Computer disks were also growing in capacity, doubling in size every year or so. The yet-to-appear web would require disk space for storage of web pages, and compute capacity for running
servers, which are applications that provide a door into a computer, giving users remote access to data and software.
In the 1980s these had been scarce, expensive resources that would have been overwhelmed by even small volumes of web traffic. By the early 1990s growth in capacity could – just – accommodate the demand that suddenly appeared and homes were being connected, via dial-up at first.
But it is a third concurrent development that is, to me, the most remarkable.
Ken Thompson and Dennis Richie with DEC PDP-11 system running UNIX.
Wikimedia/Peter Hamer, CC BY-SA
At that time, operating systems (like iOS on today’s Apple phones) were limited to a single type of computer. Code and programs could not be used across machines from different manufacturers.
UNIX, in contrast, could be used on any suitable machine. This is the reason UNIX variants continue to provide the core of Apple Mac computers, Android phones, systems such as inflight entertainment and smart TVs, and many billions of other devices.
The open source movement
Along with UNIX came a culture of collaborative code development by programmers. This was initially via sharing of programs sent on tape between institutions as parcels in the mail. Anyone with time to spare could create programs and share them with a community of like-minded users.
This became known as the open source movement. Many thousands of people helped develop software of a diversity and richness that was beyond the resources of any single organisation. And it was not driven by commercial or corporate needs.
Programs could embody speculative innovations, and any developer who was frustrated by errors or shortcomings in the tools they used could update or correct them.
A key piece of open source software was the
server, a computer system in a network shared by multiple users. Providing anonymous users with remote access was far from desirable for commercial computers of the era, on which use of costly computing time was tightly controlled.
But in an academic, sharing, open environment such servers were a valuable tool, at least for computer scientists, who were the main users of university computers in that era.
Another key piece of open source software was the
router, which allowed computers on a network to collaborate in directing network requests and responses between connected machines anywhere on the planet.
Servers had been used for email since the beginnings of the internet and initially it was email, delivered with the help of routers, that brought networked desktop computing into homes and businesses.
When the web was proposed, extending these servers to allow the information from web page servers to be sent to a user’s computer was a small step.
What you looking at?
The last component is so ubiquitous that we forget what is literally before our eyes: the screen.
The Macintosh Plus had a screen resolution of 512×342 pixels.
Flickr/raneko, CC BY
Affordable computer displays in the 1980s were much too limited to pleasingly render a web page, with resolutions of 640×480 pixels or lower, with crude colours or just black and white. Better screens, starting at 1024×768, first became widely available in the early 1990s.
Only with the appearance of the
Mosaic browser in 1993 did the web become appealing, with a pool of about 100 web sites showing how to deliver information in a way that for most users was new and remarkably compelling.
The online world continues to grow and develop with access today via cable, wireless and mobile handsets. We have internet-connected services in our homes, cars, health services, government, and much more. We live-stream our music and video, and share our lives online.
But the origin of that trend of increasing digitisation of our society lies in those simple beginnings – and the end is not yet in sight.
This article was amended at the request of the author to correct the amount of data accessible from the initial link.
Justin Zobel, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Graduate & International Research, University of Melbourne
This article is republished from
The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.