The World Wide Web is a constantly evolving network that has already traveled far beyond its conception in the early 1990s, when it was created to solve a specific problem. State-of-the-art experiments at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics—now best known as the operator of the Large Hadron Collider) were producing incredible amounts of data—so much that the data was proving unwieldy to distribute to the participating scientists who were spread out across the world.
At this time, the Internet was already in place, with several hundred thousand computers connected to it. Tim Berners-Lee (a CERN fellow) devised a method of navigating between them using a hyperlinking framework, which came to be known as the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, or HTTP. He also created a markup language called HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language. To bring these together, he wrote the first web browser and web server.
We now take these tools for granted, but back then, the concept was revolutionary. The most connectivity so far experienced by at-home modem users was dialing up and connecting to a bulletin board that was hosted by a single computer, where you could communicate and swap data only with other users of that service. Consequently, you needed to be a member of many bulletin board systems in order to effectively communicate electronically with your colleagues and friends.
But Berners-Lee changed all that in one fell swoop, and by the mid-1990s there were three major graphical web browsers competing for the attention of five million users. It soon became obvious, though, that something was missing. Yes, pages of text and graphics with hyperlinks to take you to other pages was a brilliant concept, but the results didn’t reflect the instantaneous potential of computers and the Internet to meet the particular needs of each user with dynamically changing content. Using the Web was a very dry and plain experience, even if we did now have scrolling text and animated GIFs!
Shopping carts, search engines, and social networks have clearly altered how we use the Web. In this chapter, we’ll take a brief look at the various components that make up the Web, and the software that helps make it a rich and dynamic experience.
It is necessary to start using some acronyms more or less right away. I have tried to clearly explain them before proceeding, but don’t worry too much about what they stand for or what these names mean, because the details will all become clear as you read on.