Book Review – Weaving the Web

In 1999, Tim Berners-Lee, together with Mark Fischetti, wrote ‘Weaving the Web‘, a book on how he invented the World Wide Web in the late 1980s and the early 1990’s. It is still published today so it’s not difficult to get hold of it. You can also lend a copy in PDF format from Written less than a decade after the web had its early break through, it is now two decades old itself and offers incredible insight into the early days, the thoughts of the time how it should evolve and it made me reflect on how it turned out today.

The story starts in the early 1980’s but things really start rolling around 1989. At the time, I had an Amiga 500 at home. Windows 3.1, the operating system that would bring graphical user interfaces and PCs to homes and offices, was still 3 years in the future. In other words, graphical user interfaces, except on home computers such as the Amiga and the Atari ST, and of course on the the Mac, had not yet reached the main stream, at least not the business world anyway. So things were basically still text based, especially around the Internet but things were about to change significantly in the years to come. So from that point of view it is not much of a surprise that first web server and web browser were programmed on a NeXT machine with a graphical user interface. So while GUIs were still ‘islands’ in the vast sea of text based computing, a graphical user interface was part of the Web from the beginning. However, text based browsers where still important which again demonstrates how different the computing and Internet landscape was at the beginning of the 1990s compared to today.

In the first part of the book Tim describes how important concepts such as the URL/URI, http and html came to be, who programmed the first web browsers such as Viola, Erwise and Midas that only few remember today and how the web expanded from CERN in Switzerland to the rest of the world.

As CERN is a nuclear research facility, the ‘web’ did obviously not fit very well into the main research topic of the organization. So for me it was interesting to note that Tim, especially in the early days, took care and worried about staying enough below the radar so the project wouldn’t be shut down, but not so deep that nobody would notice and use the system, which, after all, could make life of many people at CERN itself easier as well.

Odd from today’s perspective is that in the early 90’s quite a number of ‘web sites’ used FTP instead of HTTP servers to host their web pages. Fraunhofer IPA where I worked as an intern in the mid-1990s for example did that as can be seen in the screenshot here. Tim also mentions this in the book, and I guess the reason is quite simple: At the time, lots of institutions already had FTP servers running so it was easier to host the web pages there than setting up a separate http server. Obviously, performance was far from ideal, as the FTP protocol was written with human interaction in mind with a rather lengthy login procedure. But in the early days, with only few people using web browsers and not used to responses within a few hundred milliseconds anyway, it wasn’t really an issue.

Tim also talked about hypertext preceding the web by quite a bit, how he struggled to convince hypertext editor makers from the benefits of linking to sources over the Internet instead of only linking local documents, and the earlier competition to the Web such as Gopher and why the Web prevailed while other solutions faded away.

Also a nice approach at the time: To make it easier for people to try out the web, Tim offered a text based web browser over telnet so anyone could try ‘surfing the text based web’ by just ‘telneting’ to his machine at CERN over the Internet. No software installation necessary. Imagine what this would mean today, in an Internet where automated bots trying to attack and subvert servers every couple of seconds. How innocent things were back then.

There are many many more anecdotes in the book about those early days but I’ll leave it at this point. Before ending this post I’d rather like to spend a few words on the second part of this book which is not about the past, from a 1999 perspective, but about the future of the web. That’s 20 years in the past now and I am amazed how Tim saw the challenges that we still struggle with today to keep the web open and decentralized with access to information for all without walled gardens and a few companies controlling the flow of information and gathering data of everybody. I’d say these thoughts are more current today as ever.

‘Weaving the Web’ by Tim Berners Lee, highly recommended!