Though it began as a military experiment and spent its adolescence as a sandbox for academics and eccentrics, recent events have transformed the worldwide network of computer networks--also known as the Internet--into a rapidly growing and wildly diversified community of computer users and information vendors. Today, you can bump into Internet users of nearly any and all nationalities, of any and all persuasions, from serious to frivolous individuals, from businesses to nonprofit organizations, and from born-again evangelists to pornographers.
In many ways, the World Wide Web--the open community of hypertext-enabled document servers and readers on the Internet--is responsible for the meteoric rise in the network's popularity. You, too, can become a valued member by contributing: writing HTML documents and making them available to web "surfers" worldwide.
Let's climb up the Internet family tree to gain some deeper insight into its magnificence, not only as an exercise of curiosity, but to help us better understand just who and what it is we are dealing with when we go online.
Although popular media accounts often are confused and confusing, the concept of the Internet really is rather simple. It's a collection of networks--a network of networks--computers sharing digital information via a common set of networking and software protocols. Nearly anyone can connect their computer to the Internet and immediately communicate with other computers and users on the Net.
What is confusing about the Internet is that it can be like an oriental bazaar: it's not well organized, there are few content guides, and it can take a lot of time and technical expertise to tap its full potential.
The Internet began in the late 1960s as an experiment in the design of robust computer networks. The goal was to construct a network of computers that could withstand the loss of several machines without compromising the ability of the remaining ones to communicate. Funding came from the U.S. Department of Defense, which had a vested interest in building information networks that could withstand nuclear attack.
The resulting network was a marvelous technical success, but was limited in size and scope. For the most part, only defense contractors and academic institutions could gain access to what was then known as the ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency network of the Department of Defense).
With the advent of high-speed modems for digital communication over common phone lines, some individuals and organizations not directly tied to the main digital pipelines began connecting and taking advantage of the network's advanced and global communications. Nonetheless, it wasn't until these last few years (around 1993, actually) that the Internet really took off.
Several crucial events led to the meteoric rise in popularity of the Internet. First, in the early 1990s, businesses and individuals eager to take advantage of the ease and power of global digital communications finally pressured the largest computer networks on the mostly U.S. government-funded Internet to open their systems for nearly unrestricted traffic. (Remember, the network wasn't designed to route information based on content--meaning that commercial messages went through university computers that at the time forbade such activity.)
True to their academic traditions of free exchange and sharing, many of the original Internet members continued to make substantial portions of their electronic collections of documents and software available to the newcomers--free for the taking! Global communications, a wealth of free software and information: who could resist?
Well, frankly, the Internet was a tough row to hoe back then. Getting connected and using the various software tools, if they were even available for their computers, presented an insurmountable technology barrier for most people. And most available information was plain-vanilla ASCII about academic subjects, not the neatly packaged fare that attracts users to the online services, such as America Online, Prodigy, or CompuServe. The Internet was just too disorganized and, outside of the government and academia, few people had the knowledge or interest to learn how to use the arcane software or had the time to spend rummaging through documents looking for ones of interest.
It took another spark to light the Internet rocket. At about the same time the Internet opened up for business, some physicists at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, released an authoring language and distribution system they developed for creating and sharing multimedia-enabled, integrated electronic documents over the Internet. And so was born Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), browser software, and the World Wide Web. No longer did authors have to distribute their work as fragmented collections of pictures, sounds, and text. HTML unified those elements. Moreover, the World Wide Web's systems enabled hypertext linking, whereby documents automatically reference other documents, located anywhere around the world: less rummaging, more productive time online.
Lift-off happened when some bright students and faculty at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign wrote a web browser called Mosaic. Although designed primarily for viewing HTML documents, the software also had built-in tools to access the much more prolific resources on the Internet, such as FTP archives of software and Gopher-organized collections of documents.
With versions based on easy-to-use graphical-user interfaces familiar to most computer owners, Mosaic became an instant success. It, like most Internet software, was available on the Net for free. Millions of users snatched up a copy and began surfing the Internet for "cool web pages."
 Not all browsers are free, nor are all browsers free to everyone. Various client browser and server software is commercially available, including documentation and support. Internet "bundled" software sold through mail order or retail often contains a licensed copy of one of the popular browsers like Netscape or Internet Explorer, possibly customized for the package. Moreover, the browsers available for download over the Internet typically contain licensing agreements which stipulate that the software is free only for use by non-profit organizations.
There you have the history of the Internet and the World Wide Web in a nutshell: from rags to riches in just two short years. The Internet has spawned an entirely new medium for worldwide information exchange and commerce, and its pioneers are profiting well. For instance, when the marketers caught on to the fact that they could cheaply produce and deliver eye-catching, wow-and-whizbang commercials and product catalogs to those millions of Web surfers around the world, there was no stopping the stampede of blue suede shoes. Even the key developers of Mosaic and related web server technologies sensed potential riches. They left NCSA and formed Netscape Communications to produce the Netscape Navigator browser and web server software that is useful for Internet commercial activity.
Business users and marketing opportunities have helped invigorate the Internet and fuel its phenomenal growth, particularly on the World Wide Web. According to a recent marketing survey by ActivMedia, Inc. (Peterborough, NH), over half of Internet enterprises become profitable within a year of launch! But do not forget that the Internet is first and foremost a place for social interaction and information sharing, not a strip mall or direct advertising medium. Internet users, particularly the old-timers, adhere to commonly held, but not formally codified, rules of netiquette that prohibit such things as "spamming" special-interest newsgroups with messages unrelated to the topic at hand or sending unsolicited email. And there are millions of users ready to remind you of those rules should you inadvertently or intentionally ignore them.
And, certainly, the power of HTML and network distribution of information go well beyond marketing and monetary rewards: serious informational pursuits also benefit. Publications, complete with images and other media like executable software, can get to their intended audience in a blink of an eye, instead of the months traditionally required for printing and mail delivery. Education takes a great leap forward when students gain access to the great libraries of the world. And at times of leisure, the interactive capabilities of HTML links can reinvigorate our otherwise television-numbed minds.