World Wide Web at 25: the next 25 years
The Web is currently going through a profound change, and the next 25 years are likely to be very different from the last
Next month marks 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee set out his vision of the World Wide Web — a system of interlinked documents that can be accessed via the Internet using a web browser. But the Web is currently going through a profound change, and the next 25 years are likely to be very different from the last.
In his invention of the Web, one of Berners-Lee’s most important achievements was the development of the uniform resource locator (URL). Viewing a web page normally begins by typing a URL into a web browser. The web browser then initiates a series of communication messages behind the scenes, in order to fetch and display the page.
Most URLs include a top-level domain name such as .com, .info, .net, or .org. These help the web browser to narrow down the set of servers on which the web page is hosted. Until recently there were only 22 of these generic top-level domains (gTLDs). There was also a separate set of top-level domains reserved for particular countries, but many of these have now become general purpose.
Over the next year, more than a thousand new gTLDs will come online. Hundreds of these have already rolled out, from .shabaka (.web in Arabic) to .sexy, .technology and .singles. This has been hailed as one of the biggest changes to the internet since its inception.
For companies and brands, this presents an opportunity to establish a new online identity. Some companies have obtained their own TLDs, including tech leaders such as .apple, .google and .microsoft, but also less obvious companies, such as .theguardian, talent agency William Morris Endeavor with .WME, and corporate giants of the Middle East, such as Etisalat, Qatar Telecom and Kuwait Finance House, with their brands in Arabic as well as in English.
For smaller businesses, the historical challenge is that the best names are already taken; with over 100 million .com’s registered and over 10 million .co.uk domains already taken, anyone wanting a simple, intuitive domain name has been forced to go through domain investors or other registrants.
“Now, with 500 or so new alternatives to .com and .co.uk launching, the artificial scarcity is over, and every company can obtain a great domain name — or indeed more than one,” said Ben Crawford, chief executive of domain name registry CentralNic.
“Registering ‘keyword’ domain names has the benefit of capturing relevant traffic to your business. Obviously a domain like cocktail.bar or music.college stands a strong chance of attracting people looking for cocktails or music schools to your sites, as it makes it clear to the consumer and search engines alike what you offer on your site.”
As the internet continues to develop new features, many companies plan to set up their own apps, blogs and wikis – so obtaining their own .app, .blog and .wiki domains is a logical step. The .feedback and .contact domains will also provide an intuitive address for particular web pages.
“The era of the singular ‘web identity’ is over,” said Crawford. “As companies increasingly recognise the internet as the single largest source of new customers, even small businesses have moved beyond the position of buying one domain name for their website.”
It is thought that certain domain names could take on their own associations — just as the repurposed .co country domain has come to be associated with the technology start-up community, CentralNic hopes that .wiki will become a domain for online collaborators and online businesses, and that .xyz will become a low-cost domain.
Domains relating to certain locations are also expected to take on a certain character. London will become one of the first cities in the world to have its own domain name on April 29, and one in four local small businesses reportedly plans to register for a .london web address. Meanwhile, the .vegas TLD is likely to be adopted by the gambling community.
There is some concern that this could result in the development of silos on the web, with websites being clumped together because of their gTLDs. However, Crawford believes that the new domains will further enhance the resiliency of the internet and its form as a single and combined entity.
“Perhaps the greatest achievement of the internet is that is has survived and grown as the single, monolithic, global system that we now take for granted,” said Crawford.
“At many points, the internet could have splintered, with separate internets for different scripts, languages or communities. We remember the early days of AOL and even MSN being ‘walled gardens’ that were members’ only areas. This could have been the eternal model for the development of the internet, and in a way apps are continuing in that tradition. But the internet still dominates.”
On the other hand, Crawford said that silos are much more appealing to the average internet user than the overwhelming volume and chaos of the internet as a whole. That is exactly why browsers and search engines were invented, and he pointed out that websites are already clumped together in search results.
The gTLDs will improve the user experience by making it easier to distinguish the content that you are viewing, he said. Consumers and search engines alike will be able to distinguish John Jones the restaurant (“johnjones.rest”) from John Jones the tattoo artist (“johnjones.ink”) from John Jones the porn star (“johnjones.xxx”).
During the first 25 years of the web, less than 30 per cent of the world’s population was engaged with the web or had an online presence. Crawford predicts that, within ten years, this figure will be closer to 70 per cent, partly due to the increased use of internet through mobile devices.
He also predicts that more than half of the content on the internet will be in a script other than Latin by 2024, and that the majority of web traffic will be through sites that are not yet in existence.
“By embracing every kind of website and language on a single platform, the internet has become a single immense library, museum, playground and shopping mall without walls supporting 200 million websites, accessed by 2 billion people.”