We may not have moved beyond the internet of the early 1990s were it not for Tim Berners-Lee, who was looking for an easier way to find and share research. Berners-Lee, who in 1989 was a researcher working at CERN, the Swiss nuclear research facility, came up with the concept of the World Wide Web, a decentralized repository of  information, linked together and shareable with anyone who could connect to it. He built the first webpage in 1993. Seeing the value in what Berners-Lee and his team had created, CERN opened up the software for the web to the public domain, meaning anyone could use it and build upon it.

Berners-Lee also created the first website browser (initially called WorldWideWeb and then renamed Nexus). But it wasn’t until a team of former students at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC), led by Marc Andreessen, created the Mosaic web browser in 1993 that the web started to take off. Andreessen and his team left the research facility at UIUC to start Netscape, the company that produced the first web browser many people ever used: Netscape Navigator.

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By the mid-1990s, Netscape had about 80% of the browser market in the US and Europe. Its only real competitor was Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which first launched with Windows 95. But Microsoft, a huge company even then, was able to iterate its software faster as the web changed, implementing new technologies like CSS (cascading style sheets—the code that ensures the web is more than just bland pages of text) before Netscape could. (Microsoft’s dominance remained pretty much unchallenged until the dawn of the mobile web, but more on that later.)

At the time, internet services, especially in the US, started to become more affordable. Although the first phone modem was invented in 1958 by Bell, which could just send data to other Bell devices, the first modem designed to use with a PC didn’t arrive until 1977. But it wasn’t until 1996 that we got the 56k modem, which let internet users surf the web at a blistering 56,000 bits per second. (Today we can download a 1 GB file in about 32 seconds, compared with around 3.5 days, which is what it  would take on a 56k modem.)

Internet service providers like America Online, Prodigy, Earthlink, and CompuServe, dominated early access in the US. Subscribers would almost always rely on their existing phone line for connection to the internet, meaning that no one could use the phone when someone was on internet. And everyone connecting in the mid-90s through to the mid-2000s likely knew of the horror that was the dial-up modem connection sound.

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At some point in 2004, for the first time ever, there were more people in the US who had access to broadband internet than dial-up, according to the Pew Research Center. The price of broadband connections had begun to fall as more users signed up. Broadband modems act a little differently than their dial-up predecessors in that they do not need to call out over the phone line to your internet service provider to establish a connection to the internet—they stay connected unless they’re turned off. In the US today, most broadband connections come into homes through the same connections used for cable TV, and don’t tend to require access to a telephone line to connect.

Coupled with the advent of wifi, broadband has revolutionized the way that people connect to the internet. Before wifi and broadband, accessing the internet was a very static and slow experience, requiring someone to sit in front of a large computer, physically connected to a modem, to access the web. But when wifi started to gain popularity, it made the internet accessible wherever someone had a laptop, tablet, or Palm Pilot and wifi connection. The earliest versions of wifi were implemented in the mid-1990s, but it wasn’t until Apple included the technology in the iBook laptop in 1999, as well as  other models in the early 2000s, that it really started to kick off.

Broadband speeds are generally faster than dial-up. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers a broadband connection—at least for a fixed line, rather than a cellular connection—one that can achieve speeds of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. This could certainly change in the future—the definition has changed in the past—but for now, it accurately portrays what most of the country has access to.

These speeds helped make the internet what it has become: in the early web years, loading web pages even with simple graphics could take several minutes. With higher speeds, websites could load faster, and developers could add more content to their sites without fear that it would crash their user’s computers. Even streaming videos became possible; YouTube first launched in 2005. Websites evolved from simple destinations to interactive places where people could buy things and communicate with each other in real-time.

That being said, there are still some 19 million people in the US who don’t have access to the internet at all, and roughly 43% of the world’s population is also without  access. But there are many efforts to bring internet access to those where fixed connections are difficult to deploy. Cable companies are using old broadcasting radio frequencies to deliver high-speed internet, and autonomous balloons can beam internet down to even the most remote locations. As access to affordable wireless technology broadens, and our concept of  the internet continues to shift, it’s likely the number of people not online will drop rapidly over the next decade.

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Cellular data

If you thought the advent of broadband and the internet as we know it today came quickly, you’re going to be blindsided by what happens in the next few years.

Mobile broadband—connecting to the internet through a cell phone—has exploded in popularity over the last five years. At the end of 2013, there were about 1.9 billion smartphone subscriptions in the world, and by the end of 2018, there were about 5.3 billion—that’s a jump of about 180% in five years.

Smartphones are getting cheaper—the global average price for a phone is around $368, but there are dozens of smartphones that will get the job done for less than $50—and access is improving every day.

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It’s a far cry from the earliest iterations of the mobile internet, like WAP (Wireless Application Protocol). Introduced in 1999 and seen in such phones as the Nokia 7110 (which many incorrectly associate with being featured in the year’s smash-hit film The Matrix), WAP was sort of like the early dial-up of mobile internet. You could look at rudimentary pages of the internet, to check things like sports scores or news headlines. But getting too deep into the internet would likely burn through whatever overpriced data plan you had at the time.

The first truly useful mobile data standard was 3G in 2003, when radio technology first allowed for more than calls and texts to be sent over the air. (In the western world in 2019, it’s often the connection type your smartphone will fall back to when it can’t connect to LTE; in other countries, it’s still the standard.)

The mobile web truly took off with the iPhone, however, and all the devices that aimed to copy it. When introducing the iPhone, Apple founder Steve Jobs said it was taking on the role of three devices at once: “It’s an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator.”

The iPhone was first launched in 2007 (though a 3G model wasn’t introduced until 2008). Over the last decade, Apple has sold more than 1 billion iPhones and spurred on competitors like Google, whose Android operating system is now installed on over 2 billion devices. Suddenly, a device that fit in the palm of your hand could access the web in (more or less) the same way as a laptop. The mobile web has created an entirely new economy—Apple estimates that developers have generated $120 billion in revenue from apps developed for the iPhone and iPad since Apple’s App Store was first introduced in 2008. What’s more, we now spend an average of fours hours every day on our phones, much of that time going to social media.

According to a recent consumer report (pdf) commissioned by networking hardware company Ericsson, the average smartphone owner in the US currently uses around 8GB of data each month. The company expects that number to balloon up to possibly 200GB per month by 2025. Mobile devices will likely not look like they do now: In the same way using a smartphone to access the web in 2019 is nothing like using a laptop to get online in 2003, or a desktop in 1993, it’s possible a completely new paradigm will be invented for our super-fast, mobile future. The future of the web will likely be increasingly mobile, but probably won’t be dominated by the devices of today.

As 5G wireless networks are deployed around the world today, many with the  promise of download speeds over 1 Gigabit per second (compared to LTE, which maxes out at around 25 Mbps in the US), and connections so airtight it’ll feel like you’re in the same room as someone thousands of miles away. It’s easy to see how the internet could progress from its simple roots, but not what form it will take.

It’s possible that the next iteration of the internet, powered by 5G, could introduce some fantastical-sounding scenarios: surgeries performed remotely in real time; fleets of autonomous trucks all monitored from afar; augmented reality glasses that overlay holographic information in front of us as we move through the world; computers hosted in the cloud.

But for now, these are still pipe dreams. While the new networking technology is being rolled out, adoption for the expensive networks will likely be slow, and there’s no guarantee that real-world infrastructure will ever live up to the promise of what engineers can pull off in a lab. But then, people probably said the same things about those early messages pinging back and forth from UCLA in the early 1970s.

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