turning 25. It’s definitely an important milestone for many people (myself included). The only problem is that the math is off.
This month actually marks the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee's “Information Management: A Proposal,” first distributed in March 1989. This document looked at the problem he and others faced at CERN, the huge research organization with tons of information that was hard to organize. At the heart of Berners-Lee’s proposal is hypertext and the self-organizing principal of hyperlinking. In typical far-reaching style, the proposal clearly had intentional implications beyond CERN.
But it’s just a proposal, not a statement of work, not a spec, and certainly not a piece of hypertext itself. If you search the relatively brief document, the word “web” appears exactly twice… and its first usage is to describe the organization of CERN itself, not a store of documents.
The name “WorldWideWeb” would not be settled upon for another year and a half. If anything, December 1990 is a better pick for a date of birth; in that month, Berners-Lee finished work on the first website with linked documents.
In that light, settling on March 1989 feels a bit premature… and perhaps not premature enough. Why not go with 1987, with the debut of Apple’s HyperCard and HyperTalk? Or 1980, with the publication of the first working draft of SGML, the markup language that led to HTML. Both HyperCard and SGML were crucial to the creation of the webpage as we know it today.
On a more anecdotal note, I happen to remember what the Internet was like in 1989. That was when I first got an email account at my college. Back then, there was no Web, nor any talk of Web. The king of rich media in 1989 was Usenet. There was plenty to do and see on Usenet, but it was a top-down structure, not the interconnected series of documents that Berners-Lee proposed. In fact, the Web was virtually unheard of in my university until 1992, when a fellow college student in Illinois named Marc Andreessen championed the image tag, as part of the NCSA Mosaic browser project that he co-authored.
I’m not trying to take away from Berners-Lee’s work or importance at all. I’m just a stickler for celebrating birthdays at the appropriate time. And don’t get me started on when the millenium started.