Happy Web day - 25 websites for 25 years

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The Web's 25th anniversary: 25 websites from the past 25 years

It started as nothing more than a documentation management solution for academics. Twenty-five years later, the World Wide Web has evolved explosively, becoming a pillar of publishing, commerce, networking, communication -- you name it.

Here's a look at the state of 25 websites from the earliest days of the Web, many of which are still around today -- though you'd be hard-pressed to match most of them to what they have become. Sure, the early World Wide Web was designed for minimal bandwidth and basic browser functionality, but it's hard not to sense the excitement of invention that imbued the sites on display here.

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The first Web page, hosted at CERN

On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee published a document with the sober title of "Information Management: A Proposal." He outlined "the management of general information about accelerators and experiments at CERN" and soon set up the first Web server on a NeXT workstation. Great things have small beginnings, and it's humbling to look at this page and realize that literally every single other Web page has descended from it in some form.

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Symbolics.com (1995)

The very first .com domain name on the Internet was registered in 1985 to Symbolics, the creators of the groundbreaking, Lisp-powered operating system Genera and the specialized workstations that ran it. Unfortunately, by the time the World Wide Web had become broke out (1995 or so), Symbolics itself was a husk of its former self, and its website had become little more than a contacts page for those needing support for existing hardware. The current version of the Symbolics website has since rented itself out to advertisers as part of an "Own a true piece of Internet history!" campaign

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Whitehouse.gov (1995)

The early versions of the White House's website were little more than repositories for press releases, briefings, photos, presidential radio addresses, and copies of famous documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It's a far cry from today's Drupal-powered information hub, but the archive of daily press releases is the closest thing one might consider to being a blog for that era.

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AOL.com (1996)

Some people would say October 1996 -- a few months before before the date shown in this screenshot -- was the day the Internet stopped becoming the domain of an elite few and instead was overrun by the great unwashed masses. That was when AOL (America Online), one of the first Internet service providers, changed its dial-up plans from an hourly charge to a flat $19.95 per month. Soon, AOL's infrastructure was overloaded by the sheer number of people trying to get on. Because most AOL subscribers used AOL's infamous portal application and not the Web itself, AOL's own website was at the time little more than a description of the company and its services.

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Apple.com (1997)

The contrast between the Apple of yore (shown here in its 1997 vintage) and the polished-glass and brushed-chrome Apple of today could scarcely be greater. At the time of the Web's rise, Apple was well into its most difficult decade as a company and was still attempting to wring profit from long-troubled products like the too-far-ahead-of-its-time Newton. But the Web also allowed Apple to create a new online store, built using the WebObjects technology acquired from NeXT.

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Powells.com (1998)

Quick -- what was the first bookstore on the Web? Nope, not the one named after a river. It was Powell's Books, the independent chain centered in Portland, Ore. Powell's made its first appearance on the Web in 1994. In fact, it had been on the Internet a good year prior, via email and FTP.

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Amazon.com (1995)

As for Amazon.com itself, the site that started off as the Web's bookstore and has since become one of its biggest players, period, launched as a humble affair. It had a logo unrecognizable to today's users and a plaintext site that wouldn't even begin to clear Customs. According to Amazon "employee No. 1," Shel Kaphan, the original Amazon Web server was hand-coded in C -- unthinkable today, but probably unavoidable then.

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HotWired.com (1997)

Originally spun off from Wired magazine and launched on the Web in October 1994, HotWired was ostensibly the first commercial publication created exclusively for the Web. Shown here is the 1997 rendition of the site. The version that appeared on launch in 1994 (as described by its then-designer, Jeffrey Veen) was little more than a row of icons and a graphical logo. Many major contributors and techno-luminaries were lined up for the publication, from Dave Winer to Brock Meeks, but a key innovation of the publication was gauging the effectiveness of banner ads -- a novelty then -- on user behavior.

