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A History of Websites and the World Wide Web

Though the Internet existed prior to 1991, it was that year's public unveiling of the World Wide Web that catapulted the global network to mainstream popularity. Of course, the Web didn't leap to stardom right away that year, or even the following year. The Internet was still mostly the domain of scientists, academics, and researchers, and it would take a handful of years for the general public to come around to the Web's potential. By the mid-1990s, news organizations regularly reported on this new technology, and the user base grew at an astounding rate. As the Web's use increased, more companies and individuals found more uses for its features. Soon, social media websites, mobile devices, and dynamic content would transform the Web into its current form.

History of the Web

Tim Berners-Lee proposed the structure of the World Wide Web as far back as 1989. The combination of hypertext linking with existing Internet protocols was a promising idea, but none of the necessary supporting utilities existed at the time. Lee would put his idea to work the following year by creating the HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP. This protocol enabled Web pages to be served to a client-side application (a Web browser) and displayed in their original form. Lee continued by introducing HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, the language of the Web. With this standard language, anyone could create a Web page and expect it to display properly on any browser.

The mid-1990s saw the rise of the browser wars, as Netscape's Navigator faced stiff competition from Microsoft's new entrant, Internet Explorer. Despite arguably inferior performance and several deviations from Web browser standards, Internet Explorer dominated the market for two decades. While the browser was initially available for an additional fee, Microsoft ensured Internet Explorer's rise by bundling it for free with every copy of its desktop operating system, Windows. For many users, the browser was good enough for their needs, so they never sought out any of Internet Explorer's competitors. Unable to compete with a free and ubiquitous option, Netscape Navigator faded from use. Microsoft's tactics attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, however, which launched a high-profile antitrust case against the software maker.

In the 2000s, new uses for the Web sprang up, and some of the biggest names on the modern Internet got their start. A desire for a collaborative encyclopedia launched Wikipedia, now one of the most-visited websites every year. Having made its name as a search engine, Google got into the advertising game and leveraged their Web traffic into billions of dollars in revenue. Facebook launched its social networking website, which would inspire a host of imitators. When Apple launched its iPhone and Android released its mobile operating system, the Web was decoupled from desktop and laptop computers. Untethered from their desks, users quickly discovered new purposes for a World Wide Web that could be accessed at the gym, in the car, or on a hike.

What's it For?

There's no doubt that the many uses of the modern-day Web are far afield from Tim Berners-Lee's original vision. Lee initially sought a way to improve collaboration among academic researchers. His first Web page, which remains live and accessible on a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) server, was a simple collection of text and hyperlinks. Since it was the first Web page, most of the links lead to more information about the World Wide Web and its uses.

As time went on and the Web's capabilities expanded, users found new purposes for the technology. The addition of encryption made the use of credit cards on the Web secure, and e-commerce exploded in popularity. Suddenly, ordering everything from daily needs to holiday gifts online became the norm. Advertising moved to the Internet in a big way, exploiting every angle from relatively innocuous banner ads to the much-maligned pop-up ad. Mobility and new tools for making personal connections led to the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Soon, many users began to see broadband Internet access as an essential service akin to electricity and phone service. Faster Internet speeds drove visual entertainment to the Web, with millions choosing to watch films and shows via streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Key Dates

The World Wide Web didn't spring into being fully formed and ready for use. It began as an idea that evolved as dedicated individuals pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the tools they had. The Web's history features some significant milestones that signaled a new era or showed the Web in a new light. Tim Berners-Lee is often called "the father of the Web," and for good reason. In early 1989, Lee proposed the project that would become the World Wide Web. Two years later, he had completed the markup language and transfer protocol that his new invention would rely on, coded the first Web browser, and published the first Web page. Within a few years, visionaries and entrepreneurs alike could see the potential of this new communication medium. In 1994 alone, Yahoo, Amazon, and Netscape were founded. That same year, AT&T deployed the first banner ad on the Web.

By 1995, the browser wars were in full swing, with Microsoft taking on Netscape to determine who would serve Web pages to the masses. While it was a far cry from the expansive technology company of today, by 1998, Google was already making a name for itself. While other search engines had arrived on the scene earlier, Google changed the game with a page-ranking algorithm that considered how websites connected to one another. The world of blogs (short for "weblogs") advanced when WordPress launched in 2003. While it was best known as a blogging platform, an increasing number of users began to use WordPress's content management system for Web development of all sorts. The following year, in 2004, Facebook appeared and quickly overtook rival social networking platforms. The worlds of social media and streaming media collided in 2005 when YouTube appeared, offering any user a chance to easily upload video content. By 2006, social media was a hot commodity, and Twitter appeared with a focus on brief messages, giving anyone the chance to reach a global audience with their thoughts in real time.

Until 2007, the mobile Web experience had been clunky and uneven. Apple's release of the first iPhone that year brought together a well-designed device and a streamlined app store. Google, which purchased Android in 2005, followed in 2008 with the first phone to run the Android mobile operating system, and a rivalry was born. The combination of mobility and higher Internet speeds helped manufacturers weave their Web products into the mainstream. By 2012, Facebook boasted one billion active users.

Static vs. Dynamic Websites

Early websites followed the template of Tim Berners-Lee's first Web page. They featured mostly text, with the occasional color or graphic flourish. Most pictures were small, low-resolution, and hidden behind text links. Even as the Web grew in popularity, most users accessed it via slow dial-up modems and telephone lines. It would take the higher speeds afforded by digital subscriber line (DSL) and coaxial cable connections to bring multimedia content to the fore.

Static websites, like those early pages, rely on the underlying HTML code to dictate the appearance of each page. The code tells the Web browser when to apply bold type or colorful text and when to display a hyperlink. This doesn't mean that static content must be boring: Static sites can still contain background images, colorful graphics, and brilliant designs. Static pages can have other advantages, too. Because the underlying code is simpler, static pages tend to load faster. Their limited number of connections to other files and systems mean they're simpler to design and easier to troubleshoot. Of course, the simpler nature of these pages can mean more manual work, and even a small change applied across all pages means a lot of keystrokes.

Dynamic websites, on the other hand, take advantage of data connections to automate some parts of how pages are created and displayed. Web designers can use a database or a content management system to store pages and graphics. Then, the pages themselves just need to access the back-end system. For example, all pages in an e-commerce website might use the same cascading style sheet (CSS) that determines the colors and fonts to be used. That means that a one-time design can apply the correct formatting and branding to all pages on the site. Dynamic websites can be modified in a flash, too. Modifying the central style sheet can change the entire e-commerce site to use orange and black colors for a Halloween sale, for instance. Dynamic pages may also have other tricks up their sleeves, like displaying different content depending on the user. A movie recommendation site can learn users' preferences and suggest horror movies for one user and romantic comedies for another. That content is stored in the back-end system and retrieved as needed, depending on which user is visiting the site. Dynamic pages are more complex, which means they may not load as quickly as static pages. There's also more that can go wrong with a dynamic page. That's part of the price we pay for these advanced features.