It has been 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee wrote the software for what would become the world wide web. His boss described Berners-Lee’s proposal as “vague, but exciting”.
In thirty short years, the Internet has become a lot less vague. According to Statistica, there were more than 1.7 billion websites by 2019.
But, let’s cast our mind back to that vague and exciting decade of the 1990s, when programmers were figuring out what they could do with web design.
The very first websites were basically just pages of text with links to other pages of text.
You can find this ‘design’ aped on the official history page of the website for W3, the organisation Berners-Lee went on to form. This page walks you through the timeline of innovation in the prehistory of the Internet.
The next big leap was the invention of the web browser. Two University of Illinois students, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, developed Mosaic. This was a web browser with an in-built graphical interface, which meant it allowed webpages to display images alongside text, instead of in a separate window. The other great thing about Mosaic was that it was given away for free and worked on both Apple and Windows computers.
Cunning use (and abuse) of text and images helped web design come of age. Let’s look at a few pioneers of the earliest days of the world wide web:
World Wide Web Worm
Before ‘Googling’ became a household term, users would search for information online with The World Wide Web Worm. The brainchild of Oliver McBryan of the University of Colorado, it crawled into existence in 1993. Sure it might have been slow, but it was the precursor to how people would go on to use the Internet.
Even in the early 90s, when computers were things you used at the office but probably didn’t have at home, people understood that they were a really good resource for storing vast amounts of information and accessing it very quickly.
Thus, the Internet Movie Database was born. Ironically, it began life online, as a series of linked lists of actors put together, as a hobby, by film-fan and engineer, Col Needham. These lists were stored in, of all places, the computer science department of the University of Cardiff. It went online in 1994, became an incorporated business in 1996 and was snapped up by Jeff Bezos in 1998, for a reputed $55 million, who attached it to his little company, Amazon, which had recently gone public.
Only after that, did the design of the IMDb website evolve.
By the mid-90s, Wired magazine had been at the bleeding edge of tech for a couple of years, so it’s no surprise its creators were pioneers of web design, too. Their ‘web zine’ was called HotWired.com and it debuted at the end of 1994. In the fast-paced, ever-changing world of the Internet, the creators found that their webzine gave them the chance to respond to the news in a way that a monthly print magazine simply couldn’t.
It also gave them the chance to explore creatively with web design. They pioneered the idea of using a homepage (or ‘Index’) to navigate to different departments within the site. As simple as it may seem now, they also pioneered the use of icons and coloured background floods to add some vibrancy to the images and text. They were also the first people to sell banner advertising space. They had no CSS, no tables to hold elements in place. There was no template for any of this, they were making it up as they went along.
A year later, Hollywood discovered the Internet.
The website for Batman Forever took inspiration from the work being done by HotWired and pushed the limitations of web design to breaking point. The creators of this site were the first to use full screen backgrounds. They used animation. They pretty-much invented interactivity, by allowing people to download a video (remember when videos were the size of postage stamps?) and post comments on a message board.
By 1997, web design was getting ambitious, sometimes more ambitious than people’s home computers could cope with. So, some websites offered you a branching home-page.
MTV led the way with a website which offered you the simple, unfussy experience of HTML frames (which it refers to as ‘decaff’) or the glory of scrumptious ‘Java’, a version of the same site with sound and video clips and a much more dynamic design. This, of course, was a reference to the computer-programming language, Java, as well as to the eye-opening properties of a hot cup of a coffee.
In 1999, the worlds of cinema-going and computer programming crashed into each other as never before in the film The Matrix.
The film was about the human race effectively living inside a life-size, three-dimensional computer-generated world. At the time, the limitations of dialup modems, computer memory and HTML, meant that the website which accompanied this mind-expanding film was a bit of a let-down, by comparison. But it was cutting-edge for the time.
Like the MTV site before it, Warner Brothers’ ‘Whatisthmatrix’ site offered two options: ‘Regular’ and ‘Enhanced’. In hindsight, they maybe missed an opportunity by not calling these options ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill’.
If you’d like to see what the future of the internet looked like, twenty one years ago, the original Whatisthematrix can still be accessed, via the Wayback Machine.
The Internet has come a long, long way since its inception. The progress made throughout the 90s alone is staggering.
We’ve highlighted some of the best, but what was your favourite website from the 90s? Cast yourself back to the days of dial-up and let us know on social media.
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