- What is the internet?
- The internet during the pandemic and now
Hailing a ride, ordering in, sharing your pictures — we do it all over the internet. Our work jolts to a halt if we lose our internet connection, and one of the first things we usually check when booking a hotel is if it has Wi-Fi, right? We are so used to the internet that we joke about the impossible time before it was invented. But how was the internet created, who did it, and why? Let us tell you the story of the internet — from the early days of static plain-text websites on the screens of massive computers to the interactive mobile web on your smartphone, no bigger than the palm of hand.
From the invention of the first computer network ARPANET to the first email, DNS, IRC, and the launch of AOL, from the first ISPs to the invention of Wi-Fi, making the internet available to the public — all of these breakthrough technologies brought us the age of smart devices, social media, e-commerce, and cryptocurrencies. Read on about all the fascinating developments and innovations that brought the internet to our screens.
What is the internet?
The internet is a global network of interconnected computers and other devices that we use to communicate and share information. It is composed of numerous smaller networks operated by businesses, governments, educational institutions, and individuals. These networks connect through a physical infrastructure of cables, satellite links, and wireless connections. But when was the first network invented?
In the 1950s, US defense, research, and educational institutions developed the first computer networks for sharing information, resources and databases. However, at the time computers could only be connected if they were in the same area, and their ability to exchange data was limited. The invention of ARPANET changed that. In the 1980s, scientists created the building blocks for the internet of today — technologies like DNS, IRC, and AOL, until the first commercial ISPs brought the internet to home users.
ARPANET — the beginning of the internet (1969)
In 1969, in the midst of the Cold War, the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) initiated a project called ARPANET with the goal of creating a network for computers to communicate with each other over large distances. ARPANET utilized a new networking system, called packet switching. The system made it possible for computers to send messages — private data packages — across the network.
First, ARPANET connected computers across the state — in UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute. Later, it included the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. Throughout the 70s, ARPANET expanded to include more universities, research centers, and government institutions. In the 1980s, ARPANET had completed its mission and was gradually phased out. The remaining networks were the precursors of our present day internet.
The first email (1971)
The first message on ARPANET was sent from one computer to another in 1969 but it was a far cry from an email as we know it. The idea of sending nearly instantaneous messages from one device to another within an organization became so appealing that specialists started developing more complex protocols for sending them. However, one question remained — how do you indicate where the message is supposed to go? Ray Tomlinson, an American programmer working at ARPANET came up with the answer — the “@” symbol. In 1971, Tomlinson proposed to separate the user’s name from the destination computer with an “@”, addressing the messages “username@name of computer.” This is how we’ve been addressing emails ever since.
Initially, the email was used to communicate within internal networks of universities and research institutions. But the invention was so useful that programmers started working on the idea of sending emails to computers outside the internal network. As the internet expanded, email became an integral part of professional communication.
Widespread adoption of the email began in the 1990s with the rise of internet service providers (ISPs) offering free email services to individuals. Web-based email services (Hotmail and Yahoo mail) contributed to email’s popularity. At the start of the new millennium, email has already become a daily medium for communication, similar to a phone number.
ARPANET switches to TCP/IP (1983-1985)
Until 1983, ARPANET computers had been using NCP (Network Control Protocol) to communicate with each other. But NCP had limitations and was not suitable for connecting different types of computer networks. To solve this problem, developers created the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). TCP/IP was more flexible and could connect different computer networks, enabling better communication.
The transition from NCP to TCP/IP was gradual because the network infrastructure needed to be updated. Special translators, known as protocol gateways, were created to help computers that still use NCP communicate with those already using TCP/IP.
DNS comes into play (1985)
To understand the importance of DNS, first, let’s look into what an IP address is. An IP address, or an internet protocol address, is a unique string of characters that identifies each computer that communicates over the internet. It’s like the phone number of your device.
In the early days of the internet, network hosts (computers and other devices that communicate with other computers and devices on the network) were identified and accessed using numerical IP addresses, for example, 192.0.2.1. As the internet grew, it became impractical to try to remember and manage all of the IP addresses. That’s where DNS (Domain Name System) comes in.
DNS was created in 1984 to translate human-readable domain names into numerical IP addresses. It acts like an address book for the internet. It is easier to remember domain names like google.com or facebook.com instead of complicated strings of numerical characters.
The launch of AOL (1985)
AOL (formerly known as America Online) was launched in 1985 and rebranded as AOL in 1991. It was an online service provider that opened the door to consumer internet. AOL provided an easy-to-access online platform that introduced millions of users to the internet for the first time.