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Yahoo.com (1996)

What started as "Dave and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" -- and wasn't even hosted on its own top-level domain -- slowly evolved into the Yahoo now so familiar to the first generation of Web users. With its clean, easy-to-read, and hierarchically organized site, Yahoo.com served as the de facto Yellow Pages to the Web, granting a sense of organization and clarity to a medium whose very randomness was nominally one of its charms.

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Google.com (1998)

What is now today's top search engine was originally known as "Google!," with the all-important exclamation point that Yahoo.com still uses. But some things never change: Google's home page has always been a model of simplicity, cleanliness, and ease of use -- even when it was still a research project run by two Stanford University students. The "beta" designation also showed up with great regularity in those days, too.

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Lycos.com (1996)

Before there was Google, there was Lycos, a Carnegie Mellon University research project booted up in 1994. It turned into one of the Web's most notable pre-dot-com-bubble success stories. A mere four years after its inception, it was turning enough of a profit to shell out some $58 million for the Web page service Tripod. But after Google ascended to the search engine throne, Lycos became an irrelevance despite its aggressive investment in various Internet brands like WhoWhere and Angelfire. The early iterations of the Lycos site, shown here, kept the front page to an easily loaded minimum of components, and it eventually added topical guides à la Yahoo.

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Dell.com (1996)

Dell's 1996 site had the same boxy but colorful design as its print ads from the era. But what's most surprising is how remarkably little has changed from that period: The names of the various lines of systems, the separate section for government and health care customers, and the DellWare site for third-party products (now more or less subsumed into Dell's main catalog).

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IBM.com (1996)

The early incarnations of IBM's website are so modest and unassuming that you'd scarcely believe today that a world-spanning, multi-billion-dollar corporation would ever produce anything this low-key. Like most sites in the Web's infancy, the original page for IBM was available in multiple incarnations. Browser auto-detection was out of the question at the time; thus the Default, HTML 2.0, and HTML 3.0 links at the bottom of this plaintext version of IBM's 1996 site. The article behind the link labeled "'Tis the season ... to do your holiday shopping on the Web" extolled the virtues of sending electronic greeting cards to family and friends, and cautioned users against buying from disreputable online merchants. Some things never change

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HP.com (1996)

HP.com was one of the first 10 .com domain names ever registered. Hewlett-Packard's website from the mid-1990s is a reflection of how different a company it was then, with the scientific equipment and printing/imaging aspects of the company still a major concern. By 1999, HP had spun off all its non-IT and non-imaging assets into Agilent, with CEO Carly Fiorina just then taking the helm and presiding over one of HP's most troubled periods. (The EBusiness Magazine mentioned in the screenshot is long defunct, although some articles, courtesy of Pat & Mike, the creators of Tuneup.com, have been archived.)

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Linux.org (1996)

The less, the better. That seems to have been the guiding philosophy behind the early incarnations of the Linux.org Web page. The image here is from 1997, when a simple banner image and plaintext links were all you needed to make up a functional Web page. An earlier 1996 news page featured such links as "Is Linux Trademarked?" and "SCO OpenServer -- Free Software from Microsoft?" -- as well as links to NetDay96, a "grass-roots volunteer effort to wire schools so they can network their computers and connect them to the Internet" (another thing that hasn't changed)

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Intel.com (1996)

Here's one of the surest signs you're browsing a site from the infancy of the Web: It was hard-coded for displays of minimal width. In this case, Intel's site (circa 1996) was crafted to fit in a space no more than 500 pixels wide -- which, given that most display at the time didn't go much above 1,024 by 768 pixels (and often not that big), made sense. Another bit of nostalgia, in a more ironic vein, is the plug for then-darling CEO Andy Grove's book. Today, Intel has gone from thriving to struggling in the face of change.

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NYTimes.com (1996)

The earliest iterations of the New York Times website (shown here from 1996) are yet another example of how early websites that tried ambitious designs were at the mercy of the Web's technological limits. Note the line that reads "Please open your window to the width of this line of text" at the bottom! The Times site didn't lack for ambition: It featured a mini-reproduction of the front page for that day in the form of a clickable image, with each section and article leading to an online copy. It was minimal, but functional, and not only could you send letters to the editor but you could download and play the Times's famous crossword puzzles -- as you can still do today.

