On this day in 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web went live for the general public.
In his 1990 proposal document, Berners-Lee (pictured) described his World Wide Web as a way "to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will", using "a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help)."
The first-ever image was uploaded to the World Wide Web in 1992, with Berners-Lee opting for a picture of a female French rock group called Les Horribles Cernettes (pictured right).
And just two years after it was publicly launched, the first browsers began to emerge - the most successful being Mosaic in 1993 and then Netscape Navigator, which reportedly had an 80 per cent market share by 1996.
Internet Explorer 3.0 was provided free of charge with Windows 95 in 1996. The domain name Google.com was registered in 1997, marking the birth of a digital services and advertising colossus that would thrive off of Berners Lee's invention, along with Amazon, Facebook and Apple, to become the most highly valued companies on the face of the planet.
When the internet exploded onto the scene during the 1990s and early 2000s, it was crucial for the channel to embrace the new medium.
Doing it alone
"It was a totally new sales channel for us," said Martin Meyer, senior digital transformation manager at German VAR Bechtle AG.
"Around that time, Bechtle was very small. We had a systems house in Heilbronn, and a small sales team of four people taking care of a paper-based catalogue where we sold cables and floppy disks etc."
Bechtle began working on building a web-based sales channel in 1994 using Microsoft's technology. But Meyer said Bechtle didn't even think about designing a corporate website or being visible on the web during that time.
"We just started to think about how we could, in addition to our paper-based catalogue, make business work on the web," he said.
"As we started in 1994, we did not have a totally ready-to-use shop; it was more of a prototype. Until the point where the customer wanted to buy something, then they had to pick up the phone or send a fax."
Bechtle's web-based shop developed further in 1996 and the beginning of 1997 to provide a "total user experience," claims Meyer, enabling the customer to making an online order which was transferred through Bechtle's back-end system.
But building a web page from scratch at a time when no-one else was proved extremely difficult (the first version of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web is pictured above, and the first version of Tim Berners-Lee's proposal, in 1989, is below).
"No one was there to help us. So we had to do it right from scratch, by hand," he said.
"It's much easier when you are the first mover but it's also hard. Because when there is no-one there who you can ask to help you or to advise you, you make all the mistakes by yourself."
But having a ready-made system in place meant Bechtle was able to scale out its web-based sales channel quickly into other European countries.
No one was there to help us. So we had to do it right from scratch, by hand, Martin Meyers, Bechtle.
"In 1996, we started into Switzerland. We had to experience more than one language in one country and different currencies, so we gained this experience very, very early. Later on, as we started in Italy and the UK and in the other countries, it was much easier for us to start the business there because we had the core system," said Meyer.
A time to be brave
But the arrival of the internet and web-based selling spelled the demise of many B2B and B2C IT companies, claims Dino Cooper, CEO of infrastructure provider Viadex.
Cooper worked for a computer mail order company in the 1990s and the early 2000s called Techdirect. The business went into administration soon after. Cooper estimated that around half of the top 10 players in the B2C IT space went out of business during the early 2000s.
"We failed to convert our model from telesales to web-based sales. Also, a lot of the mail order companies were being paid by the vendors, in marketing development funds (MDF), which effectively subsidised our business model," he said.
Cooper said these marketing funds began to dry up as vendors started to move MDF to web-based providers instead of mail order catalogues.
He also said new VC-backed competitors entered the market during the internet boom, which could afford to sell product under profit in an effort to grab market share.
They literally shut down their inbound phone numbers and forced people onto the web, Dino Cooper, Viadex
"From where I was sitting at the time in the B2C space, [I could see that] the channel was going to change, and it did change quite dramatically - to the point that we actually didn't invest and spot it fast enough. We were victims and we failed," he said.
The Viadex CEO said the mail order companies that survived the internet revolution were the ones that took the risk in cannibalising their existing revenues and effectively shut down their telesales business.
"I guess that's the reason why companies like dabs.com [which was bought by BT in 2006] made it and Techdirect didn't. They literally shut down their inbound phone numbers and forced people onto the web," he said.
"You can operate at far lower margins and deal with a far higher volume of clients, because you're not restricted by the number of people who can answer the telephone and deal with a query. There was no manual for any of this; you needed to be very, very brave to cannibalise your existing business. You had to take that leap of faith into the future and believe in the future."
The 1990s and early 2000s was a time when the channel was just getting to grips with the internet and how it works. Tech Data's David Ellis, who heads up the distributor's security and mobility business in Europe, recalls the first time his company had a modem installed in the office to receive emails.
"I was working at Midwich at the time and I think we only got emails twice a day. Before then, everything was sent by post or on floppy disk. Every time we got an email, we always thought it was fantastic," he said.
"This thing used to sit behind me, this modem, and it used to make this loud screeching noise - you could hear it from wherever you were in the office."
From a security perspective, Ellis said the internet was a safer place when it was first launched. But an explosion in demand for mobile devices and IoT means the platform is less secure than ever before.
"The attack surface has increased exponentially and that creates risk and threats," he said. When it was first launched, it was a much simpler world. You had a very clearly defined network and data was stored in a small number of places which was protected by perimeter firewalls. Now, of course, you have data everywhere."
A force for good?
In several media interviews last year, Berners-Lee publicly expressed his disappointment at how his invention has turned out.
"We have demonstrated that the web has failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places," he told Vanity Fair.
The inventor referenced a chronic abuse of personal data by governments and large corporations and the use of social media to spread hate. So, in the 28 years the internet has been freely available to the public, has it done more harm than good?
"I think with such a huge construct like the World Wide Web, there's always a dark side behind it. And I think you can't avoid such a system having a 'dark side'," said Meyer.
"My point of view is there's a kind of natural regulation of such ecosystems, and my hope is that people are strong enough and smart enough to take the good things out of such a construct and use it in that way - like Tim Berners-Lee imagined when he founded it."
"I think the internet has been one of the most liberating inventions that has changed the world significantly, there's absolutely no question," agreed Cooper.
"We need to accept that there is going to be a certain amount of bad in the same way that there is a certain amount of good; humans need to make up their own minds.
"If you edited the internet and stopped people being able to upload their own content, and their own ideas, it wouldn't be what it was - it would end up being a propaganda tool for governments and big businesses."
What the industry seems to agree on is that, although the World Wide Web is nearly 30 years old, it's only just beginning to realise its full potential.
"We're still at the end of the beginning of the change in the B2B and B2C world," said Cooper.
"The Internet of Things is still very much nascent in terms of where it's at and I don't think people quite yet realise how rapid the change over the next five or 10 years is going to be."
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