CERN celebrates 30 years since releasing the web to the public domain

Software vendors and the EU weren’t interested, so giving it away became the best option

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on Sunday celebrated the 30th anniversary of releasing the World Wide Web into the public domain.

As the World Wide Web Consortium's brief history of the web explains, in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee - then a fellow at CERN - proposed that the organization adopt "a global hypertext system." His first name for the project was "Mesh".

And as the Consortium records, in 1990 Berners-Lee set to work on "a hypertext GUI browser+editor using the NeXTStep development environment. He makes up 'WorldWideWeb' as a name for the program."

Berners-Lee's work gathered a very appreciative audience inside CERN, and soon started to attract attention elsewhere. By January 1993, the world had around 50 HTTP servers. The following month, the first graphical browser – Marc Andreessen's Mosaic – appeared.

Alternative hypertext tools, like Gopher, started to lose their luster.

On April 30, 1993, CERN signed off on a decision that the World Wide Web – a client, server, and library of code created under its roof – belonged to humanity (the letter was duly stamped on May 3).

"CERN relinquishes all intellectual property rights to this code, both source and binary form, and permission is granted for anyone to use, duplicate, modify and redistribute it" states a letter signed on that day by Walter Hoogland and Helmut Weber – at the time respectively CERN's director of research and director of administration.

In a video posted to CERN's celebration of 30 years of a free and open web Hoogland shared a story of recognizing the significance of the web, and trying to interest commercial software companies in the tech.

All passed.

He next tried to convince the European Union to promote the web and make it an exemplar of local ingenuity, but came away thinking that the organization would take too long to make that happen.

The decision to release code to the public domain was therefore easy.

"Most people would agree that the public release was the best thing we could have done, and that it was the source of the success of the World Wide Web," Hoogland said. He added that that content posted to the web itself was of more importance – even though in its early days the web stressed CERN's connectivity budget as staff enjoyed material such as weather reports that did not always have much to do with physics.

Astounding quantities of similarly diverting content has since been published to the web – including this very story and the site it's on!

Over 30 years, the web has permeated and become essential to almost every human endeavor, and catalysed change in most of them.

Many thousands of words would struggle to do justice to the web's impact. In The Register's little corner of concern – business tech – it changed software development and deployment in ways that are still being felt today. It gave vendors a new means with which to make their wares manageable (and vulnerable).

CERN later decided an open source licence was a better idea for the web than a complete free-for-all. But that doesn't diminish the significance of the anniversary.

So raise a glass and pour one out for the web - CERN has done so, digitally, with a Web@30 celebration site. ®


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