Personal History: Early Days of the Web (1991)

Daniel Kehoe describes how he responded to the 1991 announcement of the WorldWideWeb.

Personal History: Early Days of the Web (1991)

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In 1991 I was writing for NeXTWORLD magazine, which was a lot of fun, because I got to work with, and write about, people who were doing fascinating things with computer technology. Working for NeXTWORLD led to writing the book Taking the Next Step and a short stint at NeXT as a technical writer.

The most innovative project I encountered that year was not NeXT. Rather, it was something developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. He used a NeXT computer to develop a networked information system for high-energy physicists. If I hadn’t been reading the Usenet newsgroups carefully, I would have missed the announcement of a “a hypertext editor for the NeXT.”

Not many people used “WWWNeXTStepEditor version 0.12.” The NeXT community was small and many NeXT computer users did not yet have Internet access, which was required to access Tim Berners-Lee’s experimental “WorldWideWeb” documents. To me, the name WorldWideWeb seemed a bit of a conceit since the only users at the time were high-energy physicists at a few research institutes.

Nonetheless, as soon I’d installed and tried the software, I wanted to get involved. I told everyone about it, including a fellow editor at NeXTWORLD, John Perry Barlow. Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and cofounder of the (then-new) Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote to his friend Mitch Kapor

If you don’t recognize Barlow’s references, Project Xanadu was a visionary hypertext project that predated the Internet. The Matrix is not the movie universe created by the Wachowskis but, rather the network of computer networks that existed before the commercialization of the Internet (as described by the researcher John Quarterman).

Subsequently I joined the www-talk mailing list and also contacted Tim Berners-Lee directly. I wanted to know if he was interesting in technology I’d heard about from friends at Adobe Systems. Adobe’s editable PostScript specification (which came to be named PDF and became the basis for a product named “Acrobat”) seemed to me a better match for distributed hypertext than the very-limited SGML-based “HTML tags” that Tim Berners-Lee was using. HTML offered only minimal layout and styling possibilities; PostScript was a better page description language.

Here’s an excerpt…

In 1993, Robert Cailliau of CERN visited me in California and I arranged a meeting between Cailliau and management at Adobe Systems. He met with John Kunze of Adobe at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and demonstrated the World Wide Web — the first time management at Adobe had seen the Web. By that time, HTML was firmly entrenched as the native language of the new Web. Adobe later invested in Netscape Communications and produced an Acrobat plug-in for the Netscape Web browser, establishing the basis for viewing richly formatted PDF pages in web browsers.

For some years afterward, I regretted that the Adobe/WWW meeting had not taken place the previous year, because the sparse and limited HTML format might have been eclipsed by the richer format of PDF as the primary syntax of web pages. With the adoption of the Cascading Style Sheets specification (from 1999 forward), my views changed, and I’ve come to appreciate that the technical underpinnings of the web are optimal, reflecting both the genius of Berners-Lee’s original vision and the rich contributions of the worldwide developer community.

I never anticipated that Berners-Lee’s NeXT hypertext project would become a medium to supplant print and television. In 1991, during idle moments, I imagined the world’s books and magazines might be reborn as hypertext (many others had imagined this earlier, including Ted Nelson, with his Xanadu project). But I never honestly believed that Berners-Lee’s software project could change the world. By 1999, as Web addresses appeared on billboards and the sides of buses, I started to accept that Berners-Lee naming his project “the WorldWide Web” was not vainglorious but simply prescient.