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Concerns for the future as World Wide Web turns 25

SAN FRANCISCO -- Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web was just an idea in a technical paper from an obscure, young computer scientist at a European physics lab.

That idea from Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN lab in Switzerland, outlining a way to easily access files on linked computers, paved the way for a global phenomenon that has touched the lives of billions of people.

He presented the paper on March 12, 1989, which history has marked as the birthday of the Web.

But the idea was so bold, it almost didn't happen.

“There was a tremendous amount of hubris in the project at the beginning,” said Marc Weber, creator and curator of the Internet history program at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

“Tim Berners-Lee proposed it out of the blue, unrequested.”

At first, said Weber, the CERN colleagues “completely ignored the proposal.”

The Web's Rivals

The U.S. military began studying the idea of connected computer networks in the 1950s, and in 1969 launched Arpanet, the forerunner to the Internet. But the World Wide Web was just one of several ideas to connect the public.

Berners-Lee convinced CERN to adopt his system, demonstrating its usefulness by compiling a lab phone book into an online index.

A key aspect of the design put forward by Berners-Lee was that it worked across various computer operating systems. And it offered the ability to click on links to access files hosted on computers located elsewhere.

The Web was not a winner out of the gate. There were rival online services such as U.S.-based CompuServe and France's Minitel — but they involved fees, while Berners-Lee's system was free.

“It started as a real underdog; no one would have predicted the system would have succeeded,” Weber said.

The Gopher system owned by the University of Minnesota was beating the Web in the early 1990s.

Al Gore, White House Help

Weber credited former U.S. vice president Al Gore with helping the Web topple Gopher by getting government agencies in Washington to use the system.

The launch of the Whitehouse.gov website was seen as a huge stamp of approval for the Web.

In 1993, the Web system was released free into the public, while those behind Gopher started charging, according to Weber.

“Most people don't realize that both the Web and the Internet had competitors,” Weber said.

“Had they lost the battles, we would still be going online, but it could certainly be different, a lot more top-down control like the walled garden at Facebook.”

Web competitors were online environments controlled by operators.

Under the Berners-Lee model, people were free to publish what they wished on Internet-linked computers.

Internet titans such as Google and Yahoo were built on helping people find pages of interest as the amount of information being hosted on servers exploded.

Disrupting Industries

“At its birth, many of us were guilty of a lack of imagination and just didn't see what the Web would do to the future,” Gartner analyst Michael McGuire told AFP.

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