25 years of the World Wide Web

Around 30 years ago, the quote 'I think there is a world market for maybe five computers', attributed to Thomas Watson, president of IBM (1943), was doing the rounds on Usenet, the precursor to the internet, as poignant evidence of the stupidity of predictions, and the apparent emergence of underground computer users all over the world.

This quote is perhaps even more apt to recall today, August 23 2016, when we commemorate 25 years of public access to the World Wide Web, a network that now connects approximately 22 billion devices across the globe, untrammelled by national borders and blind to the skills, age or purposes of its users.

Watson's prediction, if he ever made it, was not so short-sighted at the time, with some sources saying there were not 15 computers in the world until 1953. It does seem remarkably silly from our perspective today when many of us seemingly live much of our lives on mobile devices, connected to (almost) all the other computers in the world.

I don't know if anyone has ever made a poor prediction so publicly about the World Wide Web, as Watson's about computers, but in 1994 when I first become aware of it the idea and the purpose of connecting up the world's computers seemed quite obscure to me. Never an early adopter, I couldn’t fathom the benefit of a strange thing my university tutor was using, called Electronic Mail. I was training to be a secondary teacher at the time, and my experience of using computers up until then was all about programming them to solve mathematical problems. I wrote my first programs as a teenager to display colourful fractals on a Commodore 64, and then later as an undergraduate student in physics when we used computers to model planetary motion and the quantum states of atoms. Why anyone would want to send textual messages by computer was beyond me, as was the idea of how they would reliably get to the intended recipient. A few days or weeks after my tutor first enthused about the idea to his class, and when the University had helped us all to get 'accounts', I received my first email - it was from my tutor. He encouraged me over a recent essay I had written about my teaching practice, and told me how he knew I would be successful as a teacher. Well, what an introduction to Email, and what an example of the power of encouraging students!

Sadly, my own inbox has some 50,000 messages unopened in it today, with all the spam and over-reliance on the medium, but some of the newest arrivals are the most important ones - the messages from my students - and they need some encouragement...

Happy 25th Anniversary, World Wide Web!

Joshua Knowles
Professor of Natural Computation - School of Computer Science