The World Wide Web turned the Internet from a dull academic network into an intriguing source of entertainment and education. Richard Longhurst introduces a seven-page special report
Advertisements have been gaining a new appendage in the last year. A strange line of code - something like http://www. abc. megacorp/ - has appeared under company logos. To most people this is meaningless - but to a fast-growing group it is the route to a whole new area of fun and information. The code is the "address" of the company on the World Wide Web, the most glamorous part of the Internet. Anyone with access to the Net can key in the code to find out more about the company and its products. For the advertiser it is a cheap way of providing extra publicity. For the computer user, it is just one more page among the millions that make up the World Wide Web.

The Web is part of the Internet, which is usually defined as a network of computer networks. Originally set up by the US Defense Department, the Net connected computers belonging to the military and academic establishments. The Internet "protocol" defined the way in which messages could travel, allowing data to be sent down telephone or other lines in a form that all the other computers could understand.

But it was not a system for beginners. Users had to be familiar with the so-called Unix operating system, which was difficult to learn and allowed only text to be sent across the network. The Internet would still be an arcane backwater, inhabited mainly by academics, were it not for the arrival of the World Wide Web.

The Web was developed by Tim Berners-Lee at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (Cern) in Switzerland in 1990, just another Internet tool that would enable scientists to share information over the network. Rather than using seamless streams of text, it divided the information into pages - these might take up more than a computer screen, but they would have a clear beginning and end. To move from page to page, Cern used "hyperlinks" - a neat way of connecting pages together. On most Web pages a number of words will be highlighted, usually in a different colour text. By clicking the mouse on that word, you are connected directly to another file which may be on the same computer, or could be on an entirely different part of the Net on the other side of the world.

Had the Web been only that, it would never have captured the public's imagination. The original software to use it - called a browser - could carry nothing but text. But in 1993 a "graphical browser" called Mosaic was developed by academics in Indiana. Suddenly it was possible to put photographs and rich graphics on the Web - it changed from being just an academic tool to a source of information, entertainment and advertising.

Since the arrival of graphical browsers, the growth of the Web has been explosive. US Internet research organisation Merit NIC Services has estimated that 3,510,742,102,400 bytes of data were sent over the Web in April 1995. To give some idea of what that means, this 1,000-word article is about 8,200 bytes long. There are more than 10m Web sites, with thousands of new ones appearing every week. At one end of the spectrum are governments and the likes of Nasa and the CIA. At the other, many individual schoolchildren have their own sites.

Much of its success is down to its ease of use. Thanks to the Web, anyone familiar with Windows interface or an Apple Mac can instantly use the Internet. Its point-and-click hypertext control system makes cruising the Internet a breeze, because it enables you to do almost everything with the mouse.

There is now a great choice of browsers, available for all popular computers - PC and Mac users are particularly spoilt for choice. When you run a Web browser, it automatically connects to a home page - usually the introductory page of the organisation that produced the browser. You can scroll pages up and down to read the text and look at the pictures, and can use the hypertext links to jump to another page of information.

A Web page on an Oxford University computer, for example, might describe a student jaunt to the Grand Canyon, and the text could mention the riotous time the young wags had on a helicopter flight over the gaping chasm. The phrase "helicopter flights" is highlighted: click on it and you are transferred to a company that provides these flights - its Web page is sitting on a computer somewhere in Arizona. Here you find the latest flight details, price information and a postage stamp-sized picture of a view from a flight. The picture is edged with the highlighting colour - click on it and a high-quality version fills your screen.

You like what you see, so you click again to find an online order form that enables you to book a flight. A powerful encryption system enables you to pay for the flight by credit card more or less safely. What could be easier? This is not some futuristic pipe-dream of how the information superhighway might be in 10 or 20 years' time: this is happening now, all over the Web.

How is it that a student can have his own Web page? First, because he has access to a computer that is permanently connected to the Internet - probably his university computer (non-students can hire space for a modest fee). Second, because it is extraordinarily easy to create a professional- looking Web page. All you need is a word-processing package and knowledge of the simple "codes" you have to enter to create the right effects. With some (now widely available) scanning equipment, you can turn your holiday snaps into pictures to go on to the Web. In other words, this is the cheapest form of publishing yet invented - and it is only just beginning.

The amount of information available on the World Wide Web is absolutely vast, touching every area of human endeavour and interest. The history of the Internet means that universities and government agencies are here in force, giving you access to reports, research material and official documents that would otherwise be unavailable. The current hype surrounding the information revolution has sent companies rushing to make Internet an integral part of the marketing mix, which almost inevitably means creating a presence on the World Wide Web. The best sites are excellent, the worst derisible, but the Web is so vast that, cliched though it is to say, there really is something for everyone.

Richard Longhurst is editor of ".net" magazine.

how to:

get on to the Web

You will need a fairly modern computer with a colour screen, a phone line and a modem (which connects the machine to the line).

Get the fastest modem you can afford, ideally 28,800bps. Sign up with an Internet service provider (they advertise in the papers and are listed in various Internet magazines).

You will be given, or sold, a set of software that will include a World Wide Web browser. It used to be a nightmare to get the set-up working with some providers; now you should be able to follow the simple instructions and start surfing straight away. Or you can buy an all-in-one package that will include all the software you need.

If you want to try a different browser from the one you have already, you can also "download" several for free (see our browser guide on page 15).

useful info: list of world wide web pages

A selection of World Wide Web sites, mostly from the .net directory:

Shakespeare home page

Madonna lyrics

Internet Movie Database

Classical Composer Biographies

Web Museum

Metaphysical Research Lab

Amnesty International Online

CIA home page

Kids' corner


The Archers (see right)