Twenty years ago, computers were either the size of a basketball court or they were novelties that we played with. Twenty years ago, we got our news at 6 p.m. on television or in the morning newspaper. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to buy a sweater, you drove from store to store until you spent as much on gas as you did on the sweater.
And then twenty years ago Friday, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a paper that laid out his thoughts for the World Wide Web. That one paper would be the seed that changed the way we communicate, shop, gather friends, date and do business. That one paper arguably held one of the most important ideas of the 20th century.
"Twenty years ago, Tim had a grand vision that became the World Wide Web. The world has never been the same," said Gene Phifer, an analyst for Gartner, Inc., in a blog post. "To sum it up, the Web has completely democratized access to information, products, services, applications, and other human beings. Prior to the Web, we had to travel to libraries to look up information. Prior to the Web, we had to go to bookstores to buy books. Prior to the Web, we had to use travel agents to set up a trip. And prior to the Web, the best place to meet friends was at church or a bar."
The world has changed dramatically because of the creation of the Web.
To commemorate the anniversary CERN, which runs the world's largest particle physics center, Friday celebrated the anniversary at its Geneva headquarters. Berners-Lee, who wrote the paper while working at CERN, headed the guest list as the keynote speaker.
Dan Olds, principle analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group, said that not all experts agree on the birth date of the Web. While Olds acknowledges that the Berners-Lee paper was a critical step in the birth of the Web, but he considers that it was born on the day the first browser was released.
"I think the real Web birthday should be marked by when the first browser went into beta form," noted Olds. "Before it was available, we had electronic communications through email and dial-up services like CompuServe, but very few people used them because it was cumbersome, slow, and difficult to understand. But once we had browsers using the existing Internet plumbing, it changed everything. Suddenly it was much quicker and easier to access a whole range of sites all over the world. Regular people and businesses now had the ability to make connections with a huge range of information sources, and it was off to the races ever since then."
But even Olds conceded that Berners-Lee's paper was the seed that brought along all the rest.
"Without the paper, we may still be living in a world where the Internet is more like a collection of islands rather than a completely interconnected whole," he added. "The paper's impact on our productivity is enormous. It's changed the way we pay our bills, do research, get news, and sell our products and services. The Berners-Lee proposition was one of the great ideas of the 20th century and it launched a revolution that has changed our society in a fundamental way. Not bad for a single paper."