On 6 August 1991, a 36-year-old British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, published the world’s first ever website. It was pretty basic. High up in the Swiss Alps, in a CERN facility, the only people who could view this website were Tim and his colleagues.
The website, which largely went unnoticed by the rest of the world, was about the project Tim Berners-Lee was working on, known as the World Wide Web (WWW also called W3).
It wasn’t until 1993, when the Mosaic Browser was launched, when the web concept started to gain some serious momentum. Microsoft and Apple making computers cheaper and faster helped make the web a mass-market service. Dial-up broadband quickly took off in the US, UK and around the world. Pretty soon browsers gave people access to the web, changing the world forever.
All of this paved the way for everything we take for granted. Search engines. Social networks. Ecommerce. Online banking. Apps. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Cryptocurrencies. The rapidly evolving Internet of Things (IoT) – where electronics are becoming increasingly connective – and numerous other technological advances that wouldn’t be possible without Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Setting standards for the Web
In 1994, Tim Berners-Lee, witnessing an explosion of popularity for the web around the world, founded the Worldwide Web Consortium, known as W3C. He is still actively involved in W3C, working to set standards for the web, for developers and browsers, and for everyone’s benefit and security.
Imagine a world where the World Wide Web had been patented, instead of being allowed to evolve for the benefit of humanity? Tim Berners-Lee might have become richer than Bill Gates. Humanity, however, would have been poorer as a result, with the Internet nowhere near as evolved and connected as it is now in 2017. Billions around the world wouldn’t benefit from free universal access to knowledge and the ability to connect with other people, anywhere in the world.
Imagine a world without the web
Instead of the web we have now, patents would have kept web users confined within walled gardens. AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy and Delphi would have kept everything proprietary, attempting to keep users within their services, similar to mobile phone contracts. There would be no free flow of information.
It is unlikely that Google, Facebook or open-source projects, such as Wikipedia, would exist in this alternate reality. An open, connected world has made it easier to scale innovation. It has made innovation possible, lowering the entrepreneurial barriers to entry.
Almost everything we take for granted, including smartphones, would be on a smaller scale and fragmented. It is unlikely that the venture capital boom would have happened in the same way. Investors need vast economies of scale. The web, as we know it, has that. A fragmented, walled, proprietary landscape, wouldn’t be as open, as innovative, or generate anywhere near the same number of benefits for society, governments, the media, charities and businesses.
From our perspective in the electronics industry, without Sir Tim Berners-Lee, we would not be working in such an exciting and dynamic environment. Every step of a product’s journey touches on the web and connectivity. From the ‘information superhighway’ that inspires and educates inventors, the collaborative space that allows new ideas to set seed, to the IoT and the future inventions and new technologies that connectivity enables.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee has always stated that the Internet should remain a “permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression.” He has recently warned that a perfect storm, of “master manipulators”, a potential rollback net neutrality laws in America, the proliferation of fake news, propaganda, and the web’s increasing polarisation on social networks, is putting the Internet, as an open forum, at risk.
“I’m still an optimist, but an optimist standing at the top of the hill with a nasty storm blowing in my face, hanging on to a fence,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee in The Guardian. “We have to grit our teeth and hang on to the fence and not take it for granted that the web will lead us to wonderful things.”
A powerful and timely reminder that we can’t take the security of this essential global communication platform and connectivity for granted.