Throwback: The World Wide Web

Originally published in Linux Journal Issue #3, June-July 1994

20 Years ago, 15 years before founding Plugable Technologies, Bernie Thompson wrote an article for the first issue of Linux Journal. Over the next twenty years, LJ published 4 more articles including a 20-year retrospective in 2014. Thanks to Linux Journal’s generous terms allowing authors to keep their copyright, we’re able to republish the full series of articles here. This particular article is quaintly dated now. If you have your own memories and opinions of the time, please share in the comments. This is Article 2 of 5.

cover3.smallGeneticists share genome data with colleagues. Fans of Anne Rice talk about her latest books. Hundreds of programmers team up to create a free Unix system called Linux.

By enabling individuals around the globe to communicate and cooperate, the Internet has sped up the pace of scientific innovation. With 20 million users and growing, it has created a culture based on instant information and hyperkinetic communication.

The challenge now is to expand the power of the Internet to a wider audience and make it more convenient for all. Rising to this challenge is a system called the World Wide Web. By bringing all of the Internet’s old and new resources together, the Web stands to become the one simple, standard way to access all of the Internet’s riches.

It stands to revolutionize the revolution.

What is the Web?

To picture the World Wide Web, imagine a page from a book. By pressing your finger on any of the words, you receive a new page with more detailed information about the subject selected. The Web is like a huge book being constructed on the Internet.

Tens of thousands of these pages are already scattered around the world. They are created by experts and novices of all disciplines who use the Internet. The amount of information available is stunning: an encyclopedia, a dictionary, world maps, complete information on US government agencies, extensive Linux documentation, and much much more. It’s an amazing source of information.

How does it Work?

The Web is really a collection of computers, hooked together over the Internet, that pass pages of information back and forth. A program called a Web browser is used to find and view information. When you select a word in your Web browser, a message goes out to another computer somewhere in the world. That computer will respond by sending back the page you requested.

The messages between computers are encoded in the form of a Universal Resource Locator. The URL describes what kind of information you want, and where to look for it. It’s like a mail address for the Web.

The pages can contain text, images. sounds and more. A page can even contain fill-in-the-blank forms which you complete to send information off to another computer. A protocol called HTML describes, in general terms, how the text, images, and forms should be positioned on the page. Web browsers can use this general description to lay out pages in different ways. For example, a browser that works in text mode only can ignore all the images. Or an X Windows browser can shift the text and images of a page when the window is resized.

URLs describe the locations of a page, and HTML provides an adaptable description of the information. Together, they make the Web an extremely flexible system.

Why Use the Web?

To everyone familiar with Internet newsgroups, FTP sites, and gopher servers, the Web may not seem groundbreaking. But the impact is, in fact, dramatic.

The most important advantage is simplicity. To maneuver around libraries of information, you need only click the mouse to learn or key combinations to memorize.

The Universal Resource Locator also provides an easy way to access other forms of Internet information such as gopher and archie. This way, there is only one, simple interface used to access a multitude of resources. New users benefit most from this simplicity.

Unlike newsgroups, Web information stays around as long as the author, or anyone else, wants to keep it available. Unlike information available vie FTP, the information is cataloged and categorized, so it is much easier to find and access. Unlike gopher, the information is laid out like one gigantic book. You can read what you like, and select more detail only if you’re interested.

Many have predicted that cyberspace would become a chaotic mess where information is impossible to find. The World Wide Web is a system designed to bring order to the chaos.

Linux and the Web

Linux is one of the best systems, commercial or otherwise, for access to the Web. Linux is a version of Unix, the native platform of the Internet. So the best Web tools are often available on Linux before DOS, Windows, or Macintosh.

Two of the most popular tools for the Web are Mosaic and lynx. They are Web browsers with different goals. Lynx is small and text-only. Mosaic is large and full-featured. To browse the wealth of information on the Web, just pick one, install, and wander off to explore the wonders of the Web.

Lynx will display the text of a page without any images or fancy fonts. It only requires the keyboard arrow keys for navigation. This simplicity makes it fast and flexible. Lynx uses the VT100 protocol, so people without access to X Windows can still use lynx, including users logging in to a Linux system remotely.

Lynx is miserly with disk space and memory. It will only take up 320K of disk and consume about 620K of RAM while running. This makes lynx perfect for 4MB Linux workstations.

Lynx is not as common as Mosaic, however. This is primarily because lynx doesn’t support the colorful images and different fonts that make the Web so expressive. For these, Mosaic or some other graphical browser is required to experience the full richness of the Web.

Lynx is freely available. To get lynx for Linux, check the Linux Software Map. For lynx source code, FTP to ftp2.cc.ukans.edu.

In contrast to lynx stands Mosaic. Mosaic is probably the best Web browsers available, and it is certainly the most famous. It takes full advantage of the Web.

Mosaic is a graphical browser, so it will only run on systems with X Windows (or MS Windows or Macintosh). A number of companies such as Quarterdeck have licensed the free Mosaic for commercial use rather than write their own. Mosaic is truly a high-quality application. But the price for beauty is more memory and disk space. Mosaic consumes over 1.3MB of disk space, and will use about 2MB of RAM while running.

