Recently, based on a statement from World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, some blogs tried to draw traffic with a post on how the concept of ‘inter-personal computing’ advocated by NeXT computer, a creation of Steve Jobs, inspired Berners-Lee. Truly a very tenuous link.
But those who have researched the origins of the Web know that Jobs’ influence goes beyond a mere slogan. More than Berners-Lee, his colleague and co-founder of the Web, Robert Cailliau, has been forthright on the role played by the NeXT computer.
As he recalled later, “Mike Sendall buys a NeXT cube for evaluation, and gives it to Tim. His prototype implementation on NeXTStep is made in the space of a few months, thanks to the qualities of the NeXTStep software development system. This prototype offers WYSIWYG browsing/authoring!”
WYSIWYG refers to what you see is what you get, used to describe html editors which display content while editing in the exact format in which it would appear to the end-user. Astonishing to know that a WYSIWYG editor found a place in NeXT, which was released in 1988.
Those of us who have taken the Internet History course at Coursera are familiar with a 1999 interview of Robert Cailliau by Prof. Charles Severance of the University of Michigan, which is available in YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2GylLq59rI). In it, Cailliau explains at length how the NeXT computer (created by Steve Jobs after he was kicked out of Apple), which was then considered ahead of its time, provided the right environment for the creation of the Web:
- Every time you clicked, you had another window.
- Every time you clicked on a diagram, you had the diagram in another window.
- When you clicked on a map, you found it in postscript, scalable, perfectly printable format.
- You try to port that to another system, it went berserk.
- In Mosaic (an early browser with graphical interface) you had only one window, and every time you clicked you had to replace the content of that window, which is not what we wanted.
- In Mosaic, every time you got a page, you found the images inline...It was easier to do it on the NeXT system.
- There's a big difference between making an editor, and something that just puts up a page.
- There was already supplied as part of the NeXT library, an editable text object. Tim used it to make the first browser...
To place things in context, the World Wide Web was made possible by the internet protocols already set up by the US defence establishment for electronic communication. Berners-Lee and Cailliau invented the Web as a system of connected hypertext documents accessed via the internet.
CAILLIAU ENSURED THAT THE WEB PREVAILED OVER GOPHER
Today, in retelling the story of the creation of the World Wide Web, one senses a tendency to diminish the role of Cailliau. He may have played a supporting role to Berners-Lee in the development of HTML, the first Web server, and the first Web browser, but in one crucial aspect, the Web owes its success to a far-reaching decision taken by Cailliau.
It should be remembered that the Web was not the only protocol for distributing and retrieving documents over the internet. For a while at least, it had a serious competitor in Gopher. In fact, Mosaic, the first browser with graphical user interface, provided access to both Gopher as well as the Web. Many Gopher supporters considered it faster, efficient, and much more organised than the Web. Initially, its simplicity and ease of use ensured it was more popular than the Web. Why then did the Web end up as the dominant protocol? There are no easy answers. But some think that the announcement in 1993 by the University of Minnesota to charge licensing fees for use of the Gopher server spooked users and affected its adoption. Gopher, incidentally, was created by researchers at the university. In contrast, Cailliau, who worked with the legal service of CERN —where both he and Berners-Lee worked — played a role in persuading the institute to release the Web technology into the public domain the same year. This move proved decisive in the rapid worldwide adoption of the Web.
So we salute Robert Cailliau for all his great contributions towards the advancement of human progress. And we also acknowledge that Jobs had indeed played an indirect role in the creation of the World Wide Web.