Previously, mostly businesses, educational, and government institutions used the internet. In the 1990s, AOL made the internet widely available by providing dial-up internet access, which allowed home users to connect using their phone lines. Online communities and chat rooms flourished, facilitating social interaction online and a sense of connectedness. The internet started becoming what it is today — a household staple, which would not be as handy as it is if you could not use it for direct messaging.
The IRC for direct messaging (1988)
With email on the rise, the need for live messaging came along, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) fulfilled it. The IRC is a real-time communication protocol and text-based chat system that allows people to send each other direct messages over the internet.
In 1988, Jarkko Oikarinen, a Finnish computer scientist, created the IRC for group communication in discussion forums, private messaging, data transfer, and file sharing among users in different locations. IRC presented the concept of channels or virtual chat rooms where users join and participate in group discussions.
The beginning of the World Wide Web (1989)
Before we dive in, let’s learn about the difference between the web (or the World Wide Web, WWW) and the internet. The web is the system of interconnected hypertext documents, media, and resources, while the internet is a global network of interconnected computers that you use to access that system, utilizing technologies like HTTP and HTML. But who was the brain behind the technologies that paved the way for the web we use today?
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), proposed creating a networked hypertext system to navigate and link documents stored on different CERN’s computers. His proposal outlined the key components and design principles of the World Wide Web:
- The Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) provided a standardized way for identifying resources on the web.
- The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for transferring data over the internet.
- The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to structure and format documents, which enabled the display of text, images, and links.
- The notion of a distributed system for decentralized information to be accessible from any connected computer.
Berners-Lee’s approach eliminated the need for centralized servers and allowed for the growth and scalability of the web. His ideas laid the groundwork for the interconnected and accessible web we know today.
The first commercial dial-up ISP (1989)
There is debate about which commercial internet service provider (ISP) was the first one, but one called “The World” was definitely among the earliest ones, when it started serving customers in 1989. Established by Joel Furr, it started out by providing direct connection to the internet for businesses and home users in the San Francisco Bay Area. Until that time the internet was predominantly used by military, research, and educational institutions and businesses. The World gave individual users access to the internet.
The World offered internet connection for a fee and provided user-friendly tools and interfaces for navigating the World Wide Web, including one of the first graphical web browsers, The Web Explorer. The World contributed to the growth of the internet by offering services and features like email, newsgroups, online chats, and file sharing for a broader audience. Witnessing the ISP’s success, numerous other ISPs cropped up around the world.
The 1990s–2019 saw a rapid expansion of the internet, primarily because of the multiple ISPs offering services not just exclusively to the scientific and academic community, but businesses and, most importantly, home users. This made the internet into the global phenomenon it is today. These two decades saw a lot of firsts: first photo on the internet, first web page, first webcam, first social media platform, the invention of Wi-Fi and Google. The governments noticed the internet’s power and took their stand by developing relevant policies.
The first search engine (1990)
In 1990, Alan Emtage from Monreal, Canada, developed the first search engine, Archie. Back then the internet primarily consisted of FTP sites where users could download files. So, unlike current search engines that use crawling and indexing web pages, Archie created an index of files on FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites. Archie would periodically scan FTP servers and create searchable databases of file names and metadata. Users would then search for specific files by their names or keywords.
However, Archie could not search for content within web pages and would index only specific files formats. But it laid the groundwork for more advanced search engines of the 90s, like Gopher, Veronika, and Jughead, that began to index content on the web. They all led to landmark search engines, such as Web Crawler (1994), Lycos (1994), Alta Vista (1995), and eventually Google (1998).
The first webpage (1991)
In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, created yet another piece of pioneering technology — the first web page. It had a simple design and consisted of plain text. The first web page provided an overview of the WWW project, an explanation of hypertext, and instructions on how to create web pages. It also introduced hyperlinks that allowed users to navigate between web pages by clicking on text and images. The first web page’s address (or URL) was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, and you can still access it today!
The first webcam (1991)
In 1991, a team of researchers led by Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky set up the first webcam in the computer laboratory of the University of Cambridge. They called it the “coffee pot cam” because the webcam’s purpose was to provide live video feed of the coffee pot in the coffee room so that the researchers would see if the pot was full or not and save themselves the walk to the coffee room. The webcam allowed users to remotely check the status of the coffee pot by viewing images uploaded to a web page at regular intervals. Users would see a black and white image with a resolution of 128×128 pixels.
Highlighting the potential of webcams, the coffee pot became a global attraction, earning attention from internet users around the world. The researchers eventually retired it in 2001 and auctioned it off on eBay.
