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Part 9: Project Xanadu vs. World Wide Web

Updated: Jul 29

Before we dive into these two competitors, let’s take a step back and recap what we know about Ted Nelson and his failed experiment – Project Xanadu. Ted Nelson was the first person to coin the term “hypertext”, and the most prolific demonstration of this concept was Project Xanadu. Xanadu was constructed similarly to the internet we know today: collections of documents stored inside a data repository and linked together via hypertext. In less technical terms, it was a collection of web pages hyperlinked to the resources used to create the page.

Sounds like a simple concept, right? However, the overall vision of Xanadu was much more complex. For example, the links provided by the hypertext would be two-way links – meaning the two documents would always be connected. This way, the links would be self-fixing. In layman’s terms, this meant that dreaded “Error 404 – Page not found” would not exist. Another sophisticated component of Xanadu was an automatic payment system built into each document. This particular system allowed for the document's creator to receive payment every time somebody read it. Fun fact: that model is exactly how YouTube pays its content creators.

Again, the concepts behind Xanadu worked in theory, but the reality of developing and garnering support for them was where the project ultimately failed. Ted Nelson has continued to persistently work on Xanadu to this day, although he is now viewed as a quirky technology evangelist rather than a serious industry titan. His efforts, though, would not be lost. In fact, they would heavily influence one particular scientist who we’ll refer to as TBL.

Tim-Berners Lee (TBL) was a British computer scientist who, prior to his invention of the World Wide Web, worked for CERN, arguably the worlds leading scientific research institute. While working at CERN, TBL wanted to create a hypertext-based system which better enabled researchers to share information. If you believe this sentiment echoes that of our friend Mr. Otlet, you’d be correct. TBL began by connecting hypertext to two more important computing inventions at the time – DNS, or the Domain Naming System, and TCP, the Transmission Control Protocol. DNS gave hypertext a location, and TCP put that location on a server.

Once those pieces had been combined, TBL launched the World Wide Web internally at CERN in 1990. Within two years, other research institutions began leveraging his creation. The universal adoption of the line-mode browser, first invented in 1991, was the final piece of the puzzle which enabled the World Wide Web to spread rapidly to the general population by enabling it to be used on personal computing devices. From then on, it’s easy to say the rest is history…

But we aren’t going to leave it there. That would mean ending this blog series before we even talk about Google. We’ll get to Google soon, don’t worry. First though, the obvious question – why were two systems whose foundational concepts are so similar vary so greatly in their success? In one word – simplicity.

Nelson’s Xanadu may have been a purer, more democratic system, but its primary mechanisms were too complicated and too theoretical for the general population to champion. The World Wide Web, on the other hand, was a simpler, more adoptable concept – one-way links, universal document formats, and a better user interface. There is a huge population today who believe Xanadu is how the internet should exist. To a degree, that population has a point, but for the purpose of this series I'm not going to dive any deeper into that point of view.

Where we will go next with this blog series is, finally, the layering of a search engine on top of this newly constructed World Wide Web. That being said, we aren’t ready to knock on Google’s door just yet. We will first discuss its older brother – Archie.

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