World Wide Web Definition

The World Wide Web, commonly referred to as just the Web1, is a vast collection of documents, images, sounds and computer programs that are stored on web servers and can be accessed on web browsers via the Internet. It is also one of the most influential technological advances of recent decades, one that is beginning to have a profound effect on nearly every aspect of human activity.

A web browser is a type of program that is used to locate, display and interact with web pages and other resources on the Internet. It features the ability to do this regardless of the type of computer (or other device) and operating system on which it is running and regardless of the type or location of the servers on which the resources are located.

Web pages, which are written primarily using HTML (hypertext markup language), can contain text, audio still images and video content as well as hyperlinks embedded in the text and images. A hyperlink is an automated cross-references to another document, image, sound clip, etc., or to another location in the same document, which, when selected, causes the browser to display the linked item within a brief period of time (typically just a few seconds).

Although the terms Internet and Web are used interchangeably by many people, they are, in fact, very different, but closely related. The former, which was developed beginning in 1969, is the world-wide network of interconnected computer networks (e.g., commercial, academic and government) that operates using a standardized set of communications protocols called TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol).

The Web is just one of a number of services that operate over the Internet. However, it has become by far the most popular of such services. E-mail and ftp (file transfer protocol) are examples of much older services. Although separate Internet protocols, they can both be accessed via web pages.

The web is based on three main sets of standards. Uniform resource locators (URLs) specify how each file is given a unique address on the Internet. Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) specifies how browsers and web servers communicate with each other. HTML is a method of encoding information in the text of documents describing how they should be displayed in browsers.

The Web was originally developed in 1989 and 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, who was seeking a more efficient way to access information on servers at dispersed locations while he was working at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), an international nuclear physics research center in Switzerland. Berners-Lee's basic concept was to integrate the already existing concept of hypertext with the Internet. He wrote the first web page in November 1990 on a NeXT workstation, and the following month he wrote the first web browser and the first web server software.

Berners-Lee made the very wise decision to base the Web entirely on free software, just as had been done with the Internet about two decades earlier. That is, it does not rely on software that is encumbered by copyrights or patents, which could require the payment of royalties and limit its flexibility. This has greatly simplified the development of the Web and has undoubtedly been a major factor in its rapid expansion and astonishing success.

The Web has continued to grow rapidly throughout its history in terms of both the number of users and the amount of information available. For example, the total number of web sites (i.e., collections of related web pages) soared from one million in April 1997 to roughly 50 million by May 2004 and then surpassed 100 million in late 2006.

It is also continuing to advance rapidly with regard to technology. This includes the development of improved browsers (e.g., with faster page rendering, tabs and greater security), of more efficient search algorithms, and of programs that further enhance the already substantial collaborative capabilities of the Web.

The most commonly used human language for web sites at present is English, at roughly 50 percent; German is a distant second, followed by French and Japanese. This is in large part a result of the locations of the Internet's origins and of the early development of the Web. However, the share of sites in other languages is continuing to increase and the Web is becoming more international as a result of the rapid growth of the use of computers and the Internet in countries which primarily use other languages, particularly China.

The nature of the content on the Web has also changed considerably. Whereas the Web was originally designed to provide static pages about academic and educational topics, the content has become increasingly commercial and interactive.

Standards for the Web are largely developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)2, which was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Berners-Lee in 1994. The W3C also plays an important role in defending egalitarian nature of the Web and protecting it from domination by monopolistic commercial interests and individual governments.

1This word is usually written with an upper case W when used as a noun, although it is sometimes written with a lower case w. The situation is different for that for the words Internet and internet, for which the meaning is different according to the capitalization.

2The W3C's home page is

Created November 13, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.