We Were Mostly Wrong: Looking back at 25 years on the web

News stories marking anniversaries are often PR-driven: cattle-prods to get the media and others talking about a brand or event, and often based on an arbitrary day rather than a truly world-changing moment. By coincidence there are two in tech this week and both have more than an artificial leg to stand on. On Thursday it will be 25 years since Linus Torvalds sent out a BBS message asking for help with a new operating system that became known as Linux, and today it is 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee set up the first web server. As sceptics might note, you could easily suggest other birthdays but as milestones go, these are pretty good. I’ll post my memories of a quarter century of Linux in a couple of days but first let’s stroll down Random Access Memory Lane and recall how the web changed the world.

In 1991 I was working on one of the many catalogue-sized computer magazines that existed back then, providing a live threat to the future of forestry. It was a golden time for direct-market PC makers like Dell, selling ‘off the page’ and back then momentum was perpetuated by new(ish) phenomena such as LANs, email, new versions of Windows and Intel’s latest and greatest chips.

In those days, online services meant CIX for geeks, AOL for online newbies and CompuServe for a demographic somewhere in between. That was in the UK at least; other countries tended to have home-grown favourites alongside the big US firms. The buzz among many of us tech news reporters barking up the wrong tree was a Microsoft project codenamed ‘Blackbird’ that evolved into MSN. The company, all powerful at the time, had invested vast sums into displacing AOL from its leadership position but Bill Gates pulled off a smart U-turn when he praised the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and turned his attention to making MSN a web portal rather than a ‘walled garden’ proprietary network.

The web initially punished the heck out of 38.8 dialup modem connections (and even the fancy-pants on the latest 56kbit/s devices or, precious bane, ISDN, but it got a big lift through freebie ISPs and then DSL broadband, and a generation never looked back, even if networking scientists as brilliant as Bob Metcalfe predicted a comms meltdown. We had the juice for animated GIFs and images, even video if you scrunched your eyes up. Behind the ship’s wheel of Netscape Navigator we early-bird surfers had access to wave after wave of innovation: the Pointcast push news network, SportingLife.com, Hotmail free messaging, Yahoo for everything else, Amazon and AbeBooks, AltaVista for search (surely nothing could beat it), Motley Fool, ZDNet (my employer) and CNET for tech… halcyon and innocent days, at least for those of us who didn’t immediately equate online with porn.

Suddenly, technology journalists were in at the beginning of something that had interest to the rest of the world (a novelty), but then the crash of 2000 saw most startups who had floated reduced to rubble. It was very common in those days to meet CEOs of companies that had sunk to less than one per cent of their 52-week highs, although they were in shorter supply than when they were describing themselves as building the modern equivalent of the railways and racking up multibillion-dollar valuations.

The sharp decline and seeming inability for web companies to generate profits meant the old guard were free to return to their old wheelhouses. Ziff-Davis UK focused its attention on a new weekly newspaper and B2C, the joke went, now meant, ‘back to consulting’ rather than building your own dotcom startup. One of the few web successes, eBay, was filled with the Sun ‘Starfire’ servers that were the back-ends of those that had, appropriately enough, Icarus-like flown too close to the sun.

But, after a pause, with Web 2.0 early promise was fulfilled and with Salesforce.com we even had a B2B application that was purely in the cloud, even if we called it SaaS at the time. It helped of course that 3G networks and smartphones had become mainstream, making the web a mobile rather than deskbound utility.

Today we exist in, on, within and as part of an internet world; we are all a part of its silken web for better or for worse, stuck in ‘always on’ working patterns and with never a fact, form of entertainment or business opportunity - no matter how intelligent, criminal or lubricious – more than a second or two away from our fingertips.

Twenty-five tumultuous years: a quarter-century in the ether and if we have learned anything it might be that everything we thought might happen was wrong. Only a brave man, fool (or professional pundit) could predict what all this will look like in 2041.


Also read:

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe still rings the changes

Scott McNealy steps down, stays busy

Cloud computing is 15 (even if that’s nebulous)

At 10 years old, an evolving Hadoop


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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