How the World Wide Web Became the Internet's Killer App

Without the web, the internet as we know it likely wouldn't exist.

The computer Berners-Lee used as the first web server. Image: Wikimedia/Coolcaesar 

If you’re reading this, you’re making use of two technologies that are nowadays so fundamental to our always-on, super-connected lives that you probably only notice them when you’re not able to use them for some reason: the Internet and the World Wide Web. The net and the web. 

In colloquial usage the two are often used interchangeably. When people say they’re “surfing the net” or “surfing the web,” they mean the same thing, and if we’re getting technical about it they’re probably using both. But the net and the web are of course not synonymous, and if you’re still hazy on the differences, here’s your crib sheet.

First we need a bit of back story. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, the proposal for which was written by British computer scientist and CERN employee Tim Berners-Lee on March 12, 1989. But the story of the internet goes back way further.

There’s no such fixed date for quite when the internet as we know it came into existence, but it started out in the 1960s in the US. Research funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA—which became DARPA) led to the creation of internet-like technologies including ARPANET, which connected various networks such as certain university departments, and is the best known precursor to the internet. 

ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990, but long before then the idea of a worldwide network—the internet—had already been introduced. Put simply, the internet is a set of protocols that lets networks of computers communicate with other networks of computers; it’s a “network of networks.”

That’s a very brief history, but it illustrates the basic relationship between the net and the web: the net existed before; the web is something built on top. As Scott Hale, a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute, put it to me, “The internet is the network of networks, and the underlying platform that makes the web—along with other technologies—possible. So the web is one of these technologies that’s sitting on top of the internet; it’s one use of the internet.”

The web basically consists of a bunch of webpages linked together via hyperlinks. Before you scoff at that admittedly simplistic description, take a moment to consider what that means. Because the web’s resources are linked, you can just click from one page to the next, and discover new things—things you might not have known existed, never mind where to find them. This is the beauty of the web: it puts information from all over the world in one place. 

Tim Berners-Lee, father of the web. Image: Flickr/Neerav Bhatt

As Berners-Lee explained it in his initial proposal, which was specific to CERN's workflow, "The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use."

The amount of information contained on the web has obviously exploded since then; according to worldwidewebsize.com, Google's index alone contains tens of billions of web pages. For practical purposes, if you're using a web browser, or viewing a website or a webpage, you’re using the web (the prefix kind of gives it away). As part of his work, Berners-Lee made the first web browser, confusingly dubbed WorldWideWeb (later called Nexus), which at the time was the only way you could view the web.

It was with the opening of the web to the public and the launch of the first popular graphical web browser Mosaic in 1993, however, that things really got going. “It made interaction with the web simple and all of a sudden general users could see real value in that and could operate and use the web,” said Hale.

The rest is history, and while Mosaic might have been replaced over time by Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and so on, the general idea of the web remains exactly the same. Given its status as the predominant way to make use of the internet, you’d be forgiven for occasionally getting the two confused. 

In fact, Hale explained, there was a period around ten years ago when some experts suggested that the web and the net were effectively converging. “For a while that seemed likely,” he said. “I mean, email existed well before the web did, but then email moved onto the web and we had webmail through a number of service providers.”

But right now, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. “We’ve seen maybe a bit of a reverse of that. With mobile phones and other technologies, there’s lots of uses of the internet that aren’t necessarily through a web browser or using the core technologies of the web any more,” said Hale. When you call your mum through Skype, you’re using the internet, but not the web. Likewise when you play on Xbox Live, or use an app that isn’t limited to working within a browser.

As part of that trend, Hale pointed out that some of the key technologies developed in the creation of the web, such as HTTP and HTML, are increasingly being “unbundled” from the overall web package and used for non-web-based purposes. “So while initially all these technologies were used exclusively within that context, we’re now seeing a number of technologies that gave birth to the web being used in spheres apart from the web, or at least from the ‘classic’ web as we think of it.”

But while innovations abound in internet-space, there’s no replacement for the web, which has evolved over its 25 years to not only stay relevant but cement itself as an indispensable tool in our information and communications arsenal. You might be viewing it through a smartphone or tablet browser instead of the $10,000 NeXTcube workstation used by Berners-Lee at CERN, but it’s still very much the same web envisaged a quarter-century ago.