20 events that shaped the Internet, part 1

The Internet changed our lives, but what made the Internet into what it is today?

Today we all use our smartphones and our broadband-equipped home and work PCs to instantly access information and data on just about any topic via the Internet.

But have you ever taken a few moments to realize how far we've come since our first forays online? Were you among those who tried it in 1994 or 1995 when the Internet was in its nascent stages for home users?

To honor this vital part of everyone's personal and work lives, we compiled a list of 20 huge Internet advancements and developments. We didn't try to re-create the history of the Internet in this two-part article. Instead, we decided to focus on events that were game-changers when they occurred--and that remain so even today. A lot has happened in a brief timeframe. Let's start back in the 1970s.

1978: MUD, the groundbreaking multiplayer online computer game, arrives

In August 1978, the original MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) text-adventure computer game was released by student Roy Trubshaw and Professor Richard Bartle at Essex University in England. The most notable aspect of the game was a huge new feature never before seen: the capability for several hundred people to play against one another simultaneously online. "There were multiplayer games before that," but they were for only a handful of players, says Jessica Mulligan, a longtime computer games consultant, historian, author, and expert. "This was the first one where really hundreds of people could get in and play in the same universe, the same world. That was what was so cool about it."

MUD was a genuine game-changer, she says, and it has been the model for all multiplayer computer games that have followed. "They hadn't intended to create a game," she says. "Richard, being a Dungeons & Dragons fan, decided to use a game as a model for a development project, and it basically created an industry." You can still play an early version of MUD online if you want to take in a bit of gaming history.

1985: A company registers the first Web domain name

It's truly hard to believe that there was a time when companies around the world were not on the Internet with full-featured homepages, graphics, business information, and more. Yet that was the case until the first Web domain name, Symbolics.com, was registered on March 15, 1985, way before the first Web browsers were in broad use. Today the Symbolics.com domain is owned by XF.com Investments, a domain-holding and development company in Missouri, which purchased it in September 2009 from former computer and software vendor Symbolics. And although these days it seems as if every company rushes online to reserve its own little piece of the Internet through domain names, back in the mid-'80s it took 32 months for the first 100 domain names to be registered.

What began as a trickle, however, later became a flood as the Internet became the place where business comes to do business. Today the Web has more than 94 million registered .com domain names, and a combined total of 129.7 million domains including .net, .org, .info, .biz and .us addresses. Few companies go into business today without having an online presence and at least one registered domain name. It has become an expected part of being a successful business.

1994: Hate pesky banner ads? Here's where they started

The first online banner advertisement--those annoying ads that often flash and hurt your eyeballs with their gaudiness--appeared in October 1994, according to Web historians. An AT&T banner ad, held up as the first such ad, dates back to October 25, 1994, says one online source. Other experts point to banner ads on Hotwired.com that surfaced at about that same time.

But even if the identity of the first ad is in dispute, the road these early marketing messages paved was huge in that companies quickly recognized a way to gain revenue from being on the Internet. Once online content could be paid for via ads, the entire marketplace changed overnight. Newspapers, radio and television stations, and other media outlets, which for decades had been cash cows due to healthy advertising revenue, saw their whole economic picture change, forcing them to go online just to try to survive. Those same issues continue today.

1994: Wi-Fi Internet access changes everything

We take it for granted today that we can use our computers just about everywhere--in coffee shops, airports, hotels, and all places in between--through the magic of wireless connections. Although Wi-Fi has become increasingly available and popular in the past few years, it had its humble beginnings at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1994, where people claim to have built the first such network before the first Wi-Fi standards were even adopted in 1999.

Now Wi-Fi availability is a factor that we consider when choosing where to eat lunch, travel, and even play. Its flexibility and convenience can make working or studying on the go a reality for students, businesspeople, and even vacationers, who can now stay in touch and get tasks done wherever they are, making the Internet portable--a truly significant change.

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Todd R. Weiss

PC World (US online)
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