Last Monday, the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering was awarded to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, Louis Pouzin and Marc Andreessen for their contribution in the current revolution in communications that has taken place in recent decades. Every one of them were treated as inventors of the internet while in reality, this is more complicated.
After the awards, the question was raised if people really understand the difference between the internet (a single application) and the infrastructure that makes it possible, the web. In reality, Cerf, Kahn and Pouzin can legitimately get most of the credit for designing the network; Berners-Lee built the web on the foundations laid by them; and Marc Andreessen in turn built on Berners-Lee’s work by creating the first major web browser. So what’s the difference between the web and the net?
There is a general and increasing misconception around the difference between the internet and the web. Currently, there are 2.4 billion internet users in the world, which means about 4.6 billion people are still unconnected. As the Guardian rightfully states, it will not come as a surprise to you that both Facebook and Google are already targeting them. At present, Facebook, for its part, has signed up 44% of the US population, 30% of Europeans and 37% of Latin Americans. But it only has 6.6% of Asians and even fewer (5%) Africans. Most users of the internet in poor countries will be connecting to it via mobile phones. As a result, both Facebook and Google are persuading wireless carriers in poor countries to offer customers free or very cheap online access that is limited to stripped-down versions of the web giant’s sites. Once those new web consumers will get experience in the ‘proprietary worlds’ of Facebook and Google, they will demand more and will be willing to pay for it.
As a result, more and more people will believe that Facebook or Google IS the Internet….
So why does this matter? The network that Cerf and Kahn built was deliberately designed as an open, permissive system. Anyone could use it, and if you had an idea that could be realised in software, then the net would do it for you, with no questions asked. Tim Berners-Lee had such an idea – the web – and the internet enabled it to happen. And Berners-Lee made the web open in the same spirit, so Mark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook on those open foundations.
However, people like Mark Zuckerberg do not have the intention to allow anyone to use Facebook as the foundation to build their own applications (which Facebook cannot control). In other words, through Facebook’s and Google’s smart market entry strategy more and more people will consider the internet and the web to be similar, and Facebook and Google to be THE internet. Questionable don’t you think?