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Exploring the World Wide Web

SPINNING WEB

By Eugene Koh and Douglas M. Pravda

Recently, in an office building in California, a worker connected a camera to his computer and took pictures of the weather outside every 15 minutes. These images were then distributed over the World Wide Web.

Sitting at her computer in Leverett House, Jessica P. Hekman '95 enjoyed the cross-country view. "From Boston, I could see out this window in California," she says. "I have [Web] links to a lot of different places. I love to spend time exploring."

Hekman is one of the millions of computer users who have become part of the phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.

Originally developed in Geneva at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the Web was intended to be an information sharing project for high energy physics researchers around the world.

Its creators concede that "it has spread to other areas" and now call it "the most advanced information system deployed on the Internet."

The Web is so named because "no matter what server you are connecting to, that server can transparently connect you to someone else's server," says Jeff C. Tarr '96, co-president of Digitas, a student group dedicated to emerging technologies. "This process makes it a true web."

Over the past year, businesses across America and around the world have been scrambling to set up shop on the Web. Today, one can peruse on-line "home pages" for companies ranging from Condom Country to Pizza Hut (yes, they deliver).

Universities have caught on, too, as the Web provides unusual and varied academic resources for students.

"I believe that you will see new and interesting uses of the Web in course work," Assistant Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer '83 said in a recent on-line interview. "The ease of accessibility of information provided by the Web will be well-exploited for educational purposes."

Through her popular introductory class Computer Science 50, Seltzer was the first Harvard professor to incorporate Web-related issues into the curriculum.

Students on the Web

Although it's a relatively new technology, the Web is already being used by students for recreational and academic purposes.

Sarah T. Stewart '95 says she looks to the Web for "everything from thesis research to entertainment and games."

"It's really easy to waste a lot of time," she says, "which is called web surfing."

Web surfing can be the medium's primary appeal. There is a seemingly limitless amount of information to be explored.

"I'm sure that most people who use the Web a lot will tell you they surf the Web looking for things more than anything else." Tarr says.

Tarr says he uses the Web "for getting movie reviews, for doing electronic shopping, for reading about my favorite rock bands, for downloading new files for my computer, and mostly for just procrastinating when I'm not in the mood to do work."

James S. Gwertzman '95 says he is impressed by what he can access through the Web: "up-to-date Boston movie listings, ski conditions in the Northeast, and weather forecasts are just a few of the things that I use the Web for."

Ishir Bhan '96, co-president of Digitas, says he has even seen people use the Web to monitor the visual status of a coffee maker in England.

"One use I have seen allows you to get a picture of a coffee maker in a certain building," Bhan says. "If you were near that coffee maker, you would know how much coffee was left without having to leave your room."

But while most students say they primarily use the Web for fun, some do take advantage of the academic resources the medium offers.

Hekman says she uses the Web to find places that have on-line versions of books.

"Recently, for my thesis, I needed to find a book, The History of the Kings of Britain, in electronic form so I could scan for specific words, and I used the Web looking for that," she says.

Gwertzman, a computer science concentrator, also says the Web has made thesis research easier.

"I have not had to visit a library in over three months thanks to the number of Computer Science professors that have home pages on the World Wide Web," Gwertzman says.

Stewart, an astronomy concentrator, says she uses the Web to contact astronomy departments at other universities so she can "access information about what other researchers are doing in my field."

Crawling on The Web

While the Web has received a flurry of public notice through the mass media in recent months, most people are not aware of how to access it.

The major on-line services--Prodigy, America Online and Compuserve--have all promised support for the Web. Most recently, Prodigy announced that it will provide Web access within several weeks.

The Harvard High-Speed Data Network (HSDN), which is the University's connection to the global data communication network called the Internet, allows students to access the Web through in-room data jacks at extremely high speeds.

Getting connected to the Web requires an active HSDN data jack, a network-capable Macintosh or Microsoft Windows-compatible computer and "browser" software to navigate the Web's hypertext pages.

