Ten years ago, CERN1 issued a statement declaring that a little known piece of software called the World Wide Web was in the public domain. That was on 30 April 1993, and it opened the floodgates to Web development around the world. By the end of the year Web browsers were de rigueur for any self-respecting computer user, and ten years on, the Web is an indispensable part of the modern communications landscape.
The idea for the Web goes back to March 1989 when CERN Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for a 'Distributed Information Management System' for the high-energy physics community. Back then, a new generation of physics experiments was just getting underway. They were performed by collaborations numbering hundreds of scientists from around the world - scientists who were ready for a new way of sharing information over the Internet. The Web was just what they needed.
By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee's idea had become the World Wide Web, with its first servers and browsers running at CERN. Through 1991, the Web spread to other particle physics laboratories around the World, and was as important as e-mail to those in the know.
Computer programmers started to develop ever more sophisticated browsers, but they were mostly confined to the computer systems used by scientists. With CERN's statement in April 1993, it was only a matter of time before browsers that were easy to install and that would work on home computers made an appearance. In November that year, the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications officially released Mosaic, the browser that first brought the Web to the public eye.
In the early 1990s, the Web was one of several systems being developed to make the Internet easy to use. That it succeeded where others failed is due to many factors. CERN, with its strong history in computer networking, its global collaborations of computer-literate scientists, and its university-like atmosphere of intellectual openness, provided fertile ground for Tim Berners-Lee's idea to grow. Berners-Lee's unique insight in marrying hypertext to the Internet to give the Web its simple point-and-click ease of use certainly helped. And the fact that CERN had the foresight to ensure that the Web became part of the public domain, and not the property of any company or individual, was decisive. In the words of the inventor himself, "CERN's decision to make the Web foundations and protocols available on a royalty free basis, and without additional impediments, was crucial to the Web's existence. Without this commitment, the enormous individual and corporate investment in Web technology simply would never have happened, and we wouldn't have the Web today."
Ten years on, CERN is still in the vanguard of advanced computing and networking through a new technology called the Grid. Where the Web used the Internet to revolutionise information sharing, the Grid is set to do the same for sharing computing resources. As lead partner in the European Union's DataGrid project, among others, CERN is part of a global Grid effort. CERN's interest is to provide the computing resources needed for its experiments. The result for society may be that one day plugging into powerful computing resources becomes as easy as plugging in a table lamp.
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1. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has its headquarters in Geneva. At present, its Member States are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. India, Israel, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United States of America, Turkey, the European Commission and UNESCO have observer status.