2014 marks Twenty Five Years since the advent of the Internet. The world has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, a fact I was reminded of when I came across a very interesting web site called "The Story of the Web" (see www.storyoftheweb.org.uk). I'm sure anybody reading this article knows about companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, but I thought I'd share some rather less well-known web history facts with you.
(1) Facebook may be the most popular social media platform in the world right now, but it certainly wasn't the first - that honour goes to Friendster, who were up and running (in 2002) two years before Mark Zuckerberg's life changed from "social misfit at Harvard University" to "world's youngest multi-billionaire". Actually there were several attempts at social networking on the web even before Friendster, but none of these achieved much popularity - Friendster was the first globally successful digital social network. Of course, since then Facebook has pretty much destroyed them all but it cannot claim to be the first.
(2) Google is a company in the USA, but their internet search engine of the same name became so popular when it appeared in 1998 that it is now a household word. People no longer say "I'll search the web" but rather "I'll google it". "Google" has even been included in the Oxford English dictionary as an official word! But internet history buffs will remember that there were many search engines around on the web long before Google even existed - names such as Alta Vista, Yahoo and Lycos should ring a few bells. The problem with all these search engines was that they were complicated to use ; Google's single biggest differentiating factor was that it was incredibly simple (and still is). Just like Facebook with social media, Google was a late entrant into the web search game but became the de facto standard simply by giving people what they wanted, quickly and easily.
(3) Microsoft's perch at the head of the home and small business computer market may be looking a little shaky, but for most of the last 25 years they ruled the roost. However, their internet strategy was at one time incredibly short-sighted ; Bill Gates is reputed to have said "the Internet is a passing fad that will go the way of the BBS". If true (this particular quote is very difficult to verify), that must surely rank amongst the worst business predictions of all time, but to give Gates and Microsoft their due, they quickly realized their mistake and set about rectifying the error on a massive scale.
(4) These days people use Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or Microsoft Internet Explorer to browse the web. But when the web began the market was dominated almost entirely by Netscape Communications, whose "Navigator" browser had over 90% of the market in the early 1990's. Netscape's demise was tied in with Microsoft's change of strategy (see point (3) above) - Microsoft turned the full weight of their very considerable resources to winning the "browser wars" of the 1990's and Netscape was simply unable to compete.
(5) Today Hotmail (rebadged as Outlook.com) is Microsoft's premier web-based email service. But Hotmail was initially an independent startup, and in 1996 was the first company to provide free email to absolutely anybody - all you needed was access to the internet. Microsoft had no such service at all and bought the company on New Year's Eve 1997.
So the web has thrown up quite a few surprizes in the last 25 years. Many famous people have had egg on their faces, and I'm pretty sure that the next 25 years will be no different. So what will the connected world be like in 2039? I don't know, but of one thing I'm absolutely certain - some things that you expect to change will stay much the same, and other things will be different beyond recognition.