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Slashdot.org (1998)

Another site hard-coded for minimal screen widths, at least in its early incarnation, was Slashdot.org. Its basic layout has changed remarkably little for most of its lifetime, and its mix of concerns -- open source, Linux, security, technology, and nerdery -- have also changed very little. It's impossible, though, to not shake one's head at lines like "Can companies like Red Hat continue to make money on free software?" (yes) and feel wistful at the mention of the Linux kernel's 2.1.79 revision just having been released.

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Oracle.com (1996)

The 1996 version of Oracle's site is so unlike its current site in both design and tone that it's hard to believe they're from the same company. But this variety of design -- the narrow width of the page, the multicolumn layout reminiscent of a newspaper -- was widely used in the infancy of the Web. The link to "Bring Oracle and and Java to your enterprise" leads to a page crowing about how Java, despite being barely a year old (!), "has captured more attention and resources within the development community in a shorter period of time than any other programming language." Little did anyone know just how much attention it would go on to capture, let alone that Oracle would eventually become its owner.

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Wikipedia.com (2001)

Wikipedia went online in 2001, around the time the first dot-com bubble had popped, and the Web and the Internet were fast becoming fixtures of everyday life. Even then, Wikipedia's first incarnations were as basic, straightforward, and devoid of pretense as the original Yahoo, Google, and CERN pages. That was probably for the best: if you wanted to create an encyclopedia anyone could edit and was meant for everyone to read, it made sense to create a site that could work with even the most rudimentary browsers.

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Sun.com (1996)

It's hard to appreciate the dramatic shift in fortunes of Sun Microsystems, the company that gave Java to the world. What was once a creator of Unix workstations became a dot-com superstar -- and then a casualty. But as of 1996, it was ramping up both its Java and hardware divisions to feed demand for the rising e-commerce market, and the future looked nothing but, well, sunny.

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Netscape.com (1996)

Originally Mosaic Communications, Netscape was the company that would create the first Web browser to enjoy mainstream usage. But it became hobbled both by tough competition from Microsoft and its own intractability. Still, for a time Netscape was the only browser in town, and its software provided not just a Web browser, but a suite of Web-related products: browser, email client, and Usenet news reader. Today, in our age of Gmail and everything-in-the-browser, this approach seems top-heavy, but at the time it was a great boon. In the long run, Netscape's people had something of the last laugh, as a number of them decamped under Netscape's sponsorship to create Firefox

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Microsoft.com (1998)

According to Microsoft's own history of its Web presence, the first site on the Internet to use Microsoft.com as its domain name had been created in secret by Microsoft developer J. Allard, as a test bench for his newly created TCP/IP stack. When Microsoft.com finally started serving pages advertising the company itself (around April 1994), it didn't use Internet Information Server, which hadn't yet been created. Instead, it ran the EMWAC WWW server on Windows NT and displayed an amazingly crude "star map" graphic as its home page navigation menu. It would be some time before Microsoft started producing sites as polished as the 1998 version shown here.

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Novell.com (1996)

Another name that has since all but passed into IT history, Novell's proprietary hardware and software were once legion in in-house networks. But the rise of the Internet and open standards like TCP/IP -- and commodity networking stacks bundled with newer operating systems -- caught Novell off guard. Novell's 1996 site is another example of a page that today would scarcely seem like the product of a major corporation, but back then it was the state of the art.

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InfoWorld.com (1996)

And now, for a final blast from the past - before ComputerworldUK was even a glint in its editor's eye there was it's elder cousin InfoWorld, with its own website, circa 1996. Some of the headlines here are downright eerie -- worries about Java, speculations about whether any PC can be truly maintenance-free, and yet another slew of Intel processors are set to hit the market soon. The more things change ..

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