We Are the World Wide Web! Happy 25th Birthday, Dot-Com

Years ago, I asked Marc Andreessen, creator of the first web browser, what surprised him most about the dot-com forces he helped unleash. "eBay," he said without hesitation. "Who knew there was that much crap in people's garages to sell?"

Personally, I'm a little more amazed at a site like Belch.com, "the largest collection of digitally recorded belches on the Net." But maybe that's just me.

It's pretty mind-blowing that the dot-com domain is 25 years old. On March 15, 1985, a Cambridge, Mass., computer maker called Symbolics registered symbolics.com: the very first dot-com site. (That company, in its original form, died in the mid-1990s, and symbolics.com is now an odd blog about web sites.) To give you an idea of how slow things were around the dot-com registration office in those days, the second site was registered in mid-April of that year (bbn.com), the third in mid-May (think.com), and the fourth in July (mcc.com). By the end of 1985, the world had a total of six dot-com sites.

How things have changed. A hundred thousand dot-com sites are registered every day, according to the WhoIs database. Nearly 86 million sites are active, and another 311 million dot-com sites over the past 25 years were born and then deleted. In the meantime, we had a sizzling dot-com boom, which turned into history's greatest transfer of wealth to people who spent their teen years playing Dungeons and Dragons -- followed by the inevitable dot-com bust, when many of those geeks were forced to sell one of their two Porsches.

And now here we are in 2010, when dot-coms have become part of the fabric of everyday life, as ubiquitous and essential as traffic lights or toothpaste. It's hard to imagine that there was a time, back before the Soviet Union collapsed, before Steve Jobs got punted from his first reign at Apple (AAPL), before the original "We Are the World" (pictured), that dot-com sites didn't exist.

For most of dot-com's first decade, hardly anyone knew what a dot-com was. The relative few of us who had computers were still using dial-up modems to get on Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online: enclosed communities that didn't let us out to the wild and woolly Internet.

The Information Superhighway

I saved an issue of Time magazine -- April 12, 1993 -- featuring a cover story about the coming "information superhighway," as we called the Internet back then. It gets a lot about the future right: Lotus Development founder Mitch Kapor said he envisioned "a nation of leisure-time video broadcasters, each posting his creations on a huge nationwide video billboard." (Hey, that's YouTube! And if Kapor thought of it, why didn't he build it?) And yet nowhere in the long article can you find a single dot-com address.

Andreessen changed that. He built the first browser with classmates at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign and, in 1993, co-founded Netscape Communications, with Jim Clark, to release Mosaic, the first commercial browser. Mosaic let users find their way around the Net, providing them with graphics and allowing them to click through links into the space that Tim Berners-Lee had created only a few years earlier: the World Wide Web.

Almost instantly, Internet users around the world began downloading copies of Netscape's browser. Andreessen started doing a "what's new" page about these new dot-com sites. There wasn't much to say. "If an Indian restaurant posted its menu," Andreessen recalls, "that was a big deal."

At about that time, I started writing about emerging dot-com sites. Someone told me about Yahoo, and I went to visit the company when it had six people in a beaten-down office park next to some railroad tracks in Silicon Valley. Buckets dotted the floor to catch water leaking from the ceiling. Employees manually scoured the Net for new sites, then listed them under one of the categories on Yahoo's front page. Within a year, that task became too overwhelming to do by hand.

'What About eBay?'

The dot-com bubble years were something to behold -- often in the manner of, say, Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. We had the bombastic disasters like Webvan, and silly toy sites like HotOrNot.com, where strangers rated each other's looks. (As if that happens in real life. Yeah, right.) Belch.com got its start in 1997. And there were the parties, like the one at investor Heidi Roizen's house, where Bill Gates hit golf balls off the roof.

Yet a lot of amazing stuff got started from 1995 to 2000, too. I got to see most of it. I talked with Jeff Bezos when Amazon.com (AMZN) was just a bookstore. I had lunch with investors in Hotmail as they were basically inventing viral marketing.

Google (GOOG) came toward the end of that period. I remember heading to a cocktail hour at the swanky PC Forum conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., around 1998. In line at one of the bars, someone introduced me to a painfully geeky guy named Larry Page, who was peddling his new Google search engine. I remember thinking two things: (1) We've got Alta Vista and Lycos, so nobody needs another search engine, and (2) this guy is between me and a merlot. Not one of my more prescient moments.

As for eBay (EBAY), the legend was that Pierre Omidyar in 1995 wrote software for a Web site that would help his girlfriend trade with other Pez collectors. Omidyar later told me: "It's a very good story that at its core was true." In fact, as he explains, he got to thinking that auctions were a good mechanism for reaching the right value of an item. He wrote some software and put up a Web page he called AuctionWeb. It was only a section of a larger site he had built for consulting work he did under the name Echo Bay Technology Group. When he went to register the site name, echobay.com was taken.

"There I was at the counter, filling out the paperwork," he says. "This was back in days when you had to fill out paper to get a domain name. So I said, 'Hey, I'll just abbreviate it. What about eBay?' Turned out to be a lucky choice."

After the Bust, Sustainability

In March 2000, to much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the bubble collapsed. But really, maybe it was a good thing. The irrational exuberance got washed away -- it was, after all, irrational. The Nasdaq and venture-capital funding of tech companies had spiked crazily from 1998 to 2000. Since 2003, it's settled into a respectable, more sustainable level.

And the dot-com crash certainly didn't kill entrepreneurship or innovation. Post-bubble dot-com start-ups include Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Huffington Post, Zillow, Digg, Yelp, Mint, and that latest bastion of Web weirdness, Chatroulette.

The whole dot-com thing remains vibrant after 25 years. It may feel less exciting than it used to, simply because it's become ubiquitous. Pew Research Center statistics show that 55% of the U.S. population used the Internet daily in 2009, as opposed to 30% in 2005. Among those 18 to 29, a whopping 93% use the Net. And, of course, using the Net means using dot-com sites.

The Runway Ahead

I'm looking forward to what might come next. Toward the end of 2009, venture-capital investment in Internet start-ups climbed 40% from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, says research firm ChubbyBrain.

So far this year, money has flowed to dot-coms of all sorts. Recently funded Busuu.com is an online community offering free language courses. Then there's SecondMarket, billing itself as "The marketplace for illiquid assets" (which seems odd, because if those assets now have a marketplace, they're no longer illiquid, right?). Vook offers electronic books that combine text and video.

There seems to be a lot of runway left in the dot-com universe. Chances are that in the next decade, something will come along that amazes Marc Andreessen even more than eBay.

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