The most popular of the "browsers" is NCSA Mosaic, produced by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

For Macintosh users, Mosaic is included in the network software package which Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) provides to students who connect to the network from their rooms. Windows users must obtain the software themselves. The Windows version requires special network software not yet officially supported by HASCS, so students who want to use it should consult computer experts.

The Hewlett-Packard (HP) workstations and Macintosh computers in the Science Center basement offer public access to the Web. The versions on the HP machines can be accessed by typing "xmosaic" at the "scws%" prompt.

Mosaic is not the only Web browser, but it is one of the most popular.

"Mosaic has been termed the 'killer application' of the Internet for a number of reasons," says Eugene E. Kim '96, president of the Harvard Computer Society. "It is not only popular at Harvard; it is also popular on all the Internet. Usage doubles every month, or some other ridiculous number like that, so interest in it is really exponential."

"It is easy to use, it is easy to put together, it's a tree way to distribute information in an eye-pleasing fashion," Kim says. "It covers up the complexity of the Internet and allows people to view anything from formatted text to graphics to sound and even animation."

Marc Andreessen built the prototype that became Mosaic as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. He went on to found Mosaic Communications Corp. with several other Mosaic developers.

The company recently changed its name to Netscape Communications Corp., and its Web browser, Netscape, is considered by some to be superior to NCSA Mosaic. In particular, Netscape displays graphics as they are being downloaded, as opposed to Mosaic, which forces the user to wait until the download is complete.

Bhan recommends Netscape "as the best Web browser" for Mac, Windows, and UNIX users.

Netscape is available for both Macintosh and Windows by anonymous ftp at ftp.digital.com in the directory/pub/net/infosys/Netscape.

Using the Web

"The main advantages of the Web are that it is easy to use, and that it is easy to use," jokes Richard B. Osterberg '96.

Osterberg's comment is representative of the answers many Web users give when asked why they like it so much.

"I think the Web is so popular because it provides a simple way of presenting graphic text and making it interactive over the Internet," Bhan says. "It provides a user-friendly format for presenting info."

In a nutshell, the Web offers easy navigation of a very complex wealth of areas.

The Internet consists of thousands of local computer networks at businesses and educational institutions world-wide. Each local network includes resources for which access is restricted; for example, only Harvard students and faculty may log into "fas."

But many local networks do offer limited resources to users on the Internet at large. Harvard students can access host computers at Stanford and download programs from their public software libraries. Likewise, anyone on the Internet can use "gopher" to peruse Harvard's course catalogs.

For veterans of cyberspace who know how to access this information effectively, a wealth of knowledge is at their fingertips.

But most computer users find it difficult to navigate through the Internet using the traditional tools.

There are several reasons behind this difficulty.

First, the text-based nature of most Internet tools is a limiting factor. Often, a user needs to access visual or aural information, and this becomes tedious when the primary navigation tools offer no graphics, no sound, just text.

Second, few tools share a common interface, and nearly all tools use arcane commands and sport non-intuitive names like "archie" (named after the comic book character) and "gopher" (named for the mascot of the Minnesota school at which it was created).

Third, the sheer volume of publicly accessible information on the Internet makes it easy for users to suffer from "information overload." Never before has a medium existed with so much data, so immediately obtainable. Most means of accessing the Internet do not moderate the flow of information between computer and user.

The designers of the Web saw these problems as they began what has now been dubbed the "World Wide Web Initiative."

The World Wide Web is built around the concept that the Internet is essentially a "web" of information. As explained by its developers at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the Web "is the universe of network-accessible information, an embodiment of human knowledge...it has a body of software, and a set of protocols and conventions."

What this means is that the Web is simply the Internet with a standardized user interface; the new "protocols and conventions" are what distinguish the Web from all previous attempts at navigating the Internet.

The Web is an easy-to-use way of interacting with and navigating the Internet, and this is why it is so popular with students.

"I think that the Web is a lot more intuitive than most other Internet tools because of its rather simple interface--users can point and click," says Janet E. Rosenbaum '98.

