The Internet Explosion

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The Internet Explosion


In the early 1990s the public had no idea what the Internet was or what it could do. Just a few years later, it had exploded onto computers all over the world, revolutionizing the way we communicate, socialize, and conduct business. The Internet has created a multibillion-dollar industry and spawned a worldwide revolution. With the proliferation of e-commerce, business is no longer restricted to the traditional bricks-and-mortar operation. Now, anyone with a personal computer (PC) can create a website to sell a product. Little did the forefathers of the Internet know how far-reaching the effects of their invention would be.


In 1957 America was in the throes of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Fears of nuclear annihilation ran high, and the Soviets had just launched the first Sputnik into space, winning the race with the United States. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to boost American technology. Twelve years later, ARPA spawned ARPANET, the world's first connected computer network. ARPANET was designed to withstand a nuclear attack by routing information around the damaged areas.

At the time, there were no home PCs. Computers were massive machines that spanned entire rooms and were unable to communicate with one another. To develop a complex network of computers that could speak to one another, a whole new system of hardware, software, and connectivity had to be created. That job was undertaken by research agencies and universities such as the University of California Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Harvard.

By 1972 ARPANET allowed for remote login to other computers, the distribution of information by means of file transfer, and the sharing of resources between computers. The 1970s saw the introduction of electronic mail (e-mail), by which users could send messages from one computer to another, as well as Usenet newsgroups, which are essentially discussion groups focused on a single topic.

In the 1980s several unique networks were created throughout the world, including UUCP, developed by AT&T utilizing the UNIX operating system, and USENET, a decentralized newsgroup network created by the University of North Carolina. The networks, however, could not communicate with one another. This situation changed on January 1, 1983, when ARPA began using the transmission control protocol/internetwork protocol (TCP/IP), which allowed networks to communicate, essentially creating what we now know as the Internet. Between 1984 and 1988, the number of host computers on the Internet grew from about 1,000 to over 60,000, spanning the globe from Canada to New Zealand.

In the 1980s the Internet was primarily used by universities and the government—it had not yet burst on to the public scene. This was soon to change. On June 1, 1990, ARPANET was disbanded after 21 years of service, and NSFnet took over the administration of the Internet. Created by the U.S. National Science Foundation in the mid-1980s, NSFnet linked five university supercomputers and allowed other universities to tap into its resources. NSFnet would become the central data stream for the Internet.


The Internet was a powerful new tool for sharing information. It held massive amounts of information from the world's foremost institutes of learning. Unless you knew exactly where to look, however, there was no way to find anything. Searching for information was like finding a needle in a haystack in the dark of night. Enter WAIS (Wide Area Information System), a search engine that allowed users to scan lists of the Internet's file holdings. WAIS was quickly followed by a succession of indexes, including Gopher and Veronica.

In 1989 Swiss physicist Tim Berners-Lee revolutionized the way information was shared when he proposed the creation of a seamless network that any computer would be able to access. Berners-Lee called his new system the World Wide Web (WWW).

In 1991 Congress passed the High Performance Computing Act, which created the National Research and Education Network (NREN), the successor to the NSF network. It ensured the United States primacy in the development of computer technology and high-speed networks. NSFnet had restricted Internet usage in the early years with its acceptable use policy, which forbade using the Net for profit. In 1991 those restrictions were lifted, opening the floodgates for an Internet e-commerce revolution.

In 1993 the number of Web servers sending data across the Net jumped from 50 to 250. The number of Web sites rose from 130 to 623, and the number of hosts rose to more than 1.5 million. As further proof of the Internet's success, the White House, Library of Congress, and United Nations all went online. That same year, the final, critical piece of the Internet puzzle was put in place. Berners-Lee created a software program that allowed users to browse through documents with a simple point-and-click of the computer mouse. His Mosaic browser used hyperlinks, highlighted or underlined words in a document that, when clicked, took the user immediately to that document. This development turned out to be the impetus the Internet needed to catch on like wildfire.

That same year, Internet furor spread to the University of Illinois, where a group of students (including Marc Andreessen) at NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputing Applications) decided to improve the Web's usability, giving it mass-market appeal. They did this by adding graphics to Berners-Lee's Mosaic interface and by changing the technological platform from UNIX, which only technically savvy users could understand, to the more widely used Microsoft Windows operating system. These improvements turned the tide, shifting the Internet from a system only technowizards could navigate to a platform that was clear and easy enough for anyone to use.

In 1993 Marc Andreessen, along with SGI founder Jim Clark and a group of Andreesen's former colleagues from the Mosaic development group went out on their own to build a bigger and better browser. The result was Netscape. By this time Internet traffic was expanding at almost 350,000 percent each year. More than three million hosts were now on the Internet and the number of Web servers had jumped from around 200 to 10,000.

To make navigating the enormous labyrinth of information contained on the Internet easier, two students, David Filo and Jerry Yang, created a set of bookmarks stored in a database. They made their database (which they named "Yahoo!") widely accessible on the Net and created a hugely successful search engine that would eventually be used by millions of people.

By 1994 businesses began catching on to Internet furor, and online shopping malls started to appear. The first cyberbank, First Virtual, opened for business and even the restaurant chain Pizza Hut was giving its customers the opportunity to place their orders in cyberspace.

The following year the World Wide Web became the most important service on the Internet. Online services, such as CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy, could no longer ignore the frenzy and began offering their customers complete access to the Internet for the first time.

Several new technologies also arrived in 1995, broadening the Internet's capabilities. Real Player allowed streaming audio; Sun Microsystems released a new Internet programming language called Java, which greatly improved the way applications and information could be retrieved, displayed, and used over the Internet; and Netscape released Navigator 2.0, enriching the graphical capabilities of the browser.

By 1996 the Internet had exploded with more than 10 million hosts online worldwide. Approximately 40 million people were "surfing the net," and e-commerce (the transaction of business over the Web) was booming with more than $1 billion being spent annually on Internet shopping.

Suddenly, with the proliferation of the Web, several movements began to restrict the new medium. There were clashes over copyright infringement. The Communications Decency Act tried to clean up pornography, which was easily accessible over the Net. Additionally, e-mail users were outraged that they had become the targets of spamming, or marketing aimed at consumers on the Web. Hackers were also having a field day with the new technology, breaking into secure websites and rearranging information for their own fun and profit.

But even with all of these concerns, the Internet continued to grow. Each year brought innovations and a new ways of navigating and using the Net. All over the world people were realizing the potential of the Internet. Many employees no longer had to drive to work; telecommuting allowed them direct access to the office while working from home. Students and researchers could access vast quantities of information from universities, libraries, and scientific institutions with the click of a mouse.

By 1998 the two-millionth domain name had been registered. The Internet had become a multibillion-dollar industry with consumers gaining the confidence to shop for everything from books to boats online. Projections at the end of 1999 were predicting sales to jump into the trillions of dollars in the twenty-first century.

The power of the Internet and World Wide Web cannot be ignored. No other technology has made information so accessible and has so changed the scope of business, entertainment, and society. It has absorbed print, the moving image, and sound to create a multimedia explosion that stretches around the globe.


Further Reading

Reid, Robert H. Architects of the Web: 1,000 Days that Built the Future of Business. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

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The Internet Explosion

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The Internet Explosion