A brief release history of the web
As an aficionado of Web 3.0 tech, I realize that putting version numbers on the World Wide Web is an inherently arbitrary, somewhat messy undertaking. After all, the web isn’t corporate-owned software like Windows with official release dates, but an open technology with several billion users, developers, and other stakeholders shaping it everyday. That’s the very beauty of it.
In that spirit, I’m going to run through a quick timeline below of the web from birth to version 3.0, using just six key dates that I believe defined the (very unofficially) numbered stages so far.
Now is a great time to do this, as the web is celebrating its 30th anniversary this week. Plus, a simple chronology may help clarify for newbies what I’m yammering about with all the “Web 3.0” jazz the rest of the time around here. ☺️
- March 12, 1989: Tim Berners-Lee, a physics researcher at CERN in Switzerland, launches the first web server in order to better share documents with his colleagues. To do this, he creates several new software tools, including a coding system called Hypertext Markup Language to allow research papers to link directly to previous works cited. This is effectively the Big Bang of the Web 1.0 era, which is defined by document sharing. For over a decade to come, people primarily envision the web as a series of “pages” referring to one another.
- February 1991: America Online ships the first version of its web “portal” software. We’re still squarely in the Web 1.x era here, but this event bears mentioning as a crucial step toward bringing the web to the masses. (Maybe we’ll call it Web 1.3?) Through the ’90s, AOL and its competitors Prodigy and CompuServe will connect millions of people to the web for the first time, mostly through traditional copper phone lines to their homes and offices.
- Aug. 9, 1995: Netscape Communications, maker of the popular Navigator web browser, completes its initial public offering of stock, making millions for the company’s early investors. We’re still in the web’s early growth stage here — let’s call it version 1.6 at this point — but this IPO is another truly seminal event. Widely regarded around Wall Street as the start of the first “dotcom boom,” the Netscape IPO validated the web as a viable platform to do business at massive scale. It thus paved the way for other wildly popular tech IPOs to come throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including Google, Amazon, and so on.
- Aug. 1, 2003: MySpace launches. This marks the start of Web 2.0, defined by people’s use of the web to communicate directly with one another via social networks. Though it’s easy to forget now, this was a pretty radical departure at the time from approaching the web merely as a tool to view relatively inert pages of information. Facebook and other competitors would eventually eclipse MySpace, of course, but history will always have to credit them as the first breakout success of the social era. Also notable: Of all the unofficial web “versions” discussed in this post, the term “Web 2.0” is by far the most popularly known and accepted, as it’s been widely used in the press over time as shorthand for all things related to social networking.
- Nov. 12, 2006: New York Times tech reporter John Markoff does a story on Web 3.0 — the earliest known reference to the term in a popular, global publication. He mentions a budding movement among technologists to adopt things like artificial intelligence and data tools that add semantic meaning to web content.
- Oct. 31, 2008: A mysterious author (or authors) publishes under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto a whitepaper describing the technology behind bitcoin, which soon after goes into production and becomes a global phenomenon. To me, this is the true start of the Web 3.0 era — after the proto stage that Markoff ably documented — as bitcoin brings the concept of decentralization to the fore in a big way. Unlike previous web technologies, which were built to rely heavily upon distinct servers like the one Berners-Lee ran from his desk at CERN all the way back in 1989, bitcoin uses novel encryption techniques to store transaction data for each bitcoin token on a peer-to-peer network. This eventually opens the way for even more full-fledged distributed computers — like the Ethereum network created by Vitalik Buterin — that can run entire applications without the use of traditional servers.
Of course, decentralization runs counter to the very nature of the web as most of us currently experience it in 2019, dominated by just a few big services like Facebook and Google that increasingly abuse us. That’s why any shift toward decentralization warrants a whole new “version” number for the web.
I believe recent technical advances, coupled with rapidly rising skepticism of Big Tech among consumers, suggest the decentralization trend will run on quite awhile longer. That should lead to more user control of our personal data, greater market competition among companies, more innovation, and other benefits.
Which isn’t to say there won’t be more bumps in the road, mind you. There are probably still more privacy scandals to come involving abuse of centrally hosted data — like this story that Wired just broke about Foursquare.
But in general, I’m optimistic as the web turns 30. No, its worst actors haven’t decisively been defeated yet. But momentum is on the side of the users and upstarts.