Perspectives, comparators and causes

This analysis looks at the question Why The Web from the perspective of my personal involvement as well as the complementary theoretical perspectives of convergent technologies and visioning the future. The Web is compared both to other information services which preceded it and to other, less successful, efforts to implement a common vision. Throughout the analysis we identify causal factors which have underpinned the Web’s success and these are brought together in the penultimate section. Each of these perspectives, comparators and causes is identified in this section to set the context for the main linearised account which follows thereafter.

In September 1981, I first talked to my then quite young friend Joe Selvaggi about my dream for a game which could be played by anybody with a microcomputer connected to an information service in which all players would share access to a virtual space divided into ‘rooms’ through which they could interact. In what I called ‘Projection Encounter’ players could earn the right to build new rooms which others would pay a modest rental for using. I envisaged, but did not for many years discuss, the possibility that these rooms might also become a place for doing information work and—through the flexible geometries of ‘virtual reality’—a place in which many players might be simultaneously entertained and/or informed by talented performers. In 1985, Joe and I established PICA Pty Ltd which never really got close to commencing real development of the PICA System and which instead became a pioneer of desktop publishing and computer software distribution in Australia. After four years of extensive overseas travel on behalf of the company, during which I developed close contacts with the Xanadu and Intermedia teams, I became frustrated with my responsibilities to the business and decided it was time to try another approach. From what had become widely varying perspectives, the explosion of interest in the Internet during 1993 and 1994 brought the paths of various PICA people back together, justifying Joe (who has continued with the software distribution side of the business) and I travelling together to the U.S. in January 1995 to further his preparations to establish a new business as an Internet service provider.

Our story largely concerns the fashionable notion of technological convergence. The conventional view focuses on the convergence of computing, communications and audio-visual media through their common adaptation of digital data formats. However, this analysis has identified interdependent processes of convergence to common standards and divergence of new applications based on those standards. Now, with the very success of the Web, further convergence is proceeding apace to envelop the shared virtual spaces that serve as venues for collaborative activity on the Internet. Collaborative spaces and global hypertexts share the intertwined history of cyberspace from my dream of Projection Encounter to its realisation in the steps now being taken from Web to ‘WOO’.

Complementing these cycles of convergence, the technical community has been profoundly influenced by the visionary works of Ted Nelson and William Gibson in particular. Nelson named his vision of global hyper-media ‘Xanadu’. Between 1988 and 1992, the effort to implement Xanadu soaked up more than $US8 million from a leading software development company without producing product. In contrast, Gibson’s vision of ‘cyberspace’ was originally expounded in his 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer which went on to win the genre’s highest awards before seducing an ever growing portion of the technical community. This story takes us from technical and visionary identification of the potentialities of a global hypertext to its realisation in the Web, and on towards the shared virtual reality of Gibson’s ‘cyberspace’.

Along the way to establishing the importance of these visions to the success of the Web, we look at some relatively specialised information services which have each become viable by targeting a niche market for which the task of attracting critical masses of content and users has been of manageable magnitude. However, our study has shown that those services lacked the guiding vision needed to scale up to being fully-fledged public information services. Looking both at the unsuccessful attempts to commercially develop the grand vision which were mentioned earlier, and at the barriers that have just been identified to generalisation of services with more limited objectives, the story of the Web’s success can then be seen as a story of the best efforts of the commercial world failing to match an informal collaboration of ‘back room’ initiatives. In turn we will see how the Web’s success has rapidly settled a number of issues which had been impeding the growth of use of fully electronic content and enabled the converging technologies to more on through another round of standardisation to tackle the next steps of the quest for cyberspace.

I should again emphasise, before commencing the main linearised account, that I will not attempt to find a singular cause for the success of the World Wide Web. Relative both to earlier information services which did not share those visions, and to the much lesser achievements of Xanadu, Intermedia or the PICA System which did, a particular combination of factors allowed the development of the Web where other combinations of several of those same factors did not produce anything like the Web’s success. The Web is dependent on a rich pre-established hardware and software infrastructure; as mentioned, it is the product of a particularly efficient collaborative effort; certain design decisions made it reasonably easy to use; and it quickly found use in areas that may not have been so well served by any of the ‘pretenders’. The final factor is the dream of an open-ended, shared hypertext, and it is relatively constant across the Web and the ‘pretenders’, although not amongst the specialised information services.