Why The Web: The Question

During 1994, the World Wide Web became identified as the public face of the Internet. The Web provides a way of browsing vast amounts of information stored on computers connected to the Net. Unlike other extant information services, the Web embodies both hypertext and multimedia.1 However, the idea of public access to electronically stored information, as well as the ideas of hypertext and multimedia are far from new, and this leads us to question why the Web in particular has succeeded to such a degree, rather than any earlier or other similarly conceived information services? That is the central question of this essay—our research has revealed several contributing answers to that question.

It is appropriate in these introductory remarks to dispose of any question as to whether the Web has or has not actually won. In the electronic information technologies, victory generally boils down to questions of market perceptions and of time scale—if the market believes that some product has won its niche then, at a minimum, that belief is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Public perception of the Web’s success is clearly evidenced by its extensive media coverage, a topic to which we will not return, save for one rather technical issue.2 However, experience of the information services market suggests that there is at least one less transient indicator of market acceptance—the achievement of a ‘critical mass’ of content and users. Early information services have long been afflicted by a classical ‘chicken and egg’ problem. Unless such a service could obtain a critical mass of content, an arbitrary member of its target public was unlikely to find enough information of interest to justify the effort of connecting. And without that critical mass of users, most of those who might provide informational content, and, more importantly, maintain the currency of that content, have insufficient incentive to do so. Continuing growth at around ten percent per week of both Web users (of order four million at April 1995) and Web content (similarly, six million ‘pages’ or documents), each, provides solid evidence that, if the Web is not yet at critical mass, it certainly soon will be. While the timing of the Web’s victory will not concern us further, a lot will be said about the adoption of the Web as a significant standard, and this provides another strong indicator of its success.

This analysis looks at the question Why The Web from various perspectives, with reference to a number of comparators, ultimately revealing several complementary and indispensable causes. Those multiple perspectives, comparators and causes are summarised in the next section so that the detailed story of our analysis can thereafter progress without excessive interruption by explicit declarations of context. That main linearised account of our analysis then divides into a number of sections which wind their way in a roughly chronological sequence.

That main account commences by looking briefly at what makes up an electronic information service—firstly the equipment needed for its operation and secondly the ways in which it manages and presents its information. We then recall some history of information service development, covering the emergence of key ideas, the early development of niche services, and the rise of the Internet. At that point, the context is broadened to look both at the wider move towards fully electronic publishing and at the role and production of ‘standards’. While those parts of this story largely predate the development and uptake of the World Wide Web, they also provide both technical background to that development, and an introduction to the complex combinations of contributing factors which led to its success. The actual development of the Web itself and of the ‘Mosaic’ interface software, with which it became almost synonymous, leads into a comparative account of what happened to some other attempts to develop ostensibly similar information services. The technological convergences which led to, and which now follow from, the success of the Web are then shown to also involve other key areas of information service functionality. The complex combination of reasons as to why the Web has won is then recalled and reexamined, leading into a few final pointers as to how the Web’s victory and the uptake of information technologies in education are becoming increasingly interdependent.

This story is also a very personal story, as I was the architect of one relatively minor and failed ‘pretender’ to the Web’s crown. Throughout the 1980s I was driven by a vision of a system for ‘public information communications and access’ which I endeavoured to develop, and which was designed to provide very similar functionality to that of the Web. The story is informed by what I learnt through designing and promoting what we called the ‘PICA System’ and through the discovery that others were working towards similar goals—in particular Ted Nelson’s ‘Xanadu’ project and Brown University’s ‘Intermedia’ project. Nelson first presented his concept of ‘hypertext’ at the World Documentation Federation’s 1965 conference and has spend the ensuing thirty years trying to make his global hypertext happen, so, in many ways, this turns out to be his story even more than it is mine.