Thursday, November 12, 2015

On the early web

I was browsing around, as one does, when I came across a list of early websites. Or should I say, a seriously incomplete list of web servers of the time.

This was November 1992, and I had been running a web server at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge for some time. That wasn't the only technology we were using at the time, of course - there was Gopher, the emergent Hyper-G, WAIS, ftp, fsp, USENET, and a few others that never made the cut.

Going back a bit further in time, about a year earlier, is an email regarding internet connectivity in Cambridge. I vaguely remember this - I had just arrived at the IoA at the time and was probably making rather a nuisance of myself, having come back from Canada where the internet was already a thing.

I can't remember exactly when we started playing with the web proper, but it would have been some time about Easter 1992. As the above email indicates, 1991 saw the department having the staggering bandwidth of 64k/s, and I think it would have taken the promised network upgrade for us to start advertising our site.

Graphical browsers came quite late - people might think of Mosaic (which you can still run if you like), but to start with we just had the CERN line mode browser, and things like Viola. Around this time there were other graphical browsers - there was one in the Andrew system, as I recall, and chimera was aimed at the lightweight end of the scale.

Initially we ran the CERN web server, but it was awful - it burnt seconds of cpu time to deliver every page, and as soon as the NCSA server came out we switched to that, and the old Sun 630MP that hosted all this was much the happier for it. (That was the machine called cast0 in the above email - the name there got burnt into the site URL, it took a while for people to get used to the idea of adding functional aliases to DNS.)

With the range of new tools becoming available, it wasn't entirely obvious which technologies would survive and prosper.

With my academic background I was initially very much against the completely unstructured web, preferring properly structured and indexed technologies. In fact, one of the things I remember saying at the time, as the number of sites started to grow, was "How on earth are people going to be able to find stuff?". Hm. Missed business opportunity there!

Although I have to say that even with search engines, actually finding stuff on the web now is a total lottery - Google have made a lot of money along the way, though. One thing I miss, again from the early days of the web (although we're talking later in the 90s now) is the presence of properly curated and well maintained indices of web content.

Another concern I had about the web was that, basically, any idiot could create a web page, leading to most of the content being complete and utter garbage (both in terms of what it contained and how it was coded). I think I got the results of that one dead right, but it failed to account for the huge growth that the democratization of the web allowed.

After a couple of years the web was starting to emerge as a clear front runner. OK, there were only a couple of thousand sites in total at this point (I think that up to the first thousand or so I had visited every single one), and the concept was only just starting to become known to the wider public.

One of the last things I did at the IoA, when I left in May 1994, was to set up all the computers in the building running Mosaic, with it looping through all the pages on a local website showcasing some glorious astronomical images, all for the departmental open day. This was probably the first time many of the visitors had come across the web, and the Wow factor was incredible.

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