The Evolution of the Web: Big Waves

Anyone who has gone surfing (the old-fashioned water kind) knows that in every set of waves there are a few really big ones. I see postings online about the "third wave" for the Internet or the "killer apps" that have changed the web and predictions of what the next killer application will be. Most predictions turn out to be wrong. It's even difficult to write a history of the Internet if you want to make choices about what the most important events have been - it's the basic "Top Ten List" problem. This is my own personal set of waves.

The three apps that got things moving for me were hyperlinking, email and the browser. [There's already a generation that doesn't realize that there was a time when the web didn't have links and you didn't use a browser.]

Email makes the killer apps list all the time. However, it predates the Internet. It started in 1965 as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate. The history is somewhat unclear, but some of the first systems to have such email were SDC's Q32 and MIT's CTSS. In 1969, US Air Force users were sending text messages by making punched cards and transmitting them as card decks from one computer to another. ARPANET added email transfers soon after its creation and Ray Tomlinson initiated the use of the @ sign to separate the names of the user and their machine in 1971. If I include email in my history, it is for the entry of tools like Outlook and the early offerings of free email accounts.

My wife was using Minitel (Teletel - France Telecom) in the early 1980's in her French classes well before I had established any real connections online. It was an early indicator to me that social networks would be developed in education. Like many teachers, although I had some access to the Internet at school, I didn't have it at home until late in 1989 when AOL launched.

My history deliberately jumps over some important technology and software: TC/IP in 1983, DNS in 1984, NSFNET with itsbackbone speed of 56Kbps in 1986 which allowed many new connections (especially at universities)

America Online was for many people in the early 1990's was THE Internet. (AOL for Windows came out in 1993) Yes, I know that now in 2006 to say that you have AOL (except for the AIM service) is embarrassing. They offered a special deal to teachers at a lower cost (I don't recall the price, but I know I got 40 hours per month which seemed like a lot.) AOL, like other popularizers to follow (Netscape, iTunes...) was a big wave. Not for innovation, but for bringing it to the masses. There were others that faded - Prodigy, CompuServe, GEnie - but AOL hung on.

Another big wave came as the web began to fill with pages (and many of them were junk that began to clog the web) and it was obvious we needed a directory or index to search. Enter Yahoo, Google and the many search engines that have fallen off the web that allow you to find things.

Subscriptions is another wave that is still cresting. The ability (generally using RSS feeds) to subscribe to blogs, news sites and podcasts is already well established [Bloglines, Feedburner, Newsgator, iTunes, iPodder]. When Apple came in with iTunes and its music store, it made downloading music legal and easy. Those who pirate music would say it's still easier to download it illegally and Apple adds digital rights management (DRM) to it's downloads which limits your ability to do "whatever you want" with the music. Apple built up a strong base, so when they introduced podcasts to the store (though almost all were free to download) it seemed like they invented podcasting. The fact that the term podcasting evolved from iPod didn't hurt them either and there are still many uninitiated who believe you need an (Apple) iPod to listen to podcasts.

A smaller wave that follows subscriptions and is just building is personal broadcasting. It probably should be personal narrowcasting since a lot of what is being offered is for a small, niche audience. The same thing happened with TV when cable (originally called CATV for Community Antenna TV) took hold. Who would have predicted when cable systems first emerged that there would be major channels for food or gardening? There was a little swell in that industry when community access channels were offered (required by law in 1969) and many people thought we would see a lot of local/amateur/homegrown video. That swell never created a wave that was worth riding. Local public access channnels still don't come close after 3 decades to fufilling the predictions.

Another connection to TV history in my web history is the introduction of advertising. Tim Berners-Lee and other Net pioneers have said that they really had not thought much about the commercial potential of the Internet. Others did. When did ads really start taking over websites? I know that I have gone from being irritated by them to just ignoring them most of the time - the same way I did with TV commercials. It is annoying to watch a movie on TV with commercials and yet a few times I have recorded a movie with commercials and when I replayed it I forgot that I could fast forward past the commercials because I was inured to them. When I am on a site and the Google ads come up on the side column or when the floating pop up ad rolls across the CNN site, I just glance at it and go on.

Sometimes I even click on an ad or find it interesting (Amazon suggestions, some Google ads that have keyed on an appropriate word on the webpage - ads that were "well placed") I'm not saying that ads are a killer app, but they are a large part of the Net. Will Web 2.0 have ads? Absolutely.

more to come...


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