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How the web has powered work for 20 years

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Instant Messengers2011 has been a year of milestone birthdays in tech. September saw Google (s GOOG) become a teenager, email hit the big 40 in June, and even Twitter turned five back in March. Perhaps the most significant tech birthday this year, though, was the World Wide Web itself turning 20.

In 1991 British scientist Tim Berners-Lee posted a brief summary of the World Wide Web (or W3) project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, writing:

“The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the Web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome.

It’s safe to say that Berners-Lee’s invitation to potential collaborators went fairly well. That initial web page has expanded to more than 19 billion pages (at the last count) and there are millions and millions of workers across the globe who rely on the World Wide Web to go about their daily lives. In those 20 years, the changes to the workplace that have taken place thanks to the Internet are nothing short of remarkable. Email is as good a place as any to start.

You’ve got mail

Try to explain the workplace B.E. (before email) to someone under 30, and you could be describing life in the 19th century for all the relevance it has to their working day. Back then, we lived in a world in which quaint technologies such as the fax machine prevailed. With the fax machine, it was not unusual to wait days for a reply.

Later, when Web-based email began to grow in popularity, it transformed communication in the workplace. You could now receive a response to a question within minutes, especially once broadband connections became more commonplace. You could send information and documents to colleagues around the world at the click of a button.

Email overload

But technology was now developing at a pace that seemed astonishing even to those who worked in the industry, and email, after a honeymoon period, hit problems. “Too intrusive,” said some. “Too much of it,” said others. “Not quick enough,” moaned the rest.

When consumer-based instant-messaging technologies infiltrated the workplace – AIM (s AOL) launched in 1997 and Yahoo! (s YHOO) Messenger (then Pager) in 1998 – users were suddenly able to communicate with co-workers in real-time. Years later, these tools would often be integrated into a platform that also included voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), shared whiteboards, video conferencing and file transfer features.

It was around this time that social networks also began to establish a presence. Some of these are undoubtedly more consumer-focused, but there can also be no denying that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have had a massive impact on working life, too. The ability to communicate and share content with your extended network (and beyond) has transformed many of our traditional working practices. As well as enabling businesses to engage in two-way conversations with their customers, these social networks are now a central part of the recruitment process. Last year, I wrote a piece on how Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can enable you to find a team of peers without breaking the bank of recruitment agencies. You can tap into your workforce’s network and find like-minded, talented people to become part of your company.

Getting ready to collaborate

The net result of all the technological developments outlined above has been to change the very fabric of how we work. We now live in a collaboration economy. To share and communicate information, ideas and innovation has never been easier, or come more naturally to the workforce. The emergence of the Web has given rise to a global working village, with location and time zone utterly irrelevant. You can work as closely with someone in another country as you would with someone sitting opposite; work from home or on the move, and even send files from your mobile handset to someone on the other side of the world.

This has all been made possible by the World Wide Web. From Skype to smartphones and social networking to SaaS, it’s all underpinned by the internet and the changes to the workplace of 20 years ago are just extraordinary. With a global mobile worker population set to hit 1.19 billion by 2013, one can only wonder what the Internet will bring us next. Bring on the next 20 years!

Andy McLoughlin, Co-founder and EVP Strategy at Huddle, can be reached on Twitter@Bandrew.

Image courtesy of Flickr user thinknew.

4 Responses to “How the web has powered work for 20 years”

  1. The power of the Web is truly amazing, I’d say, and just look at where we are right now. When everything’s digital these days, one can only wonder if we can survive a day – unplugged? The Web has surely helped my business grow, especially when I run a totally virtual environment where my team players live across the globe. Like you, I’m asking what it will be like in the next 20 years. Thanks for sharing this post!