Evolution of the WEB(s)
This is the first of a series of posts on the evolution of internet services along with some comments on where things might go in the next few years. My primary goal is to combine things from my experience with new understanding, and if all goes well, a bit of insight. As I always do, I will try to avoid detailed explanations and present enough for the reader to gain a basic understanding, and then pursue a deeper knowledge on their own.
The Web is not the Internet. In the beginning there was only the ARPAnet, a collaboration network of universities and some government departments running packet-switching protocols. There were no passwords. You could open a telenet session on a time-sharing computer, and work your way to all manner of interesting places by opening telenet on the next computer in the chain, and so on. In the mid 80’s I was able to connect to the catalog of a library in the USSR. It did not do me much good, but I could do it!
Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners-Lee created the HTML protocol, the first website at CERN, and a web client, “WorldWideWeb” (all one word, later named Nexus), built in Objective-C on a Next computer. You can browse it here.
WEB 1.0 was static. Information, primarily text, was served up for the user with no interaction other than following static links to other pages.
The first real web browser was built by Marc Andreesen at the University of Illinois 1U of I is my undergraduate alma mater, but I was long gone by Andreesen’s time. in 1993, and introduced “point-and-click” to web use. It was initially called the “World Wide Web” and later renamed “Mosaic“. In the mid-1990’s more World Wide Web clients appeared, with Mosaic evolving into Netscape Navigator. Microsoft Internet Explorer was bundled with Windows 95, followed in due course by Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome. It was the time of The Browser Wars. Internet began replacing World Wide Web as the term of reference. The internet contained many millions of static pages but only a few content creators. This is now considered as WEB 1 and the era of the “dot-com bubble“. 2The bubble burst in late 2000.
In the early 2000’s the web became an interactive platform. Users were encouraged to contribute, and platforms like WordPress and YouTube allowed anyone to be a content creator. Social media appeared, along with online exchanges like ebay, and the perfect online recreation of the Sears-Roebuck catalog – Amazon. Now users could not only collaborate, but buy and sell. The current definition of WEB 2.0 is the collaborative web, but Tim Berners-Lee considers the term to be jargon, because what we now call WEB 2.0 is really the final implementation of his 1989 vision.
There some who consider that the current incarnation of the internet has “created a cult of digital narcissism and amateurism.” Andrew Keen in his book, Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, argues that instead of creating masterpieces, “millions of exuberant monkeys” are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary, unseemly home videos, embarrassingly amateurish music, unreadable poems, essays and novels. “Instead of a dictatorship of experts, we’ll have a dictatorship of idiots,” says Keen. Now there are “influencers” who somehow make money by telling people what they should do and think. I doubt influencers would exist if there were not so many people unwilling to think for themselves and eager to be influenced.
So now comes Decentralized Web, or the Semantic Web dubbed WEB3, another buzzword I will use it here for convenience. But the is the first real innovation in internet connectivity in the past two decades. So what is it?
There seems to be a tendency to confuse the goals of WEB3 with the technology bits of its implementation. But by specifying goals and expectations of WEB3 can give us a good idea of what it is.
- Decentralized – there is no central authority controlling operation. No one can tamper with the data on a single peer. There is no single point of failure.
- Secure – Data on the blockchain network is encrypted using a cryptographic hash. Further, each block contains the hash of the previous block, meaning any change in a block requires recalculating the hash values of all previous blocks; requiring an impossible amount of computing power.
- Immutability – once written the ledger cannot be altered
- Interoperability – Blockchain assets can be used by many applications, and combined in unique ways to produce a specific result. Currently interoperability is more of a desire than a reality.
- Autonomy – WEB3 users are completely independent to use the network as they choose.
- Distributed – All blockchain peer nodes have a copy of the current ledger
- Ownership – The content is owned by the user and creators, not the platform – because there is no platform.
- Zero Trust – The peers do not need to trust each other. They only need to trust the consensus algorithm
- Permission-less – True WEB3 networks allow anyone to participate. There are private blockchains under control of an authority. Federated blockchains are a bit more involved and will be discussed later.
- Peer-to-peer – Transactions take place directly between peers without an intermediary, much like bit-torrent or the old Napster.
- Smart Contracts – Some tokens like Ethereum are programmable, allowing implementation of decision-making.
- Interplanetary File System (IPFS) – To attain the scalabity and functionality WEB3 is aiming for, it must incorporate the IPFS. The InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a protocol, hypermedia and file sharing peer-to-peer network for storing and sharing data in a distributed file system. IPFS uses content-addressing to uniquely identify each file in a global namespace connecting IPFS hosts. IPFS will be described in more detail in Web3, IPFS & Decentralization.
What WEB3 is not:
- It is not cheap. Technology costs of implementation and maintenance are high.
- It is not based on artificial intelligence. AI enabled applications can operate well on WEB3, but AI is not a foundation technology.
- While blockchain technologies are a a primary element of WEB3, decentralization, security and ownership can be achieved without it, and in many cases applications are a combination of WEB2 and WEB3 systems.3storj.io is an example of a decentralized file system that does not use blockchain.
- It is not free of scams. Despite the security of the technology itself, there is plenty of opportunity for the unscrupulous to deceive the unwary. Moreover, there are hundreds of WEB3 tokens seeking your money, along with many ways they can be configured to the disadvantage of the buyer.
- Statista estimates there are 9,000 cryptocurrency tokens (February, 2023) and many more digital coins. It is a landscape of startups working to convince someone to give them money. Most will fail of fade away, taking your funds into oblivion.
- Blockchain-based WEB3 is not fast and to date has limited scalability. This is one of the reasons companies like Storj.io moved from blockchain-based storage to its own algorithmic process. Currently (Feb 2023), Bitcoin processes 7 transactions per second (TPS). By comparison Visa processes 1,700 TPS and Mastercard handles 5,000 TPS. However, it is fair to note that Bitcoin algorithms are getting a bit long in the tooth, and next-generation tokens like Ethereum and Solana are much faster.
If WEB3 can be fully realized, there are a lot of interesting possibilities. You can find some of them in Blockchain, Contracts & NFT’s Part 2.
- 1U of I is my undergraduate alma mater, but I was long gone by Andreesen’s time.
- 2The bubble burst in late 2000.
- 3storj.io is an example of a decentralized file system that does not use blockchain.