First Encounters With the Web

Daniel Kehoe writes ...

In 1991 I was doing marketing consulting and technology licensing for corporate clients. I was also writing for NeXTWORLD magazine, which was a lot of fun, because I got to work with, and write about, people who were doing fascinating things with computer technology.

The most fascinating project I encountered that year was something developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. He was using a NeXT computer to develop a networked information system for high-energy physicists. If I hadn't been reading the Usenet newsgroups carefully, I would have missed the announcement of a "a hypertext editor for the NeXT."

Not many people used "WWWNeXTStepEditor version 0.12." The NeXT community was small and many NeXT computer users did not yet have Internet access, which was required to access Tim Berners-Lee's experimental "WorldWide Web" documents.

As soon I'd installed and tried the software, I knew I wanted to write about it. I told everyone about it—including a fellow editor at NeXTWORLD, John Perry Barlow. Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and cofounder of the (then-new) Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote to his friend Mitch Kapor...

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I also contacted Tim Berners-Lee. I wanted to know if he had any plans to accommodate technology I'd heard about at Adobe Systems. Adobe's editable PostScript specification (which came to be named PDF and became the basis for the product named "Acrobat") seemed to me a better match for distributed hypertext than the very-limited SGML-based "HTML tags" that Tim Berners-Lee was using. Here's an excerpt...

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It wasn't until late in 1993 that I was able to arrange a meeting between the researchers from CERN and management at Adobe Systems. Robert Cailliau of CERN met with John Kunze of Adobe at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) to show Kunze the World Wide Web—the first time management at Adobe had seen the Web. By that time, HTML was firmly entrenched as the native language of the new Web. Adobe later invested in Netscape Communications and produced an Acrobat "plug-in" for the Netscape Web browser, establishing the basis for viewing richly formatted PDF pages in web browsers.

For some years afterward, I regretted that the meetings had not taken place the previous year, because the sparse and limited HTML format might have been eclipsed by the richer format of Adobe Acrobat as the primary syntax of web pages. With the growing acceptance of the Cascading Style Sheets specification (from 1999 forward), my views changed, and I've come to appreciate that the technical underpinnings of the web are perfect as they are, reflecting both the genius of Berners-Lee's original vision and the rich contributions of the worldwide developer community.

I never anticipated that Berners-Lee's NeXT hypertext project would become a medium to rival print and television. In 1991, in an idle reverie, I imagined the world's books and magazines might take the shape of hypertext (many others had imagined this earlier, including Ted Nelson, with his Xanadu project). But I never honestly believed that Berners-Lee's software project could change the world. By 1999, as Web addresses appeared on billboards and the sides of buses, I started to accept that Berners-Lee naming his project "the WorldWide Web" was not vainglorious but simply prescient.