What’s Next for the Web?

At 30, the World Wide Web has grown in ways not imagined

Last Tuesday, what we know as the World Wide Web turned 30. It changed the ways billions of people live their lives, and for millions, it changed the way they earn a living. Like electricity and indoor plumbing, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

It was on 12 March 1989 when British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal to his boss at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) for what would become the World Wide Web. An entire ecosystem has emerged from Mr Berners-Lee’s simple components.

His then boss at CERN Mike Sendall labelled the proposal “vague, but exciting”. Using a NeXT computer, Mr Berners-Lee built the world’s first website in 1991, featuring links to additional pages with information about him, his team of scientists and the history of their project.

To be clear, it’s worth noting that the Internet already existed in 1989 in the form of large networks of connected computers, but Mr Berners-Lee’s proposal is now credited as the first major step toward creating the Internet as we know it today, with a simple mark-up language supporting hyperlinks.

During the following years, as for-profit enterprises began seeing the commercial value of easy access to information, the web evolved at a quickening pace. Browsers became more sophisticated, which led to a more sophisticated Internet and in turn resulted in better connectivity options in the form of high-speed broadband and mobile networks.

Mr Berners-Lee may not have envisioned the full richness of the web as it exists now, but he understood that it had huge potential negative consequences if misused and he appreciated how important it was as an invention. As he points out, the Internet has enabled life improvements in many ways beyond the convenience of online shopping. It has helped democratize communications, allowing people to make their voices heard globally. But on the other side of the coin, it has also spawned new opportunities for scammers and evil-doers, allowed the dissemination of hurtful propaganda, led to a significant concentration of wealth in the technology sector, and is forcing countries to look again at many aspects of their regulations.

About half the world is online in one way or another. Many regions have essentially skipped over from hard-wired connections to mobile. Several countries have recognized Internet access as a human right, meaning that citizens can miss out on many aspects of society if they opt out.

Many generations of people have grown up not knowing what things were like before websites, search, apps, e-commerce, online streaming and social media. Furthermore, Internet access and mobility have had more than a tangential relationship, with each driving the other much further than ever imagined. Now, 5G access is widely seen as the start of another major technological revolution, bringing more intelligence to networks, enabling new approaches to business thanks to its higher data rates and lower-latency communications, and making possible some of the grander visions of self-driving cars and robotics. As we move into the 5G era, we should see the development of the web as a lesson in the application of technology, both good and bad, and make sure we learn from it as much as possible.