The Web that changed the world

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Scientific Computing World appeared just as the World Wide Web was escaping from particle physics. Michael Kenward reflects on a decade of rapid progress

Scientific Computing World and the World Wide Web both celebrate their 10th birthdays as commercial ventures this year. At the same time as the editors were plotting the first issues of SCW, a group of young computer researchers were setting up Mosaic Communications Corp., which went on to become Netscape. Also in 1994, CERN, 'The world's largest particle physics laboratory ... where the web was born!' as they modestly put it, held the first international conference on the World Wide Web (WWW). www94.web.cern.ch/WWW94/ The rest, as they say, is history.

Checking the chronology of events took me back to the organisation that tries to keep some order in this anarchy, W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. There 'A Little History of the World Wide Web' www.w3.org/History.html confirms that the original consumer strength browser, Mosaic, appeared in 1993.

Since 'going public' the web has escaped from science and changed the face of business. After a short bout of insanity, it suffered a massive meltdown. Investors lost lorry-loads of money, as hundreds of businesses with no visible means of support other than a website burned through billions of dollars.

During its first decade, the WWW, really just an attempt to bring order to the internet, has become almost as ubiquitous as the telephone. By 1995, the web was enough of a phenomenon to prompt SCW to commission an 'Internet Review'.

The first look at science on the internet mentioned a young company called Oxford Molecular. The company, which planned to set the world on fire with its software for molecular modelling, went through numerous ups and downs, name changes and takeovers. Oxford Molecular, along with another modelling company that featured in that first column, Biosym, is now subsumed into Accelrys, www.accelrys.com/, a new name for a company you might have heard of as Pharmacopeia Inc.

To see how far websites have come, visit yet another business that featured in the first Internet Review. Cullimore and Ring, now known as C&R, like most companies, still offers trial versions of its software, but more striking is the corporate video that explains the origins of the business www.crtech.com.

A decade ago, video over the web would have been unthinkable without a dedicated high-speed connection. Today C&R's video barely strains my shiny new 1 Mb/s ADSL connection. In 1994, we thought we were racing along with new modems delivering the web at 28 kb/s. After all, this was 10 times the speed that was once said to be the limit for telephone wires.

One of the web's biggest innovations has been in providing fully formatted documents in the portable document format. PDF is now the standard for just about anything that might otherwise make the printed page.

Many research organisations publish reports, newsletters and magazines as PDF files. I am particularly fond of Science & Technology Review, from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, www.llnl.gov/str. The surprise is that many organisations have yet to latch on to this effectively free way of increasing readership.

In science, the biggest impact has been on research journals. Many academic journals provide PDF files. I am particularly keen on the approach of the Institute of Physics. The IoP may have been behind the original launch of SCW, but the magazine's development beyond the confines of physics prompted a change of ownership, so I can happily point readers to the publishing arm of IoP, where, for 30 days, most papers in a veritable library of journals are available free, for personal use. www.iop.org/EJ/

The IoP was also an early adopter of a new approach with the New Journal of Physics (NJP). www.iop.org/EJ/journal/NJP

'NJP is available without charge to readers around the world via the internet,' says the website. How can this work commercially? 'NJP is funded by article charges from authors of published papers.'

This small step was the beginning of a revolution in publishing. Indeed, some see the web as the mechanism for ending commercial journals as we know them. The web eliminates printing and distribution costs, challenging the whole idea of commercial publishing. The concept is startling enough to have prompted a committee of MPs in the British parliament to hold an inquiry. http://tinyurl.com/2xv8f www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_and_technology_committee.cfm

Another venture in this arena that has grabbed the headlines is the Public Library of Science. PLoS describes itself as 'a non-profit organisation of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource'. www.publiclibraryofscience.org/ Their video advertisement shows that not everything on the web is worth bothering about.

It is too soon to know if the open access movement is as wonderful as its proponents claim. It is, though, a sign of the changes that the web can wreak upon science and how it operates.

New web tools promise further changes. Take CrossRef. Thanks to the Google search engine, you can delve into whole libraries of journals from competing publishers. www.crossref.org As the press release announcing the new service puts it, it allows researchers 'to search the full text of high-quality, peer-reviewed journal articles, conference proceedings, and other resources covering the full spectrum of scholarly research from nine leading publishers'.

A decade ago there wasn't the mechanism to deliver anything beyond expensive, custom-built computer tools for specialist audiences. The WWW provided standards and an audience of many millions, making many more services viable. Quite where the next decade will take the WWW is anybody's guess, but there is little sign that the pace of change is slowing down.