WWW History:

The Birth of On-Line Multimedia

WELL BEFORE there was ever a notion of a World-Wide Web, computer users began to navigate cyberspace on the world's largest computer network, the Internet. An global lattice of national, regional and local computer networks, the Internet was rapidly gaining in popularity outside of the scientific community (largely due to a preponderance of college students wanting access to electronic mail). But beyond the basic capability of e-mail and several other network services, the Internet was incomprehensible to the vast majority of users. Based on a series of complex protocols, the Internet required an intimate knowledge of computers and network operating systems, a knowledge that most users neither had the time or the interest to gather.

Clearly, the Internet had the technical capacity to handle a variety of complex applications (downloading files from distant computers, transferring digitized photos and sounds, etc.), but because it was by no means a user-friendly network, its uses were limited. Then, researchers at the University of Minnesota came up with gopher, a network standard which would, with the appropriate software, guide the user from one file to another, as well as from one computer to another. Gopher was a fairly simple idea: a person could point with a mouse to a piece of information (such as a title of an article in an on-line table of contents) and actually download that file merely by clicking it, and without having to know any complex codes. Moreover, if one of those clickable titles actually allowed the user to connect to computers around the world and download their files, any user could navigate from site to site, scanning for and copying information in a comprehensive environment that only an international network could provide.

If you'd like to see an example of gopher, visit the University of Minnesota gopher. This site isn't officially connected to EdWeb, so you'll have to backtrack in order to get back to this page.

Gopher became one of the most popular ways of storing and presenting information over the Internet. But gopher has some serious limitations. First, it is limited to presenting text files only. Because the gopher structure is based on a menu of textual items which contain even more text, the layout structure does not lend itself to the display of graphics. Second, as you'll notice quite quickly when using gopher, all gopher menus look pretty much the same, so it's not unusual to get lost. Finally, gopher links to menus and documents must be summarized in a few words - you can't fit an entire paragraph, let alone an image, into a gopher menu. Simply put, gopher does not lend itself to creativity very well. While it is certainly an excellent method of cataloguing larges amounts of textual data, its flexibility and aesthetics leave much to be desired for those who wish to craft their information more stylistically.

In order to give Internet publishers the necessary tools to design complex online multimedia documents, an entirely new protocol had to be formulated. In 1989 at the European Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN) in Geneva, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee developed a protocol which he called the World-Wide Web. As the name suggests, the Web allows Internet publishers to intertwine information in multiple directions and layers. Though a similar lattice structure certainly applied to the gopher protocol, the Web offered some fascinating new features. First of all, text and links to other information could now be presented on the same screen. As you can see from this very document, it's possible to highlight certain words within a paragraph. By selecting these words with either a mouse or by moving a cursor, you can link to any other document on the Internet. These pages, in turn, can offer additional links to even more specific informational nuggets. And beyond its general ease of navigation, the Web also allows for a publisher to present information in a multimedia context. In other words, while a Web page may offer segments of text, it may also include graphics, audio, even video. Essentially, a Web site can easily look like a page of information of of a multimedia CD ROM. Unlike a CD, though, the Web interconnects with computers around the world, creating a new dimension to cyberspace, full of images, sounds and ideas.

At first, the Web remained an experimental method of organizing Internet information, and only a handful of research sites around the world were capable of presenting it. In 1993, though, programmers at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign released Mosaic, an easy-to-use web browser which was freely distributed over the Internet. Eventually, other browsers such as Netscape began to proliferate, making the Web more accessible to casual users than ever. By the fall of 1994, it was estimated that there are anywhere between 7,000 and 10,000 Web sites around the world; by 1998 there were over 10 million. Web sites like Yahoo receive millions of hits per day. The World-Wide Web, originally envisioned to allow researchers and computer enthusiasts better access to each other's information, has now turned into a powerful force on the Information Highway.

Hypertext - the Key to the Web
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