First photo uploaded on the internet (1992)
There are urban legends surrounding the upload of the first photo on the internet, and no one can say for sure which one was truly the first – it all depends on the context and specific criteria we apply to the photos. However, in 1992, Tim Berners-Lee shared a photo that was for many years considered to be the first one. It was a photo of four women, the members of the parody musical group called Les Horribles Cernettes, or the Horrible CERN Girls. The photo was in the basic GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) format, commonly used for images at the time. Even if this was not the first instance of a picture being uploaded on the web, this playful and widely known image signifies the beginning of a new era of sharing visual content online: images, photos, and multimedia.
Government participation (1993)
In the early 1990s, seeing how popular the internet was becoming and how much it was starting to affect society, the governments joined in. In 1993, US President Bill Clinton introduced the National Information Infrastructure (NII), an initiative to develop policies and the necessary infrastructure to support the growth of the internet, ensure universal access, and address issues like privacy, security, and intellectual property rights. This initiative marked the beginning of increasing governmental participation in matters related to the internet and relevant policymaking.
International organizations also joined in. In 1992, the United Nations organized the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that brought together governments, international organizations, and members of society to discuss and shape policies for the information age. That same year, an international nonprofit organization, the Internet Society, was founded. Regional and international organizations, including the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Telecommunication Union, also began internet-related policy discussions.
The beginning of the 1990s is the period when governments recognized the internet’s implications beyond technical infrastructure and started working on more comprehensive approaches and policies. They began establishing frameworks for governance, regulation, and international cooperation to ensure the internet’s growth and security.
First secure ecommerce transaction (1994)
The first secure online transaction took place in 1994, opening a new page in the history of ecommerce. A man named Phil Brandenberger from Philadelphia used the Netscape Navigator web browser to buy a CD from the NetMarket website, an online retailer founded by Daniel Kohn. The CD was Sting’s album “Ten Summoner’s Tales” and cost $12.48 plus $4.95 shipping.
This pioneering transaction was made using a security protocol called the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), developed by the Netscape Communications Corporation. The SSL encrypted credit card information and ensured a secure transfer of data between the buyer and seller. It provided the level of security and trust necessary for online transactions.
There had been other online transactions prior to this. For example, in 1992, the Internet Shopping Network (INS) platform started selling various products ranging from books to flowers. However, the Sting CD represents an important milestone in secure online shopping.
Six Degrees is widely considered to be the first social media platform. Founded in 1996 by Andrew Weinreich, this social networking site offered popular features like customizable profiles, friends lists, school affiliations, and messaging. It let you browse other users’ profiles, and join groups and forums.
But Six Degrees had a relatively small user base — only around 1 million users — compared to modern social networks, like Facebook (launched in 2004). Personal information on your profile was limited, there was no real-time chat or video call functionality, and you could not upload photos or videos. Still, Six Degrees laid the foundation for present-day social media platforms that most netizen use on a daily basis, which would be much more difficult without a Wi-Fi connection.
The invention of Wi-Fi (1997)
Wireless fidelity (or simply Wi-Fi) is a technology that allows devices to connect to the internet and communicate wirelessly over a local area network (LAN), without any cables. In 1997, a team of engineers and researchers at the NCR Corporation, led by Vic Hayes, developed the first wireless local area network (WLAN) standard — the IEEE 802.11. This standard defined the protocols and specifications for wireless communication and provided a framework for the development of Wi-Fi technology. Our present-day Wi-Fi technology is based on the IEEE 802.11 standard family.
There were multiple iterations of IEEE 802.11, each better than the previous one. The Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization established in 1999, made Wi-Fi available to the general public by promoting and certifying devices that adhere to the IEEE 802.11 standards and ensuring interoperability between different manufacturers’ products. To make the technical name IEEE 802.11 more appealing to consumers, marketing consultants for the Wi-Fi Alliance created the term “Wi-Fi” that is a play on the terms “Hi-Fi” (used for high-quality audio equipment) and “wireless.”
Here comes Google (1998)
In 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, students at Stanford University, created the Google search engine. As students, they collaborated on a research project that aimed at analyzing and organizing the immense amount of information on the web. Their breakthrough was Page’s development of a concept called PageRank — an algorithm that ranked web pages according to their relevance and importance by analyzing links between the pages. This approach allowed them to identify more relevant search results compared to other search engines.
In 1997, Page and Brin registered the domain name google.com, referring to the word “googol,” which means the number 1 followed by 100 zeros, to represent the enormous amount of information available on the web. One year later, they established a private company called Google in Menlo Park, California.
Google kept expanding and launched several innovative products and services, such as Google AdWords (now Google Ads), Google Images, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, and many more. Currently, Google is the most used search engine globally, making its inventors billionaires.
