Where Did the Internet Come From?

Although it often feels like the Internet has always been with us, it is in fact, a relatively new phenomenon compared to mature technologies like television. What most people don’t realise however, is a series of small refinements over several decades, had a dramatic impact on its growth. It was during these ‘evolutions’ that something critical was added to the system, which made it either easier to use, or cheap to adopt. The most important single factor was that the standards developed were ‘open’, meaning anyone could use them, without incurring a charge. The following article covers the main events in the development of the Internet; from inception to its current form.

Birth: The Cold War

During the Cold War it would be fair to say that fear was a significant motivator, especially when it came to US defense spending. During the 1960s relations between the USSR and USA, soured further when the Space Race took centre stage. Ostensibly, it was about putting satellites, then people into space to further humankind’s development. In reality it was about developing technology that would give one of the two parties an edge, militarily. After the Soviets raised the stakes by launching Sputnik, the USA poured resources into numerous projects to maintain technical parity. One of these was ARPANET.

This was the starting place for the Internet. It was a network of connected computers (or devices – just 4 initially) which sent their information as packets. Meaning: the information was sliced into lots of pieces, transported across the network and then re-assembled at the other end. It has often been reported that this packet switched approach was adopted, since the network could survive a nuclear strike. Indeed, it might – but this was not the reason for packet switching. Components were much less reliable than today, so in the event of a failure, the message would find another route around the broken component. Rather like a large fishing net, with the knots representing each device (computer), and the string being the communication links between. If you make a large tear in the net, there are still numerous alternative ways of moving from one point to another.

In 1983, the military aspect of ARPANET broke away (becoming MILNET) and the network began to move in another direction. A new packet switching protocol was developed – TCP/IP in order that networks could communicate across national borders, by adopting an agreed standard. TCP/IP is still the Internet Protocol used today (that’s what the IP part stands for). A protocol is often called a ‘handshake’ because when two parties agree to communicate, a handshake must precede it. What’s happening, is that they agree a common set of rules. For example: the protocol rules for sending a letter/mail are – you must add an address, post or zip code and a stamp or frank. These are the pre-agreed rules for successfully sending a letter.

The Teen Years: CERN to Dial-up

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) began to install a TCP/IP network during the 1980s to allow communication between their various, member sites (12 countries, initially). In 1989 – Tim Berners-Lee initiated a project called ENQUIRE which used Hypertext (HTML was a small part of the parent language SGML) to allow researchers to share information with each other, using this TCP/IP network. Viewing HTML is aided by a browser (an early popular one was ViolaWWW), which hides the technical information and provides the links (and later – pictures, video, maps, etc). Berners-Lee made his technology freely available which ensured rapid interest in the project. At this point (with the introduction of a browser) – the Internet became the World Wide Web.

Mosaic was the first browser to gain global popularity, albeit mostly in academic circles in 1993. Within a year Netscape Navigator had overtaken it, and a year later the fledgling Internet Explorer browser from Microsoft, was released. It was at this point that Internet Service Providers began to offer capped, then unlimited dial-up-access to home users for a flat fee. In 1995 Alta Vista introduced search engine technology, in an attempt to control the spiralling volumes of information being added to the WWW. Google entered the market in 1999 at a time when a reliable encryption protocol was being implemented (SSL – Secure Sockets Layer) by newly founded ‘eCommerce’ sites, further adding fuel to the Web’s growth. It was now possible to buy goods safely, which would arrive through the post. Amazon was one of the first companies in the market to establish a level of trust with customers, so that they would comfortably key in their Credit/Debit card information.

Middle Age: The Web Matures

After the Internet bubble burst in 2001, businesses tightened up their online models, but there was no halt in growth, both of users, or new websites. The widespread global adoption of broadband allowed the information online to become richer (pictures, videos, applications, etc.) which also sparked the rise of other devices carrying Internet connections – particularly mobile phones and games consoles. In 2008, more people accessed the WWW (globally) using mobile phones, than computers.

These bursts of growth usually followed some new technology or ‘killer application’, with email being the first. Current trend-commentators, often refer to the WWW as Web 2.0. Web 2.0 encompasses collaborative activities on the net including blogs, wikis, social networks: Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. There’s no doubt that these have significant impact on what the Web is used for, but it’s also worth noting that Google is still gaining search engine market share, so that nearly three-quarters of all global searches, begin with their search engine. Critically, in order to rank in the Google engine you must have fresh, relevant and unique content – with hyperlinks that support what you do (coming in and going out of your website). In many ways – Web 2.0 is heavily influenced by Google’s site-ranking algorithms. Sites which give nothing – get nothing (in traffic terms). They certainly deserve some of the credit for the way the Web is developing, in such an egalitarian manner. Which let’s face it – is not exactly typical behaviour for a global, corporate giant.