"It's a lot easier for people who are unfamiliar with UNIX to use these tools," Rosenbaum says. "I think that the Web offers the largest such potential of any tool."

Gwertzman says the main advantage of the Web is its simple interface.

"It masks the complexities of the underlying protocols, removing the need for users to know the difference between ftp, HTTP, gopher, and WAIS, for example," he says. "All the user has to know how to do is click."

Hekman agrees. "There can be links in one place to a lot of different places so that you don't have to have a large site saving a whole lot of information," she says. "You can just have pointers--it's just a big index pulling things together."

This indexing of information is really the essence of the Web, students say.

"The reason it has become so popular is it is the first easy to use program for finding info on the Internet," Tarr says. "All the Web really is is a pretty-looking ftp front end program." The term "ftp," which stands for file transfer protocol, is a way to access and download information that is available on the Internet. The front end program provides the graphic interface of the Web.

"I think it attracts students because it combines graphics and sounds in addition to text," Tarr says.

How It Works

One of the foundations of the Web protocol is the notion of hypertext. Hypertext was originally popularized by Apple Computer in the mid-1980's through their HyperCard application for the Macintosh.

Hypertext, in its barest form, is text with certain key words highlighted. The user can access a "link" to get further information about any highlighted key word simply by clicking on it.

For example, in a hypertext discussion about chickwich consumption at Harvard, clicking on the word chickwich would bring up more information about chickwiches, perhaps a definition of the term.

The Web's implementation of hypertext brings into play two other fundamental aspects of the Web, namely, its "multimedia" and "resource location" conventions.

Information on the Web, often organized into hypertext "pages," ordinarily includes not just textual but also graphical and even aural data. That is, users of the Web expect to encounter graphics to punctuate the text at every turn. If the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true, then graphics are vital to reduce information overload on-line.

Sound is another important component. Often, a Web hypertext "page" will include links to sound data. For example, the White House Web site (http://www.whitehouse.gov) includes a now-famous link between a picture of Socks the cat and a sound of Socks meowing.

Similarly, if a user were to click on the hypertext word "chickwich," the computer might bring up a picture of a chickwich or perhaps the sound of a Harvard student saying "Mmm...good!"

URL

Kim says "one of the great things about the Web is that where the pages are located is essentially meaningless to the user."

This characteristic is made possible by a component of Web protocol known as the Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. This is a special address that identifies where objects on the Web are retrievable. Commonly, these addresses begin with "http," which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. This indicates that the object to be retrieved involves Web-standard hypertext.

The boon of URLs is that they are linked to Web hypertext. But graphics and sounds are not the only objects that have URLs. Entire Web sites can be located by using URLs. It is through such URLs that any one Web page can include links to any number of other Web pages, thus creating a "world-wide web."

The URL for a Web page is essentially its "cyberspace address." The URL for Pizza Hut is http://www.pizzahut.com, and the URL for Condom Country is http://www.ag.com/Condom/Country.

While students can use hypertext links to get to any location on the Web, the URL allows them to jump to specific locations quickly.

The Future

The possibilities of the Web are limitless, students say, particularly for academic and educational purposes.

"I imagine that as the Web itself gets more...developed, people will start using it for an intended academic purpose," says Phil Cartagena '96.

"I'm hoping that there will be, for example, more electronic books hooked to the Web so that people could use it instead of going to the library as a way of getting info right to their room," Hekman adds.

Some say Harvard departments and student groups will find their way onto the Web in the near future. The Harvard Computer Society is sponsoring a Get Harvard On line project which advises undergraduate organizations on Internet services they use.

"Ideally, many more organizations will be connected via the Web so nearly any into could be obtained using a simple program like Mosaic," says Daniel A. Lopez '97, the Web representative for the Get Harvard On line project.

"I would love to be able to search for events and activities going on at Harvard on any particular day," Lopez adds. "If enough organizations become involved, it may be easy to do this for activities ranging from a concert at Sanders Theater to a speaker at the Institute of Politics."

