For some people, it feels like the internet has always been around and of course, younger people will not remember a time without it, but in relative terms, the internet is quite young.
The internet is young, but maybe not as young as you think. It existed for a while before we all had it in our homes and on our phones.
There was a time when people scoffed at the notion of affordable computers that were compact enough to have in the home, but there were always a select few people working behind the scenes looking for a way to make it happen.
In the 1950s various computer scientists were experimenting with what is known as packet networking – using two computers to talk to each other in basic terms. By the late 60s, there were a number of functional packet networking systems that were mostly used by the US military, NASA, government agencies and some large tech businesses. They were like rudimentary forms of the internet.
It had proven to be possible, but the best was yet to come.
So far only a small number of computers in the same building had been linked together for communication purposes, but such as science and technology that a number of people were thinking about the possibilities of expanding the system exponentially.
The main problem was that there were several different kinds of the network at the time, all totally independent and incapable of being linked together. A common form was needed.
By the mid-70s the term internet had been coined, coming from the name ‘internetwork protocol’ which was effectively the method devised to enable different networks to communicate by Robert E Kahn and Vinton Cerf, two computer experts who collaborated on the project.
By 1977 it had become possible for any two different networks to communicate and a demonstration was performed where three separate networks successfully communicated with each other for the first time, making it theoretically possible to more and more networks.
As it became easier to communicate from network to network it became more common for universities to use it and in 1984 the University College London began using the early internet instead of a transatlantic satellite link for conversations with America.
Electronic mail rapidly became the most important application and as routing technology was developed it grew in popularity with big businesses and academic institutions.
Europe and America were both becoming quite large, internet-wise by the end of the decade and this was where the first major stumbling block arose.
As the US and Europe had worked together to a degree during the infancy of the new technology, other countries and continents were not at the same level. Africa, Asia, and Latin America were using the internet that was different. That’s not to say it was more rudimentary, but it didn’t work as well. It took a while and a lot of cooperation before everybody was on the same page. If the internet was true to be worldwide every would need to use the same version of it.
By the late 1980s home internet was still a little way off, but the internet being used by businesses and governments was starting to look very similar to what we know today. Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Netcom began to appear and in 1989 the first public dial-up ISP, The World, started up in the US.
In 1992 the internet was first used for commercial purposes, a move which was met with some derision by those who believed it should be used for research and education purposes. As with many things, there were claims of corruption and that money had changed hands between big companies and ISPs to ensure their products got more coverage than their rivals’ – this was before internet advertising became what it now is. It was seen as the beginning of the end by some academics but it was the beginning of the beginning for home users.
By the mid-90s the dream of the affordable home computer was also a reality and now there was home internet too. The early dial-up form was sluggish, but it became very popular as many new technologies do. There weren’t nearly as many websites as there are now and there weren’t the bells and whistles you find now either – many sites were text only and those containing even small photographs were notoriously slow to load.
Soon almost everyone had an email address and the internet started to become big business. Now there was a captive audience advertising became king.
Several browsers were vying for supremacy with Windows’ Internet Explorer emerging victorious in the early days before Google Chrome and Firefox arrived to give them a real challenge.
In the early 2000s, there was what was known as the “dot com bubble”. This referred to web addresses but was about people making money from the internet. There was a lot of financial speculation, people realized you could run a business without a shop or office mostly and there were people who rapidly became experts in web design. The internet was a new market place and people were queuing up to exploit it. It was said the bubble burst, but it was mostly the fact that the greed of some people could not realistically continue to grow at the rate it was and a lot of people priced themselves out of the market.
By 2005 most people had a higher speed version very similar to todays. It wasn’t as fast as it is now but it was much improved on dial-up.
And then things started to happen fast. Smartphones with internet access appeared and then tablets. Before long almost everyone had one and it became possible to access the internet almost anywhere on the planet.
If there are very few places on the planet where the internet hasn’t been used then what’s left? Space, of course. In 2010 an astronaut sent a tweet from the International Space Station, meaning that the web wasn’t just worldwide anymore.
So what’s next? There’s certainly another chapter or two in the story of the internet yet to come, but where it will take us nobody knows. Or at least nobody who’s willing to tell us yet.