The 2000s was a period of internet hype, first social networks, and user-driver content creation. The internet was becoming increasingly popular not just in society but also among investors, which inflated the dot-com bubble until it eventually burst in the early 2000s. Wikipedia, MySpace, and Digg gathered momentum and a wide circle of users. Expressing yourself and your opinion online became a thing. The first smartphones brought the internet to our pockets and focused developers’ attention on the mobile web.
The burst of the dot-com bubble (2000)
The dot-com bubble was the stock market bubble that burst in the early 2000s, mostly impacting technology and internet-related stocks of the so-called dot-com companies, primarily in the United States.
In the late 1990s, seeing the internet’s potential and eager to capitalize on it, venture capitalists and private investors started pouring money into the hyped-up internet industry, and the stock prices of dot-com companies skyrocketed. However, most of these companies could not generate sustainable revenue or turn a profit, which led to a significant stock market decline.
Over-evaluation was among the top reasons why the dot-com bubble burst. Most dot-com companies’ shares were valued too high based on future expectations rather than present-day realities or their financial performance. Investors started selling off stocks, and funding dried up, which led to job losses and a general economic downturn. Eventually, internet companies recovered and went back to business fundamentals, ensuring a more measured and sustainable growth.
The launch of Wikipedia (2001)
Wikipedia, one of the most widely used online encyclopedias, was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, authors of an earlier web-based encyclopedia project Nupedia which hosted expert-written articles. Nupedia’s slow progress inspired its authors to develop a new model for faster and broader content creation. So they came up with a new concept — a collaborative, community-driven website for sharing knowledge.
Wikipedia allows users to add, edit, and modify content using a simple text-coding system. Everyone with internet access can contribute by editing or writing new articles. Of course, editors are encouraged to quote reliable sources and maintain a neutral point of view.
Soon after Wikipedia was launched, individuals started volunteering and participating in the project, turning it into a valuable resource for general information and research. It contains millions of articles, covering a wide range of topics in over 300 languages, making it one of the largest repositories of knowledge in human history.
MySpace explodes (2003)
MySpace was the pioneering social networking platform, launched in 2003 by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe. MySpace users could create personalized profiles, connect with friends, and share photos and music.
A distinguishing MySpace feature at the time was the possibility it gave its users to customize their profiles through HTML and CSS coding. Users could create unique and expressive online identities. However, this also meant that profile pages were much less streamlined than our current social networks, and some were actually quite messy.
MySpace also played a significant role in the music industry by providing a platform for independent and emerging artists to share their music and gain exposure, with over 10,000 songs being uploaded every day in its peak years. Thanks to MySpace, many upcoming musicians reached a wider audience of music lovers and industry professionals.
MySpace’s spectacular growth peaked in 2006, surpassing even Google as the most-visited site in the US. However, in 2008, Facebook overtook MySpace, leaving it struggling to adapt and maintain its user base. In the history of the internet, MySpace is significant for popularizing the concept of connecting with friends, expressing oneself online, and sharing content, especially music. It is still used today by several million people.
Digg takes the lead (2004)
Digg was a social news aggregation website that allowed users to share newsworthy content. It was launched in 2004 by its founders Kevon Rose, Owen Byrne, Ron Gorodetzky, and Jay Adelson. It offered a novel approach to content discovery by enabling users to submit links to news articles, blog posts, images, and videos. The whole community voted on the content, making the most popular pieces of news rise to the top of the website’s front page. This model of community-curated content was called “crowdsurfing.”
Digg became the most visited website on the internet in 2008. The voting system that Digg introduced was a new concept at the time, empowering users to have a direct impact on content visibility. It also gave smaller publishers a chance to put their content forward. Unfortunately, Digg underestimated their user-driven model and set in motion their own decline by redesigning their website (in 2010) and introducing an algorithmic content ranking system that led to user backlash. Most of them migrated to other platforms like Reddit.
iPhones and the mobile web (2007)
Launched in 2007, the iPhone changed the landscape of the mobile phone industry and the mobile web. The iPhone introduced a user-friendly multi-touch interface which instantly popularized touchscreen smartphones and encouraged competitors to develop similar devices. For example, Android came up with its touchscreen smartphone equivalent just a year later.
With the iPhone also came Apple’s App Store, which allowed third-party app developers to create and distribute applications for the iPhone, giving rise to a new era of mobile software development. Basically, Apple introduced a marketplace for developers to present and monetize their apps, encouraging a mobile-first approach to app development.
The introduction of Bitcoin (2009)
In 2008, the first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was introduced to the world by a programmer or group of programmers under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who published a whitepaper outlining Bitcoin’s concept and technical framework. But the beginning of Bitcoin as a functioning cryptocurrency occurred in January 2009, with the mining of the first block, known as the “Genesis block.”
