The web: 25 years on at UCT

31 Oct 2014 - 12:00

Most of us couldn’t imagine life without the Internet, email, social media and online retail. When we consider that most of these things have only come about in the last two decades, it’s not a very long time ago that we were still posting letters, sending faxes and picking up the telephone to share our news.

In March 1989, Tim Berners Lee submitted his proposal for the World Wide Web. 25 years later, he reports being amazed to see the many great things it's achieved, unprepared for the number of cats, and somewhat concerned about its future.

While the Internet and email have been around since the early 70’sthey were tools used almost exclusively for military and academic purposes. Until a quarter of a century ago, the World Wide Web launched them into the public domain in 1991, when the first ever website was created. This was arguably one of the biggest historical developments since the industrial revolution.

UCT, globally recognised as an early adopter of network technology, had been using the Internet, bulletin boards and email since the 1970’s. In 1990, a computer on campus registered an IP address for the first time, less than a year after the WWW proposal was submitted. The term ‘the web’ only caught on a little later and became the new buzzword on campus in around 1992. Adoption of WWW at UCT began in earnest with the installation of Windows 3.1, which contained an early web browser, on a few campus machines in 1993.

In 1990, the massive task of laying down a campus backbone network had begun, with a view to linking together all the isolated networks which had built up in the various departments. Students like Mark Shuttleworth were actively involved in the process of linking residences to the Internet. By 1993, the University had networked student computing labs - just in time for the web to make its debut.

The web was the child and tool of visionaries, and the people who adopted it and realised its potential early-on often reaped huge benefits. The dotcom boom of the 90’s saw entities such as Yahoo, Amazon, Hotmail and Google emerge. The next 10 years saw the rise of Wikipedia, social media and the mobile web; things we take for granted today, that have changed the face of the world as we knew it.

ICTS has spearheaded several projects over the last two decades to improve infrastructure and to make access to the web freely available to all on campus. These included the supaTsela project which put in place an ICT infrastructure that was reliable and flexible to meet the increasing demands for network access. The university was linked to the national SANreN Network in 2012 and the university began rolling out a campus-wide wireless network service in 2011.

On the horizon, we see the ‘Internet of Things’, the semantic web or web 3.0. Where they will lead is anyone’s guess. In an AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview with the public on Reddit, Berners Lee expressed his hope that the resource would become and remain ‘a truly open, secure and creative platform – available to everyone.’