How the Web Went Visual

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How the Web Went Visual

Visual Web Computer Vision

Twenty-five years ago, the infant World Wide Web was all about words, not pictures—and it remained text-centric for a lot longer than today’s users might realize. What turned the web into the visually-dense repository of cat gifs and Kardashian selfies that it is today? Travel back in time with us to see how the pieces of the puzzle slowly came together.

1989-1990: The overall concept of the World Wide Web was created by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and he wrote the code for the first web browser in 1990 at the CERN laboratory, a.k.a the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. But the early web was primarily a way for scientists to share text and data files, not images.

1990: The Dycam Model 1, a.k.a. the Logitech Fotoman, was the first digital camera marketed in the U.S.; it cost $600 and could take 376×240-pixel black and white photos. (The first digital camera was actually created back in 1975 by a 24-year-old Eastman Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson, but Kodak didn’t market a digital camera until 1990 for fear of cannibalizing its film-camera business.) Digital cameras would be essential to the development of the visual web because they eliminated the cumbersome analog-to-digital conversion process (via scanners) necessitated by film photography.

1991: Computer scientists at the University of Cambridge pointed a 128×28-pixel grayscale camera at a coffee pot in their laboratory known as the Trojan Room. They wrote custom software called XCoffee to serve the images to the computer lab users who were networked to it for an excellent and important reason: to check on the availability of coffee. “They would often turn up to get some coffee from the pot, only to find it had all been drunk,” lab staffer Dr. Stafford-Fraser later explained. The coffee cam saved them the trouble of a disappointing trip to the Trojan Room.

1992: A photo of a band called Les Horribles Cernettes was uploaded to the world’s first website, info.cern.ch, at CERN. “It was the size of a stamp and took about one minute to load on your screen,” CERN computer scientist Silvano de Gennaro later said. Though it’s been called the first image on the web, de Gennaro has published a “disclaimer” explaining that it was just the first photo of a band on the web and that “nobody knows which was the first photo on the web.” Still, he added that he regarded the band photo as “the portal that opened the web to music and arts, and to anything fun!”

Nov. 22, 1993: The camera pointed at the coffee pot at Cambridge was connected to the web, becoming the world’s first webcam—allowing nerds around the world to check on the lab’s coffee levels. The famous webcam remained online until Aug. 22, 2001.

Jan. 23, 1993: The Mosaic web browser was introduced by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was the first web browser to display images in-line—sprinkled in among the text, like in newspapers and magazines.

Dec. 15, 1994: Netscape, which was created by a number of Mosaic developers, introduced its 1.0 version, which became the first truly popular consumer web browser. A May 1995 MacWorld write-up about the browser read, “Netscape Communications wants you to forget all the highway metaphors you’ve ever heard about the Internet. Instead, think about an encyclopedia—one with unlimited graphically rich pages.”

Sept. 18, 1995: The 2.0 version of Netscape was launched, including animated GIF support. The animated GIFs of the early web were often garish affairs deployed in banner ads to make them distractingly unavoidable. For instance, those notorious “Punch the monkey!” ads that were designed to trick people into clicking.

Jan. 22, 1996: The New York Times launched nytimes.com, a big departure from their history in print. “The Web-based Times is the newest of dozens of papers available to a global audience on the Internet’s fastest-growing service, which lets computer users see electronic publications consisting of text, pictures, and, in some cases, video and sound,” the paper reported that day.

Nov. 1996: San Francisco software company Macromedia acquired a fellow startup that had created innovative web-based animation software and rebranded its product as Macromedia Flash (later, when Adobe acquired Macromedia, it became Adobe Flash). Flash helped usher in the multimedia visual web as we know it.

Unlike dial-up internet, a broadband connection allowed photos on web pages to load almost instantly.

1999: Japanese company Kyocera introduced the VP-210 VisualPhone, a mobile phone with a built-in camera. It had just enough storage space to hold 20 0.11-megapixel photos (an iPhone 7’s 12-megapixel camera has more than 100x the resolution).

2000: Broadband internet service began to be marketed as a replacement for pokey dial-up in homes and businesses. Though the first broadband customer in the U.S. is unknown, the first British customer was Mark Bush of Basildon, Essex, whose service was installed on March 31, 2000 by Telewest. Unlike dial-up internet, a broadband connection allowed photos on web pages to load almost instantly. By November 2000, the FCC counted 2.8 million high speed lines in the U.S. that provided at least 200 kbps for both uploads and downloads. In its 2016 year-end report on broadband internet, the FCC clocked an average speed of 31 Mbps—more than 150 times what was considered fast in 2000, and allowing for the widespread streaming of high-definition video into homes across the country.

Feb. 10, 2004: A photo hosting and sharing site called Flickr was launched by Ludicorp, and would be acquired by Yahoo a year later. Flickr was embraced by amateur and professional photographers as a home for their often massive photographic portfolios, thanks to generous and ever-increasing upload limits; in 2013, every user’s storage limit was increased from 300 MB to 1 TB.

Feb. 14, 2005: On Valentine’s Day, video-sharing site YouTube was launched. In December of that year, a Saturday Night Live Digital Short called “Lazy Sunday,” starring Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell, became one of the first massive viral hits. YouTube would eventually be acquired by Google for $1.5 billion in November 2006—a then-breathtaking price tag that some said the success of “Lazy Sunday” made possible.

June 29, 2007: Apple began selling the first iPhone, equipped with a 2-megapixel rear-facing camera—one-sixth the resolution of today’s iPhone, but still high enough to be competitive with many of the standalone digital cameras of the time. The iPhone helped usher in the era of constant visual documentation.

Feb. 19, 2007: Tumblr, an image-centric blogging platform, was launched, making it incredibly easy for anyone to set up their own Tumblr blog and share images in just a few clicks. It would be acquired by Yahoo in 2013.

Mar. 2010: Photo sharing site Pinterest launched; its operative metaphor: a series of interconnected bulletin boards on which users could “pin” collections of images. As Syracuse University Social Media Professor, Dr. Willima J. Ford, would later tell Fast Company, 1000-word posts were common in the early days of blogging, but now we have arrived at, “skipping words altogether and moving towards more visual communication with social-sharing sites like Pinterest.”

Sept. 10, 2013: The iPhone 4 was launched, becoming the first iPhone with a front-facing camera. Hello selfies!

Oct. 6, 2010: Free mobile app Instagram launches. With its square image format, it nostalgically references the old “instant photography” film technology created by Polaroid. By July 2011, 100 million photos had been uploaded to Instagram’s servers. The initially iOS-only app went wildly mainstream in April 2012 when an Android version was released and downloaded more than 1 million times in its first day of availability. Instagram would later be acquired by Facebook in September 2012.

Sept. 2011: Disappearing image-sharing app Snapchat launches; by November 2012, more than a billion photos had been shared through the app. The company recently went public in March 2017.

By Nov. 2012, more than a billion photos had been shared through the Snapchat app.

Feb. 19, 2014: Facebook acquires WhatsApp, a multimedia messaging service that initially debuted in January 2010, for $19.3 billion. By April 2014, WhatsApp users were sharing 700 million photos and 100 million videos every day.

2016: According to influential Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers analyst Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report, users now share more than 3 billion photos every day across Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp—a tally that’s doubled over a two-year period.