HyperCard’s Inspirations (Wikipedia)

The Internet had been around since the early 1980s, as the TCP/IP networking standard had made it easy to patch together separate networks run by various research corporations and universities. But utilizing the Internet in the early days was not a user-friendly experience. You had to know how to use a "command line" interface to type in cryptic incantations to transfer files or pull information from other computers. And it most certainly did not have anything graphical or visually compelling for the beginner as we have with today’s Web browsers.

Until 1990, the Internet was the domain of the geeks—a place for text-based electronic mail, message boards, and file transfers. It was highly biased toward the English language. The Internet’s origins in U.S. military research meant there was a lack of standards for dealing with the coding of foreign languages. That made it especially deficient for non-Roman texts such as Arabic and Chinese.

The Internet was powerful in the hands of computer experts, but for pretty much everyone else, it was an unapproachable jumble of codes and procedures.

That all changed in 1990. Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working at the CERN research lab in Switzerland, was looking for a way for scientists to more easily share documents and collaborate over the Internet. Even though he was not afraid of the Internet’s technical side, he knew other scientists and researchers were. He wanted to make a system that was graphical in order to easily share documents.

Tim Berners-Lee used a computer that was the Ferrari of the techno-elite back then. And even though the NeXT computer is a faint memory today, like HyperCard, its impact went far beyond the units shipped. The NeXT cube was the "it" machine of that era. And it would play a pivotal role in the creation of the World Wide Web.

When Steve Jobs was forced out as the head of Apple Computer in 1987, he stayed in Silicon Valley and put his energies into a new start-up called NeXT. This was while Apple was still shipping computers with nine-inch screens and Microsoft’s most advanced product was an anemic and stiff-looking Windows 2.0. The NeXT machine, on the other hand, launched in October 1988 and introduced pioneering features we’re all used to now: a high-resolution "million pixel" display, a read/write optical drive, and a true multitasking operating system. And in classic Steve Jobs style, it was clad in a sexy all-black magnesium cube form that made it the envy of computer science departments around the world.

The NeXT megapixel grayscale computer display was its most stunning feature. What it lacked in color it made up for in fineness and texture. It was so large and sharp, folks compared it to reading on paper. This was no coincidence—it used PostScript, a special language from Adobe Systems usually reserved for high-end paper printers.

So when Berners-Lee was testing out his idea for a World Wide Web to share documents, he used his NeXT cube computer that was geared toward handling high-resolution documents. The first Web browser he ever built was for the NeXT machine, in February 1991. But he had much grander plans than simply creating a "browser" for reading, and in fact called his program a "browser-editor."

Not only did his program on the NeXT read and display Web pages, it could also alter them and save them. This was a function Berners-Lee had envisioned from the start—a read-write Web of information for sharing.

Given its rich and ambitious origins, it is then quite peculiar that the Web that became popular in the mid-1990s was known only for reading, browsing, and surfing. In the exuberance to push the reading experience, the "write" stuff, which was always meant to be part of the Web, was left behind as a cumbersome feature.

Perhaps Berners-Lee’s most important innovation was standardizing how to identify resources located on the Internet. When Rick Gates created the Internet

Hunt contest in 1992, there was a jumble of different "protocols" or methods to access information. In that era before the existence of the World Wide Web, computer servers doled out information using a mix of systems, requiring different text-based and file transfer tools. Until Berners-Lee came along, there was no simple standard way to describe how to access these information sources. The breakthrough came with his creation of the URL, or Uniform Resource Locator. Today, most people know URLs as something like this:

http://www.foo.com/bar/baz.html The "http" is the Hypertext Transfer Protocol Berners-Lee created for Web pages. After the double slashes was the Internet name or address where the computer is located. The rest of the URL describes the exact path or location on the server for finding documents, images, or other data. Other URLs had protocols such as "ftp" for File Transfer Protocol, or the more obscure "gopher" or "wais" protocols. Today, Berners-Lee’s "http" for the World Wide Web dominates for all types of data.

It seems like a simple concept, but the breakthrough allowed any information source to be pinpointed on the Internet using just one line.

While the first Web browser from Tim Berners-Lee gained notoriety, there was a problem. The sexy features of the NeXT were not cheap. They offered only one model, and few folks could afford a $6,500 NeXT cube. Even NeXT’s follow-on budget version, the NeXT "slab," was $4,995. It was hardly a computer for the masses.

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