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How the Internet Has Evolved Over the Last 20+ Years

If the internet went down right this second, what would you do? How much would it impact you? In the western world, and increasingly in other areas too, the internet is entwined with everyday life. Businesses depend on it, cultures have been created by it and society is increasingly shaped by it. It’s strange to think that just over 25 years ago, it didn’t even exist. For better or worse, the world is increasingly dependent on it. Its evolution over the last 25 years has been nothing short of astounding, and it all started back in 1990.

To Infinity and Beyond (1990 – 1994)

We all know the name. The internet is a different being altogether now, but it was initially created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The very first web page went live in 1991, after a “vague, but exciting” proposal for the technology was created in 1990 while at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. (Also known as CERN.) The page was an information hub for the World Wide Web project, explaining what it was and how people could get involved. (It even provided instructions on how to make your own browser too!) 

The key to the success of the internet lies in the way it was distributed. In 1994, Sir Tim Berners-Lee founded the W3C, which included several businesses that created standards and recommendations to improve the web. He then made his idea free to use, with no patents or royalties required. The standards set by the W3C were based on royalty-free technology, and as such, allowed the internet to thrive. 

The Digital Age Begins (1995 – 2000)

It didn’t take long for the internet to make an impact. People began to realise that it was easier and faster to communicate with each other online. Hotmail (now Outlook) was launched in 1996 as a direct response to this, resulting in one of the first webmail services on the internet. The name was primarily chosen because it contained the letters HTML, which is the original markup language that the web was created with. (In fact, it was originally written like this: HoTMaiL. Hideous, we know.) 

A little search engine called Google was also formed around this time. It was originally a research project that wanted to revamp the way search engines worked. Instead of looking at how many times search terms appeared, they looked at the relationships between websites, using backlinks and page importance to determine relevance. We all know how that turned out. 

Notable mentions should also be given to Amazon and Napster. These two companies had very different business models, which is the reason that one of them is still around in its original form today. Napster was very-much illegal initially, but it displayed the potential for file sharing on the internet, and the emerging problem that the internet was posing for copyright laws

Let’s Get Social (2000 – 2005) 

On the World Wide Web, information is key. People were beginning to realise this at the turn of the century, as a variety of well-known sites opened their digital gates. Wikipedia, iTunes and Skype all launched early in this period, while LinkedIn, Myspace and Facebook launched later on. 

Wikipedia was an immense undertaking, beginning as a complementary project for an existing online encyclopedia. Originally meant as a for-profit venture, they changed tactics, making their ever-expanding informative encyclopedia free of advertisements. This partially contributed to its success, becoming the largest encyclopedia ever as early as 2007. iTunes also launched as a legal music player, while the previously mentioned Napster was shut down in 2001. (It was revived in 2011 as a music on-demand service) Hotmail was also still immensely popular, but instant messaging became an even quicker way to communicate. As a result, a new type of social platform was created. 

LinkedIn launched for businesses as an invite-only service in 2002, allowing companies to promote their business and advertise opportunities. Skype launched in 2003, displaying the potential for real-time video communications over the internet. All of a sudden, the average internet user could contact each other in real-time. Myspace also launched in 2003, gaining popularity among teens and young adults. It became the largest social network during this period. 

We can’t forget Facebook either. Launching in 2004 for Harvard University students, it later became the behemoth that we know today. Due to the improvements in infrastructure and the fast advancement of technology that the internet promoted, more and more sites like this were popping up. The internet showed no sign of slowing down. 

The Smartphone Revolution (2005 – 2010)

YouTube and Twitter launched in 2005 and 2006 respectively, adding to the number of inventive social websites that were popping up. (YouTube is now a full-time career option for some people.) But an even larger change was on the horizon. In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. Described as a “game-changer” for the mobile phone industry, the smartphone provided internet access in the palm of your hand. 

This led to two major changes. Apps were a big part of the iPhone’s launch, so businesses rushed to create their own. Large companies had their variants fairly quickly, allowing people to purchase goods, educate themselves or communicate with friends and loved ones via social media. It also led to the launch of other smartphone models and the android platform, which spurred competition and allowed other companies to enter the market. 

The launch of the smartphone gave users easy access to the web, but as with all new technologies, it did launch at a high price point. This was out of reach for many people, especially in developing markets. However, that was about to change. 

Real-World Change (2010 – 2015)

The more people that bought smartphones, the faster the price decreased. Nowadays, you can buy a smartphone for £100. As the infrastructure improved worldwide, more people gained access to the internet. This brought together communities in ways that weren’t possible beforehand. This became particularly apparent during the Arab Spring, in which protestors used social media to organise, share videos of catastrophic events and ultimately broadcast what was happening. Censorship became an increasing concern, as governments silenced protests by blocking certain sites or even turning the Internet off altogether. This led to conversations in which access to the internet should be a human right. 

This wouldn’t have been possible without the internet, which allows people to communicate with others across borders and continents. Countries have made efforts to censor it, with China being the premier example. The Great Firewall of China is one of the most advanced censorship platforms in the world, as it blocks certain websites and watches the online activity of users in China. Users can still access the ‘western version’ of the internet using a VPN, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to. 

Platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest launched during this period, which made their mark on the social media landscape. However, we felt the greater change was the impact that the internet had on a global scale. Governments were beginning to notice the impact that the internet could have, and some of them didn’t like it.  

User-Friendly First (2015 – 2019)

Smartphones have also driven the internet towards a mobile-friendly design, which has become apparent in recent years. Google started indexing new sites via their mobile version on July 1st, while sites ignored the traditional ‘above the fold’ template of cramming as much information on the immediate homepage as possible. If you want to do well on the internet these days, you should focus on the user experience. We’re not creating sites for robots anymore. 

Internet access is rising fast too. More than 58.8% of the global population has access to the internet, and that number is constantly rising. The more people that gain access to the internet, the more it changes to meet the needs of these people. To put it simply, there’s no real way of telling where the internet is going to go from here, but we can certainly try. 

Into the Future

How do we know what’s going to happen in the future? There are positive and negative signs, depending on your opinion. Internet speeds are getting quicker, which means larger file sizes and faster downloads. The world record for transfer speed over a fibre optic network is 500 gigabytes per second over a single wavelength channel. 5G is also on the horizon, with faster speeds and reliable connections for mobile devices. If download and upload speeds are important to you, you’ve got lots to look forward too. 

However, two words are causing a bit of a stir in the online world. Net Neutrality. It’s the idea that everyone should be able to access everything on the internet equally, no matter their provider. ISPs generally oppose this, as it gives them less control over their services. At present, apps and platforms exist that provide different versions of internet-based services. As a result, some users gain access to ‘better versions’ of the same locked-down system. The worst-case scenario involves users gaining priority access to websites because of their ISP, which would be unfair. It could go one of two ways, and at present, there is no way of knowing where we’re going to end up. 

For better or worse, the internet has embedded itself into our society. Its transformation over the last 20 years has been nothing short of extraordinary, and we can’t wait to see where it goes from here.