The World's First Website Reveals the Other Webs That Could Have Been

How the first website ever published describes the competition to World Wide Web.

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Mar 13 2014, 10:55pm
The computer that hosted the first webpage. Image: CERN

This hypertext document is part of a series about surfing the first website ever built, a quarter-century later.

When Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web to CERN in 1989, there were already dozens of other promising systems for organizing information across the Internet in development. Some were infamous already, like Xanadu, Ted Nelson's utopian project to hyperlink the world's books. Others, like MIT's Library 2000, the Bootstrap Initiative, MIME, and Doorway, were more obscure. 

The team at CERN was aware of each of them, most of which were being built at universities and research institutions. Berners-Lee and Co., after all, were trying to get them to sign up for the Web. They kept a list of their competition and potential converts as part of the first website, and it's still browseable today.

Perhaps the most widely used alternatives to the Web at the time were WAIS (Wide-Area Information Service) and Internet Gopher. Gopher was a text-only system that was popular among programmers. Some technology historians, in fact, attribute the Web's success to little more than Moore's Law. New Scientist explained the theory, put forward by Open Web's chief technologist Robert Topolski, in a 2009 article

Computing power has been rapidly increasing since the mid 1960s, as predicted by physicist Gordon Moore working in Silicon Valley at the time. By the 1990s, there was just about enough power to allow access to text and image-based files via the internet, and Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web was born.

But network administrators at the time preferred a streamlined text-only internet service, says Topolski, using something called the Gopher protocol. He suggested that if those administrators had had access to data filtering technology, like that becoming popular with companies and governments today, they would have used it to exclude Berners-Lee's invention, and kill off the World Wide Web.

In other words, Berners-Lee had better tech first, and a much more versatile Internet service won out. Even in 1990, the CERN team knew that time was of the essence. Realizing the potential of the Web, Berners-Lee became an evangelist, traveling to conferences like Hypertext 91 in Texas, and making house calls with computer engineers to do demonstrations. 

And he explained fairly thoroughly how the Web improved on Gopher and WAIS. Each get their own sections on the world's first website, and Berners-Lee takes special care to explain the advantages WWW held over each. Gopher was too limited, didn't allow for images, and was "dry" instead of hypertext:

A Gopher menu is a dry list of items. Each line has 80 characters in which to describe an option. In practice, to communicate with the reader, one needs the full power of text formatting in a number of styles ... the "Panda" project adds some plain text to Gopher menus, but this is only a small step toward the flexible blending of links and text which is hypertext.

If it's not hypertext, it's not suitable for the Web. Meanwhile, WAIS lacked links: 

You miss the links in WAIS in two ways. One is when you are looking for an index. You can't follow links from an overview page to "browse" through different indexes. You can only use a master index (the directory of sources) to find indexes. The other way is that when you have retrieved something ... you get it in isolation. You can't follow links from that document to related documents.

WAIS had hypertext, but no hyperlinks. Aside from those two pre-Webs, Berners-Lee gives most attention to Xanadu; he devotes an entire page to the spiritual gradaddy of the Web:

Ted Nelson originally invented the word "hypertext" for "non-sequential writing". His long-standing interest in all things related to HT became the Xanadu project. The Xanadu Operating Company is now owned by Autodesk, but the project continues. Code is due out "any time now".

Of course, it wasn't, and Xanadu would never truly come to light. Wired called it the "longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing." Nelson's major contribution remains the wealth of ideas he loosed upon the world; his hypertext concept drew widespread interest amongst programmers, and his proposals were highly regarded. Berners-Lee describes Nelson's contribution on the first-ever website, a culmination, in part of the seeds planted by Xanadu:

[Nelson] describes himself, his colleagues, his philosophy and his project in "Literary Machines" which is an attempt to put his hypertext thoughts onto paper. He publishes it himself ... This is essential reading as background, enthusiathm and ideas on hypertext. (It includes also the text of Vannevar Bush's "As we may think". This is an article published in 1945 which suggests that an automated "MEMEX" (memory extension) would allow human memory to be augmented by mechanical means.)

Xanadu has many interesting concepts: for example, Nelson has tackled the problem of generating unique names for new documents such that they can be found, and the Xanadu project will aim to attribute royalties to the author of a work whenever it is retrieved across the network.

Later, Nelson would say that he wasn't satisfied by the Web: "HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can't follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management."

But in 1990, it was the most elegant, simplest, and best-positioned Internet service—and so it became the default mode of navigating the 'net for billions of people worldwide. 

Yet it's interesting to consider the pitch for WWW before it was a sure thing, before it had edged out Gopher and WAIS, before it had become the real-world version of Nelson's Xanadu. Berners-Lee finalized his argument on that first website succinctly:

  • A W3 client can read data from any other system. [ie, it can read Gopher and WAIS, but they can't necessarily read it]
  • If you run a W3 server you can upgrade certain parts of the documentation to hypertext later.
  • Hypertext is neat for representing existing data easily.

So install W3 clients, and W3 servers. If you want to install a Gopher or WAIS server, fine: the W3 clients will access it.

It's amusing to pick up that hint of exasperation in the text; it reflects the confidence the CERN team had that their system would win out, and the underiding worry that it wouldn't: Sign up for the world wide web, and if you don't want to, it's just as well—it will come to you.

The deep dive into the first-ever website continues:

What It Was Like to Surf the Web in 1989

Here's All the Knowledge You Could Access on the Web 25 Years Ago

How the First Website's 'Etiquette' Page Still Defines the Internet Today