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency operating outside the control of centralized authorities like financial institutions or governments. This digital asset was one step ahead of its predecessors and peers because it introduced a decentralized ledger called blockchain, recording all transactions made with Bitcoin and keeping a record of ownership and history, which eliminated double-spending issues. It used a mechanism for validating network participants, ensured a limited supply of 21 million coins, and pseudonymized all transactions, preventing fraudulent transactions.
Bitcoin’s success transformed the financial and technological landscape and inspired the development of hundreds of alternative cryptocurrencies. Moreover, it laid the foundation for a broader adoption of blockchain technologies in other industries.
ICANN policy changes (2009)
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a non-profit organization that keeps the internet stable, secure, and unified globally by coordinating the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), IP address allocation, and protocol parameter assignment. It’s a partnership of people from all over the world, formed in 1998 and operating under the principles of multi-stakeholder governance.
In 2009, ICANN implemented several policy changes that significantly impacted domain name registration and the general management of the internet:
- It announced the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) program that increased the diversity and stability of domain name options, which allowed for customized domain extensions.
- The Fast-track Process for Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) enabled the introduction of domain names that include non-Latin characters, allowing for greater linguistic diversity and inclusivity on the internet.
- A revised version of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA) enhanced consumer protection, security, transparency, and accountability within the domain name registration system.
- Improved WHOIS (a publicly accessible database with information about domain name registrants) accuracy requirements combated domain name abuse, spam, and intellectual property infringement.
These policy changes made the domain name registration process more accessible, contributed to linguistic inclusion and diversity on the internet, and protected the interests of internet users.
Social media platforms flourished and expanded their user base, smart technologies evolved, and e-commerce partly replaced regular shopping. This age saw the rise of influencer culture, streaming services, viral trends, mobile games, and the development of AI technologies, setting the trend for the future.
Social media platforms gained popularity and expanded their features:
- Facebook dominated the social media landscape and went on to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp.
- The microblogging platform Twitter engaged millions of users with updates, news, and discussions in its 280-character “tweets.”
- Instagram became the leading photo and video sharing platform for influencers, celebrities, brands, and individuals.
- Snapchat introduced disappearing photo and video messages and stories, a feature that was later adopted by other social media platforms.
- Pinterest established itself as the leading platform for visual discovery through sharing images related to user’s interests.
- LinkedIn stood its ground as the most popular social networking site for professionals, headhunters, and job seekers.
The proliferation of smartphones largely contributed to the expansion of the mobile internet. App stores like Apple App Store and Google Play grew exponentially. Apps offered everything from social networking to communication and entertainment. Some mobile games went viral (Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds, Pokemon Go).
E-commerce and online entertainment
E-commerce also flourished, with platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba increasing its usage and revenue, while subscription-based streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ disrupted the traditional television industry.
YouTube remained at the lead among other platforms for user-generated content. It introduced live streams and a Partner Program that lets content creators monetize their videos and gain revenue through ads, viewer memberships, merchandise, and sponsored content. Being a youtuber or an influencer with an online presence on different channels and social networks became a career, while influencer marketing became a prominent way for businesses to reach target audiences.
The internet during the pandemic and now
As much as we relied on the internet for everyday and professional use before Covid-19, our reliance on cybertechnologies increased even more during the pandemic. Covid-19 hit at the end of 2019 and led to localized lockdowns around the world throughout 2020 and 2021, resulting in continuous social distancing, remote work, and our social lives moving online.
Remote work and learning
During the pandemic, people worked, learned, communicated, and entertained themselves from home, using online tools. Work moved to platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. Educational institutions shifted to e-learning platforms like Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for education. Virtual classrooms and webinars became the norm.
Entertainment also focused more online. Streaming services experienced an increase in viewership, and online gaming thrived. Suffering from social isolation, even more people took to social media platforms to stay connected with friends and family.
This heavy dependence on the internet and the increase in cybercrime highlighted the importance of cybersecurity. Technologies like antivirus and antimalware software, intrusion detection and prevention systems, multi-factor authentication, and VPNs became a necessity for internet users.
What the future may hold
With the increase in internet speed and the wide adoption of 5G, global connectivity is bound to grow. It is predicted that the Internet of Things will expand as well, connecting more devices and enabling smart vehicles, homes, cities, and industries. This increase in connectivity and the usage of smart devices will call for better security and privacy solutions.
Our entertainment and work processes are also expected to change with virtual reality and augmented reality technologies transforming the way we work, consume content, and interact online. And with AI on the rise, we’ll see what the future of the internet brings.
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