A Brief History of the Internet

December/January 2004/2005

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Internet, happy birthday to you.

Ten years ago this month I published my very first column about the Internet in the Source. And 10 years ago, on December 17, 1994, the Internet was born.

Reasonable people might disagree. But I’m right, of course. On December 17, 1994, the first commercial browser, Netscape, was released. Until then, the only graphical browser was Mosaic, the work of a few undergraduate students at the University of Illinois.

In 1994 there wasn’t much content on the web. I could only find one source of news when I began using the web in mid-1994: a newspaper in San Jose. There was only one search engine: Webcrawler, which when it launched in April of1994 indexed a grand total of 4,000 web pages. Back then Yahoo was a small directory that simply combined bookmarks or favorites of two graduate students at Stanford.

But interest was building fast. Many people could see that this was a revolutionary new medium being born. The arrival of Netscape in December combined with the fledgling content launched a frenzy that continues unabated.

That first column, which appeared on the newsstand weeks before Netscape’s launch, talked about Mosaic and breathlessly announced the arrival of this new medium. I excitedly related this tidbit: “One survey done this fall showed that 60 major newspapers in the U.S. either already make their news available online or are in the process of setting something up. The three major newsweeklies, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, are now available online or are currently getting set up.” Imagine that — 60 newspapers.

Content continued to build in 1995 and new search engines began to appear on the scene, notably AltaVista late that year. I wrote my first column about streaming audio (RealAudio) in July, indicating that the Internet was quickly becoming multimedia.

Shopping, too, started to take off, with Amazon launching in 1995 and being the first online retailer I visited. Still, though, shopping was somewhat limited. I remember Christmas of 1995 trying to purchase a slow cooker online as a gift for my mother and not being able to find one.

In 1996 I excitedly wrote about a range of new resources, including an online telephone directory and the searchable archives of the New York Times. My own web site appeared in August of that year.

By early 1997 there were 50 million pages. Quite a jump from 4,000 a few years earlier. Today’s search engines, by comparison, index over 8 billion web pages, and that’s only a fraction of the content that’s available online (because search engines don’t typically index the content of databases, such as New York Times archives).

Retail sales for 1997 were estimated to be $10 billion, compared to $100,000 four years earlier.

In 1997 I wrote about MapQuest and Travelocity — indicating how the Internet was expanding to include a range of useful tools. In 1998 I wrote about eBay — the Internet’s first mega-bazaar. And in 1999 wrote about MP3 — a technology that helped set the stage for the famed Internet larceny involving the wanton exchange of copyrighted material.

By December of 1999 shopping bots were omnipresent, giving the ability to instantaneously search many online retailers at once to find the lowest price. No problem finding a slow cooker now.

In June of 2000 was my first column about upstart Google. In July the topic was online banking, which was starting to become common.

By this time most of you were regular Internet users, enjoying the bounty and convenience. But also around this time, the dark side began to appear. I first wrote about spam in June of 2001, and then again in August of 2002 and May of 2003. In March of 2003 I narrated my unhappy experience of Internet fraud. I talked about security again in July.

Also in May of 2003 we first touched on the problem of spyware, which was uncommon then. In November we covered viruses, and then spyware again in July and September of this year because of the terrible damage it’s doing. The Internet began in glorious expectation, arose sensationally to prominence — and then 10 years later was killing PCs.

It’s been a wild ride. Happy birthday to you, dear Internet.

This month’s hot tips:

The recently released Google Desktop, which is free, is one of the most amazing tools to come along in years. You can finally search your own computer as fast and efficiently as you can the Internet.

Google Desktop indexes your files, e-mail, and more. Once installed, when you do a search in Google, it not only returns results on the web but also finds wherever that term is mentioned on your computer.

© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

The Internet's history is interesting and continues to grow.

E-mail Jim Karpen