2014-3-17 // by Jeff Jaffe

In 2014, the Web community is celebrating two anniversaries, the 25th Anniversary of the World Wide Web and the 20th Anniversary of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  We launched our celebration officially last week. I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the Web’s continuing and future impact on society. Today is also the first in a series of blogs that I will publish over the next several weeks.  Subsequent posting will focus specifically on W3C, and its continuing and future role in enhancing the Web.  In particular, I will write about:

  • The role of W3C and current activity in standardizing the Open Web Platform (OWP)
  • The future direction of the OWP
  • Creating an agile Web standards ecosystem

The Web: core vision

On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted “Information Management: A Proposal” to his management at CERN to create the World Wide Web.  It was audacious in its scope.  Imagine – connecting all of the world’s information into a globally linked set of pages.  But, humble in business expectations.  This was not someone’s proprietary idea to start a business.  As Tim tweeted at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics – “This is for everyone”.

Thus the Web was based on several core ideas.  “Linked” pages meant that the Web would serve to link documents, and ultimately devices and people.  The global nature would allow network effects - value grows non-linearly with more participants.

Tim proposed that the Web should not be a patented invention for royalties.  True to the vision of a universal database owned by the planet, the Web was to be Royalty-Free.  That principle continues to guide the core infrastructure of the Web.

Empowerment. Enablement. Democratization.  Everyone is a publisher on the Web.  Classical publishing had few authors creating worthy content, and publishing firms made content available via books, newspapers, and magazines.  The new model – revolutionary – democratized publishing: everyone is worthy to share information.  So, everyone is an author and there is immediate massive distribution of information.  This did not immediately supplant traditional publishing (with its high quality typography and curated content), but it created and filled a new need.

Impact on society

Simply put, the Web has transformed everything.

Volumes can be written about the impact of the Web.  Here I only aspire to summarize the “top of the waves”.

The original vision was to have a global Web of information.  Directly from this vision have come far-reaching consequences for life.

The Web has transformed human interaction. It democratized publishing as indicated above. Everyone is a publisher: via their personal Web page, YouTube videos, blogging their opinions; posting to other blogs.  Social networking. Today’s Webizens have unprecedented tools to share with their cohorts: Facebook, Twitter, QQ, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Weibo come to mind.

The Web has transformed how companies relate to their customers.  First, the corporate website was a means to share information and market to customers. Now commerce is e-commerce.  Companies sell on the Web or utilize the Web as an assist for in-store sales. Advertising has moved from blunt mass-media commercials to targeted ads on the Web.

The Web has transformed education. Simple changes include the mass availability of information. More substantive changes include distance learning.  More radical changes are currently being explored with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

The Web has transformed entertainment. The Web has become the standard distribution mechanism for games, music, and video. By enabling everyone to be a publisher, the Web has democratized the development and distribution of creative content for the planet.

The Web has transformed government.  Almost all governments use the Web to get information to citizens: providing information about the government as well as interacting with the citizenry (e.g. income tax forms).  This informed citizenry is more thoughtful in participating in democracy.  Election campaigns have used the Web to get their message out.  Most provocatively, informed citizens in non-democratic countries have used the Web to learn the benefits of democracy and to pursue them by organizing with fellow citizens through the Web.

With the power of the Web to inform consumers, advertise, sell to consumers, and distribute to consumers, almost no business operates today as it did 25 years ago.  Forward-thinking companies who anticipated the trend became the new successful companies.  Companies that were stuck in their old way lost traction with their customers and fell behind.  Certain industries, such as: retail, telecommunications, entertainment, and publishing do not even resemble the structures they had less than a quarter century ago.

Continuing impact

The Web is not perfect.  And if we waited for it to be perfect there would be no progress as perfect is the enemy of good enough.  But that is no excuse – we need to make it better.

We have unrealized ambitions.  The Web is not yet a universal platform.  The majority of the planet has never accessed the Web.  In most cases this is due to economic deprivation; sometimes for political reasons.  We encourage organizations that strive for an affordable Internet.  Our sister organization – the Web Foundation, has made the Web We Want the focus of their anniversary celebrations.

The Web has been an important driver for economic, political, and social progress.  The Web Foundation has created a Web Index to rate progress that is being made across the globe.  It is an important instrument to gauge progress and thereby to be a driver of further progress.  People can participate in this focus via The Web We Want. Clearly further progress is required.

The World Wide Web has had a huge impact on social connections, companies, governments, education, entertainment, and has transformed industries.  I am not a futurist who will characterize what the world will look like in the next 20-25 years.  But I can comment why there will be continued changes in the Web platform.  I will also explain how this will continue to have impacts - both in the social realm as well as the business realm.  More on that in subsequent posts.

Next week: The role of the World Wide Web Consortium in standardizing the Open Web Platform.