What is the World Wide Web?

To understand what is the World Wide Web, we need to go back to an age when the internet existed but web browsing didn’t.

Thursday, 20 October, 2022

There’s a common misconception that the internet is a product of the 1990s, when in reality its origins stretch back considerably further.

We’ve previously explained how an American military network known as ARPANET gradually evolved into an embryonic form of the modern-day internet.

Commercial websites were launched as far back as 1985,
but it took a British engineer working in a Swiss laboratory to create the foundations for today’s web.

Specifically, we’re talking about the World Wide Web – those three letters we enter into browser address bars almost by default.

But what is the World Wide Web, and why was it so vital to the evolution of the internet?

A CERN talking-to

A young computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN in the late 1980s when he became frustrated by the lack of access to key documentation.

He devised a protocol which allowed those documents to be hosted centrally, accessible from any device with an internet connection.

Described by Berners-Lee himself as “an act of desperation”, this joined the hypertext transfer system that was already in existence to a centrally hosted data repository.

To make it work, Berners-Lee had to develop the first-ever web server – and also the first-ever web browser, which he called WorldWideWeb.

To increase uptake, he uploaded information about how to set up a server and create a website, decades before companies like Wix and WordPress democratised this process.

Users could dial into the network and use the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) to download data via Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb software.

Today’s home broadband connections are an order of magnitude faster, but most website addresses still use HTTP across the World Wide Web.

One exception is the Tor browser, which is reminiscent of the early internet – slow and basic, lacking search engine supervision or much in the way of oversight.

What is the World Wide Web’s development history?

Making his invention freely available to the world meant Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA DFBCS gained a lot of letters after his name.

Everyone else gained an internet that worked for the many, not the few.

Logging on and viewing webpage data was a complex process pre-1991, but the Web made it as easy as connecting a modem between your phone line and computer, then dialling a number.

And while modern websites are often unrecognisable from their 1990s ancestors, the technology behind them has changed surprisingly little.

Web development is now driven by the non-profit W3C consortium, which Berners-Lee founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.

Its 450-strong membership includes ecommerce platforms (Alibaba and Amazon), broadcasters (BBC and Netflix), manufacturers (JCB and Jaguar Land Rover) and internet titans (Meta and Google).

Surprisingly, given the animosity you might expect between bitter rivals like Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi, there’s a collaborative (rather than competitive) spirit in W3C work.

New technologies and standards involving the building and rendering of web pages (HTML and Cascading Style Sheets, for instance) aren’t approved until they’re universally compatible.

Software developers can construct a framework they know should work on almost any device, regardless of its operating system or age.

In line with Sir Tim’s original creation more than three decades ago, the World Wide Web looks pretty much the same to everyone.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!