Linux lynx, Mosaic is freely available. This freedom is slightly restricted, however, because Mosaic uses Motif programming libraries. This means you cannot recompile Mosaic yourself without a license for the Motif libraries.

To get Mosaic, search for it in the Linux Software Map. A copy of Mosaic can be found at sunsite.unc.edu and most other Linux sites. Assuming you have X Windows, no special installation procedures are needed. Just prepare to be impressed by a very professional program.

Using Linux to Contribute to the Web

DOS, Windows, and Mac users can happily access the Web with a browser. But the extra dimension Linux adds is the ability to become part of the Web. The ability to make information available to others via a Web server.

Setting up a Web server is certainly more difficult than using a browser, but is still surprisingly easy. This ease of use allows a large number of Internet users to contribute to the Web project. And Linux makes a great platform for a Web server because of its small size and speed. With the growing body of Internet Linux users, the potential is enormous.

Httpd is a popular Web server available for Linux. Its creator, NCSA, is the same group that developed Mosaic.Httpd will consume about 200K RAM while running. The program itself uses very little disk space. Just allocate enough disk space to hold all the pages of Web information.

The burden of the Web on a Linux server was tested by creating a working Web site on a i386-33 Linux machine. During a 40 day span, the PSU Linux WWW received 5375 requests from 1328 different sites around the world. This is an average of 6.9 requests per hour and 165 per day. The Web requests never interfered with any work being done by other users at the machine. A Linux system can easily provide Web services and have horsepower to spare.

To get httpd and set up your own Web server, look for httpd in the Linux Software Map. For full documentation on httpd, look at http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/. This site has all the documentation needed for installation.

The Web Means Business

The Web has attracted a surprising amount of attention from the commercial world. This is a testament to its effectiveness. No other existing system has the clean design, flexibility and momentum that the Web enjoys. “It’s the killer application of the Internet,” says Eamonn Sullivan of PC Week. “I know everyone says that now, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

PC Week Labs discovered Linux during the course of setting up a Web server. The result is they continue to use Linux on their server, and Linux won PCX Week’s Product of the Week for April 18, 1994. Press exposure of this sort will inspire new and exciting business applications for Linux.

The number one buzzword in business today is client/server. The Web and Linux fit perfectly into such a system. A documentation solution for a large organization can be quickly and effectively developed with the Web.

For example, a business might be grappling with the documentation requirements of ISO 9000, the process quality standard of the International Standards Organization. Using the Web with Linux servers and clients running Mosaic, documents related to ISO 9000 can be sorted in one location, updated only by the group responsible for that process. But anyone inside the organization can view the documents. The Web is an easy, open solution to a thorny problem.

Exciting Possibilities for the Linux Community

Still, the greatest potential of the Web lies with the Internet-connected Linux community. As Linux continues to prove itself to Internet users, the audience for a Linux Web will grow. By distributing data around the world, enormous amounts of information can be conveniently accessed from any Linux machine. There are already a number of Web servers which have manual pages and info files on-line. Hook into the Web and save space.

The first possibility is for manual pages and info pages. This infrequently accessed information can be viewed via the Web instead of storing copies on every machine. There are already a number of Web servers which have manual pages and info files on-line. Hook into the Web and save space.

Using FTP to access files can be difficult for novice users. A Web browser provides a friendly interface for getting files from FTP sites. Common FTP sites can appear as links on a Web page. Newsgroups, also, can be accessed via the Web. Hypertext links between followups are automatically created.

Subscribing to mailing lists can be automated. Using fill-in forms, users could select links to subscribe and unsubscribe. In the same way, they could register with Linux User Counter.

To better bring the Linux community together, a Web server can be configured so that each user has a home page of information about themselves. A tree of Linux information can be developed, right down to individuals. New Linux users would register themselves, and their home page, with some local server. Every new local server would register itself with a central server. Now the location and interests of each Linux user are easily available.

Lastly, there is potential for information beyond mere man pages. Linux is extraordinary in the quantity and quality of online information available. Because of the contributions of groups like the Linux Documentation Project, information about nearly every aspect of Linux use are available. All of these manuals, information sheets, and FAQs can be made available on the Web.

What makes this possibility so exciting is that each manual can be stored in one place—the author’s home site. So when a document is updated, the author has only one central location the change it. Although the documents would actually be scattered around the world, to the Web user they would all appear on one easy-to-locate Web page. The Web provides an optimal system for both authors and users.

The World Wide Web is still in its infancy. The first half of 1994 saw triple-digit growth in Web traffic. By encompassing older systems of information access, like gopher, the Web guaranteed instant compatibility.

Native Web information is exploding. Through the Internet and through CD-ROM distribution, the Linux community is finding many new and creative uses for this flexible technology. No doubt more and better uses will be forthcoming. It is certain that the phenomenal growth of the Web will continue.

Bernie Thompson ran the PSU Linux WWW during its 3-month life span in early 1994

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