There is some skepticism about the policies. Harvard, several students note, has been slow to adapt to new technologies.

"The course catalog is already on the Web and there will be a lot more info on the Web in terms of official transaction and interaction, such as registering, over the Web," Kim says. "Harvard is generally very tentative about getting into such revolutionary fields, so I don't foresee something like that in the near future, but you never know."

Some students also predict the Web will tend to revolutionize the world of business

"More and more companies are getting on the Web every day and I think this is just the beginning of a fundamental shift in commerce," Tarr says. "I think this whole area of on-line business and advertising is really going to take off really soon."

Bhan agrees. But he cautions that the opportunities offered by the Web must grow if the medium is to remain one of the easiest ways to communicate on the Internet.

"I think we will see a lot more commercial use of the Web by businesses," Bhan says. "However, the Web as it stands now is some what limited and interfaces to it will have to be extended if it is to remain in use for a long time.

"I'm sure that most people who use the Web a lot will tell you they surf the Web looking for things more than anything else." Tarr says.

Tarr says he uses the Web "for getting movie reviews, for doing electronic shopping, for reading about my favorite rock bands, for downloading new files for my computer, and mostly for just procrastinating when I'm not in the mood to do work."

James S. Gwertzman '95 says he is impressed by what he can access through the Web: "up-to-date Boston movie listings, ski conditions in the Northeast, and weather forecasts are just a few of the things that I use the Web for."

Ishir Bhan '96, co-president of Digitas, says he has even seen people use the Web to monitor the visual status of a coffee maker in England.

"One use I have seen allows you to get a picture of a coffee maker in a certain building," Bhan says. "If you were near that coffee maker, you would know how much coffee was left without having to leave your room."

But while most students say they primarily use the Web for fun, some do take advantage of the academic resources the medium offers.

Hekman says she uses the Web to find places that have on-line versions of books.

"Recently, for my thesis, I needed to find a book, The History of the Kings of Britain, in electronic form so I could scan for specific words, and I used the Web looking for that," she says.

Gwertzman, a computer science concentrator, also says the Web has made thesis research easier.

"I have not had to visit a library in over three months thanks to the number of Computer Science professors that have home pages on the World Wide Web," Gwertzman says.

Stewart, an astronomy concentrator, says she uses the Web to contact astronomy departments at other universities so she can "access information about what other researchers are doing in my field."

Crawling on The Web

While the Web has received a flurry of public notice through the mass media in recent months, most people are not aware of how to access it.

The major on-line services--Prodigy, America Online and Compuserve--have all promised support for the Web. Most recently, Prodigy announced that it will provide Web access within several weeks.

The Harvard High-Speed Data Network (HSDN), which is the University's connection to the global data communication network called the Internet, allows students to access the Web through in-room data jacks at extremely high speeds.

Getting connected to the Web requires an active HSDN data jack, a network-capable Macintosh or Microsoft Windows-compatible computer and "browser" software to navigate the Web's hypertext pages.

The most popular of the "browsers" is NCSA Mosaic, produced by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

For Macintosh users, Mosaic is included in the network software package which Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) provides to students who connect to the network from their rooms. Windows users must obtain the software themselves. The Windows version requires special network software not yet officially supported by HASCS, so students who want to use it should consult computer experts.

The Hewlett-Packard (HP) workstations and Macintosh computers in the Science Center basement offer public access to the Web. The versions on the HP machines can be accessed by typing "xmosaic" at the "scws%" prompt.

Mosaic is not the only Web browser, but it is one of the most popular.

"Mosaic has been termed the 'killer application' of the Internet for a number of reasons," says Eugene E. Kim '96, president of the Harvard Computer Society. "It is not only popular at Harvard; it is also popular on all the Internet. Usage doubles every month, or some other ridiculous number like that, so interest in it is really exponential."

"It is easy to use, it is easy to put together, it's a tree way to distribute information in an eye-pleasing fashion," Kim says. "It covers up the complexity of the Internet and allows people to view anything from formatted text to graphics to sound and even animation."

