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Birds, Booze and Tim Berners Lee - Memories of the World Wide Web

Happy 25th Birthday WWW

Like many organizations across the globe today iomart is celebrating the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web.

iomart would not exist had a young British computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee not submitted his idea for allowing scientists to share information to his manager at CERN. Today our data centers provide the physical infrastructure that enables start-ups, SMEs and large enterprises to deliver their services online.

To mark this anniversary we asked our staff to share their memories of the early days of the World Wide Web and we’ll come to their recollections in a moment. But one member of our board really was there at its birth.

Ian Ritchie CBE is Non Executive chairman of iomart but back in the early 1980s he founded Office Workstations Limited (OWL).  OWL was the first and largest supplier of Hypertext/Hypermedia authoring tools for personal computers which customers used to implement large interactive multimedia documentation systems in the automobile, defense, publishing, finance, and education sectors. This is how Ian describes encountering what would become the World Wide Web.

“In late November 1990 I was attending a technical conference on Hypertext at Versailles near Paris when I was approached by a pleasant, rather earnest, young researcher,” he recalls. “'Are you Ian Ritchie?', he asked, and when I said I was he introduced himself as Tim Berners-Lee and said he wanted to speak with me. We retired to the bar and over a beer he told me about his project - the World Wide Web. My first reaction was that this was a very ambitious name for a system which only existed on his computer in his office at CERN - it was first made available to the rest of CERN the very next month in December 1990.

“He was, however, totally convinced that his system would take over the world one day and people everywhere would use it to communicate with each other,” Ian remembers. “At the time the Internet was not open to everyone but was restricted to not-for-profit public bodies such as universities, government, defense and science researchers, such as those at CERN. He wanted my company, OWL, to write a browser for his system, as he didn't have an effective mechanism for viewing his documents. Our hypertext system had multiple fonts, graphics and layout and his was restricted to plain text only. However, he wasn't able to commission any work and I was running a commercial company and really couldn't undertake unpaid work of this kind. I told this story in a TED talk -  http://bit.ly/1otPUAY .

“So we passed on the opportunity. I first saw the Mosaic browser for the World Wide Web demonstrated by Marc Andreeson at the Hypertext conference in Seattle in 1993. He had developed it at the publicly funded National Center for SuperComputer Applications (NCSA) in Champaign, Illinois, and all subsequent Web browsers have been based on this work.  It is ironic that the World Wide Web, which has disrupted almost all of the world's commercial processes, entirely originated from publicly funded research programs.”

So our chairman can actually claim he was there at the birth of the World Wide Web. What about our employees? Well, some (older!) staff remember those first days of dial up and some (much younger!) weren’t actually born. However what they all share is the experience of the impact it has had on the world we now live and work in where two out of every five people are ‘connected.’

When asked ‘What was your first memory of the web?’ the overarching memory is the noise that accompanied those first dial up modem connections. “It was like a donkey in pain!” says one, remembering that you could go and make a coffee and run a bath in the time it took to connect.

The NCSA Mosaic browser that Ian saw back in 1993 was pretty popular it seems, although you had to wait for the web pages to load one line at a time. The browser was accessed on “stone age Packard Bell” and Pentium PCs. “I remember thinking how slow and useless this was,” says one of our senior managers.  

While it was exciting – “It was so much better than teletext” says another - it didn’t foster much brotherly or sisterly love. “My first memory was having to unplug the house phone and my five sisters going mental because the line was always engaged,” while another was caught out by his older brother who handed him a huge bill for the ISDN line that he’d been using to chat to people in CompuServ chat rooms!

Grandparents are often seen as slow adopters of technology today, back then they came in quite handy. “I got a Yahoo ID (which I still have today), set up my 56k modem and hooked it into my gran’s phone line. Then of course arrived the £600 phone bill as Demon Internet were only providing penny per minute Internet access at the time. Thankfully Freeserve eventually released unlimited dial up internet!”

Freeserve seems to have been the way a lot of us accessed the web in those early days. Internet chat rooms were the place to hang out and from there many of our older staff started building their first web sites.  

Many first memories were chatting with friends and potential partners via MSN Messenger and AOL. “That’s how I met my first girlfriend,” says one, while others just asked Jeeves, “I was told it answered questions and remember being very disappointed with its answers!”

What did we first use the web for? “There wasn’t much on the web at the time. It was mainly government stuff and a couple of corporates,” others looked at the NASA and the FBI websites. “Curiosity of America the Super Power was the first thing me and my mates wanted to look at.  We honestly thought we were going to find proof of aliens or something!”

Favorite websites today include Google, BBC News,  Wikipedia, Gmail, You Tube, Twitter, Soundcloud.com, imgur and Failblog.org,  “Nothing makes you feel smarter than the browsing the consolidation of some of the silliest things human beings ever attempted.” While one older site is dear to the heart of a particular iomart staffer,Yahoo Chat without a doubt. I met my wife on there you know, long before it was fashionable to meet people online.”

So what has the World Wide Web given us? For many of our staff the biggest benefits have been for learning and connecting with their families and friends wherever they happen to be in the world.  Others say: “I can find really niche music from wannabe artists who don’t receive much press, and they can get feedback from folk like me”; “I no longer have to use Yellow Pages or call BT when looking for a telephone number”; “I see the doctor less”; “Amazon. I hate going shopping!”; and “Ebooks….Because….well, have you ever tried carrying 10,000 books at once?!”

It has definitely given us careers in one of the fastest growing industries. While that might be a career that could have turned out differently for one senior employee - “Without it I wouldn’t have run my own business for almost ten years. Such a shame I wasn’t 18 when I first came across the web, I would be a millionaire by now!” – for all of us it has created more jobs and opportunities.

Has it changed our lives? “Well, it hasn’t - it’s just become part of my life. I’ve lived with the internet, longer than I’ve lived without it.”

The response to Tim Berner-Lee’s idea from his boss to his idea all those years ago was, “Vague, but exciting.” That doesn’t even get near to describing what has happened as a result. Ensuring that the World Wide Web was made royalty-free meant it could be used by everyone and it has revolutionized our lives ever since, allowing a whole new type of business and way of living to develop.

So thank you Sir Tim from everyone here at iomart!

More Stories By Phil Worms

Phil is the Chief Marketing Officer of one of the UK's largest managed hosting and cloud computing services companies - iomart Group plc. He is a 30 year IT industry veteran, having started his career with BT plc, joining the company as it emerged into a brave new commercial world following privatisation.

A full and varied career has seen Phil move through various senior product/project and marketing positions with companies as diverse as Centrica plc, One.Tel and VarTec Telecom, Phil has been described as “an old head who has been around the block more than once” who “continues to be a powerhouse of ideas in all areas in which he provides his considerable experience to” - which probably means he should have been pensioned long ago.