What is the World Wide Web?

The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.

The World Wide Web project, CERN

I highly recommend that you read the short World Wide Web Executive Summary document, even if you don’t understand all of the technical details.

The World Wide Web is not the Internet, as much as they’re conflated. The Internet (a.k.a. The ’Net) is a network of networks, all made of connections and computers. Parts of the Internet that aren’t the World Wide Web include E-mail, UseNet, and Gopher, among others. The Internet was built on top of the ARPANet, a military application designed by the U.S. Department of Defense to allow communications in the event of large scale network disruptions.

The Word Wide Web is the collection of connections between files and documents. You can think of it as the Internet being hardware while the World Wide Web is software. The three basic technologies that get the World Wide Web to work are: HTML, HTTP, and URIs

HyperText Markup Language is the markup language for structuring Web documents.
HyperText Transfer Protocol is the protocol for exchanging information between a web server and a Web browser.
Uniform Resource Identifier is a generic term for methods to distinguish one resourcefrom another. The most common type of URIs are URLs, commonly referred to as a web address or link.

Using this combination of technologies allows the creation of HTML documents and the use of client/server applications for the World Wide Web.

The Web exists because of programs which communicate between computers on the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee
Web Browser
An application that interacts with a web server to allow a visitor to access a website. Sometimes you’ll also see the browser referred to as the client.
Web Server
Refers both to the computer and the server software that a computer runs to allow web browser to request web pages.
Web Page
A document written using HTML to be viewed by a web browser when it makes a request to a web server with HTTP using a URI.
A collection of web pages under a common domain name or directory.

You type a URL into the web browser locator bar, or, you click a link which puts the URL into the locator bar. The web browser then requests the document at that location from the web server. If the document exists the web server sends the document and all other associated files to the web browser. Once the web browser recieves enough of the files it begins displaying the page to you.

[Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN] came up with a stunning solution. Rather than attempt to impose standards on the hardware or software, they defined standards for the data. They also created a universal addressing system. Using a relatively simple set of commands, World Wide Web users can turn their documents into hypertext: insert the proper bit of code, and a word becomes a link; insert a different bit of code, and a sentence becomes a headline or begins a new paragraph. With the new addressing system, nearly any Net document — text, picture, sound, or video — can be retrieved and viewed on the World Wide Web.

The beauty of this approach is that it allows maximum openness and flexibility. All World Wide Web documents are similar, but every World Wide Web reader, or browser, can be different. From the smallest laptop to the most outrageous supercomputer, nearly every machine can hook into the Web. The Web, despite its sophisticated hypertext capabilities, is as catholic as the Net itself. All you need for exploring is a browser.

Based on this open environment, developers around the world are working on some stunning enhancements to the Web, including better page-layout techniques; artificial-intelligence search engines; smart, distributed data-storage methods; and even interactive, Web-based, virtual reality environments. [editor’s note: LOL!]

The (Second Phase of the) Revolution Has Begun, Gary Wolfe, Wired Magazine, Oct 1994

World Wide Web Technology Timeline

Web 1.0

Tim Berners-Lee submitted WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project in March of 1989. The first website launched on August 6, 1991. The first web browser was called WorldWideWeb. The first web browser with the ability to display text and images inline on the same page together in the same window was NCSA Mosaic and was first released in 1993.

The technologies that made the World Wide Web work were:

  1. HTTP
  2. HTML
  3. URLs
Web 2.0

The term Web 2.0 began being used in 2002 to describe the slate of new technologies and their uses: the Social Web, RIAs, and Web-oriented Architecture.

  1. Crowd-sourcing and the Social Web
    • Blogging (the blogosphere)
    • Podcasting
    • Wikis
    • Tagging & Folksonomies (Informal Taxonomies)
    • Peer-to-peer (p2p) connections
    • Social Media
      • Social networking
      • Social bookmarking
      • Content voting: Review/Rating sites
  2. Rich Web Application (RIAs)
    • AJaX
    • Java Applets
    • Rich media plugins
      • Macromedia/Adobe Flash
      • Microsoft Silverlight
  3. Web-oriented architecture
  4. Development Technologies:
    • Web Standards
    • XHTML
    • CSS Layout
Web 3.0 (Responsive Web)

As mobile devices began gaining in popularity there was technology shift beginning in 2010, the era of Responsive Design. This shift was built on Web 2.0 but was fundamentally different in development technologies and user experience. Until very recently I’ve been using Web 3.0 as a collective term for it. Legacy browsers delayed the transition. It couldn’t truly be in full swing until the last browser that couldn’t support responsive design was retired: Internet Explorer 8 on January 12, 2016. Whether you refer to this era as “Web 3.0” or “The Responsive Era”, there’s no denying that websites in 2012 were designed, built, and experienced very differently than the websites created in 2002.

  1. Responsive Design
    1. Mobile and Tablet Devices
    2. Wifi and Mobile Data Networks
    3. Responsive Design (May 25, 2010)
  2. Evergreen Technology
    • Browsers
    • HTML Doctype
  3. Modern Development Methodologies
    1. Semantic HTML and HTML5 APIs
    2. Modern JavaScript: ES6/JS2015
    3. Frameworks, Component-based Development, & SPAs
    4. Automated Workflows and Development Packages
Web3 (The Distributed Web)

In 2020 and 2021, the idea of Web3 gained popularity. Web3 is being built on the technologies of decentralized networks, blockchain, and peer-to-peer hosting.

The more the Web changes, the more it remains the same:

To Grimmelmann, Web3 represents technologists reaching for the idealistic ethos of the dawn of the internet — everyone can freely use the information superhighway! — that long ago was overtaken by tech companies.

People are talking about Web3. Is it the Internet of the future or just a buzzword?, NPR