Marc Andreessen built the prototype that became Mosaic as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. He went on to found Mosaic Communications Corp. with several other Mosaic developers.

The company recently changed its name to Netscape Communications Corp., and its Web browser, Netscape, is considered by some to be superior to NCSA Mosaic. In particular, Netscape displays graphics as they are being downloaded, as opposed to Mosaic, which forces the user to wait until the download is complete.

Bhan recommends Netscape "as the best Web browser" for Mac, Windows, and UNIX users.

Netscape is available for both Macintosh and Windows by anonymous ftp at ftp.digital.com in the directory/pub/net/infosys/Netscape.

Using the Web

"The main advantages of the Web are that it is easy to use, and that it is easy to use," jokes Richard B. Osterberg '96.

Osterberg's comment is representative of the answers many Web users give when asked why they like it so much.

"I think the Web is so popular because it provides a simple way of presenting graphic text and making it interactive over the Internet," Bhan says. "It provides a user-friendly format for presenting info."

In a nutshell, the Web offers easy navigation of a very complex wealth of areas.

The Internet consists of thousands of local computer networks at businesses and educational institutions world-wide. Each local network includes resources for which access is restricted; for example, only Harvard students and faculty may log into "fas."

But many local networks do offer limited resources to users on the Internet at large. Harvard students can access host computers at Stanford and download programs from their public software libraries. Likewise, anyone on the Internet can use "gopher" to peruse Harvard's course catalogs.

For veterans of cyberspace who know how to access this information effectively, a wealth of knowledge is at their fingertips.

But most computer users find it difficult to navigate through the Internet using the traditional tools.

There are several reasons behind this difficulty.

First, the text-based nature of most Internet tools is a limiting factor. Often, a user needs to access visual or aural information, and this becomes tedious when the primary navigation tools offer no graphics, no sound, just text.

Second, few tools share a common interface, and nearly all tools use arcane commands and sport non-intuitive names like "archie" (named after the comic book character) and "gopher" (named for the mascot of the Minnesota school at which it was created).

Third, the sheer volume of publicly accessible information on the Internet makes it easy for users to suffer from "information overload." Never before has a medium existed with so much data, so immediately obtainable. Most means of accessing the Internet do not moderate the flow of information between computer and user.

The designers of the Web saw these problems as they began what has now been dubbed the "World Wide Web Initiative."

The World Wide Web is built around the concept that the Internet is essentially a "web" of information. As explained by its developers at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the Web "is the universe of network-accessible information, an embodiment of human knowledge...it has a body of software, and a set of protocols and conventions."

What this means is that the Web is simply the Internet with a standardized user interface; the new "protocols and conventions" are what distinguish the Web from all previous attempts at navigating the Internet.

The Web is an easy-to-use way of interacting with and navigating the Internet, and this is why it is so popular with students.

"I think that the Web is a lot more intuitive than most other Internet tools because of its rather simple interface--users can point and click," says Janet E. Rosenbaum '98.

"It's a lot easier for people who are unfamiliar with UNIX to use these tools," Rosenbaum says. "I think that the Web offers the largest such potential of any tool."

Gwertzman says the main advantage of the Web is its simple interface.

"It masks the complexities of the underlying protocols, removing the need for users to know the difference between ftp, HTTP, gopher, and WAIS, for example," he says. "All the user has to know how to do is click."

Hekman agrees. "There can be links in one place to a lot of different places so that you don't have to have a large site saving a whole lot of information," she says. "You can just have pointers--it's just a big index pulling things together."

This indexing of information is really the essence of the Web, students say.

"The reason it has become so popular is it is the first easy to use program for finding info on the Internet," Tarr says. "All the Web really is is a pretty-looking ftp front end program." The term "ftp," which stands for file transfer protocol, is a way to access and download information that is available on the Internet. The front end program provides the graphic interface of the Web.

"I think it attracts students because it combines graphics and sounds in addition to text," Tarr says.

How It Works

One of the foundations of the Web protocol is the notion of hypertext. Hypertext was originally popularized by Apple Computer in the mid-1980's through their HyperCard application for the Macintosh.

Hypertext, in its barest form, is text with certain key words highlighted. The user can access a "link" to get further information about any highlighted key word simply by clicking on it.

For example, in a hypertext discussion about chickwich consumption at Harvard, clicking on the word chickwich would bring up more information about chickwiches, perhaps a definition of the term.

The Web's implementation of hypertext brings into play two other fundamental aspects of the Web, namely, its "multimedia" and "resource location" conventions.

Information on the Web, often organized into hypertext "pages," ordinarily includes not just textual but also graphical and even aural data. That is, users of the Web expect to encounter graphics to punctuate the text at every turn. If the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true, then graphics are vital to reduce information overload on-line.

Sound is another important component. Often, a Web hypertext "page" will include links to sound data. For example, the White House Web site (http://www.whitehouse.gov) includes a now-famous link between a picture of Socks the cat and a sound of Socks meowing.

Similarly, if a user were to click on the hypertext word "chickwich," the computer might bring up a picture of a chickwich or perhaps the sound of a Harvard student saying "Mmm...good!"

URL

Kim says "one of the great things about the Web is that where the pages are located is essentially meaningless to the user."

This characteristic is made possible by a component of Web protocol known as the Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. This is a special address that identifies where objects on the Web are retrievable. Commonly, these addresses begin with "http," which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. This indicates that the object to be retrieved involves Web-standard hypertext.

The boon of URLs is that they are linked to Web hypertext. But graphics and sounds are not the only objects that have URLs. Entire Web sites can be located by using URLs. It is through such URLs that any one Web page can include links to any number of other Web pages, thus creating a "world-wide web."

The URL for a Web page is essentially its "cyberspace address." The URL for Pizza Hut is http://www.pizzahut.com, and the URL for Condom Country is http://www.ag.com/Condom/Country.

While students can use hypertext links to get to any location on the Web, the URL allows them to jump to specific locations quickly.

The Future

The possibilities of the Web are limitless, students say, particularly for academic and educational purposes.

"I imagine that as the Web itself gets more...developed, people will start using it for an intended academic purpose," says Phil Cartagena '96.

"I'm hoping that there will be, for example, more electronic books hooked to the Web so that people could use it instead of going to the library as a way of getting info right to their room," Hekman adds.

Some say Harvard departments and student groups will find their way onto the Web in the near future. The Harvard Computer Society is sponsoring a Get Harvard On line project which advises undergraduate organizations on Internet services they use.

"Ideally, many more organizations will be connected via the Web so nearly any into could be obtained using a simple program like Mosaic," says Daniel A. Lopez '97, the Web representative for the Get Harvard On line project.

"I would love to be able to search for events and activities going on at Harvard on any particular day," Lopez adds. "If enough organizations become involved, it may be easy to do this for activities ranging from a concert at Sanders Theater to a speaker at the Institute of Politics."

There is some skepticism about the policies. Harvard, several students note, has been slow to adapt to new technologies.

"The course catalog is already on the Web and there will be a lot more info on the Web in terms of official transaction and interaction, such as registering, over the Web," Kim says. "Harvard is generally very tentative about getting into such revolutionary fields, so I don't foresee something like that in the near future, but you never know."

Some students also predict the Web will tend to revolutionize the world of business

"More and more companies are getting on the Web every day and I think this is just the beginning of a fundamental shift in commerce," Tarr says. "I think this whole area of on-line business and advertising is really going to take off really soon."

Bhan agrees. But he cautions that the opportunities offered by the Web must grow if the medium is to remain one of the easiest ways to communicate on the Internet.

"I think we will see a lot more commercial use of the Web by businesses," Bhan says. "However, the Web as it stands now is some what limited and interfaces to it will have to be extended if it is to remain in use for a long time.

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