Today is the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitting a paper entitled “Information Management: A Proposal” which served as the basis for what we all now know as the World Wide Web. But in the early ’90s, the early Web faced some serious competition from a system called Gopher.
Gopher was released by Mark McCahill and Bob Alberti of the University of Minnesota in 1991 and was adopted very rapidly by universities (and some other organisations) throughout the western world.
A Gopher service was very easy to set up and use and an obvious choice for embryonic information systems that became popular as a result of improved networking within organisations. All the Gopher systems around the world could be linked together through a hierarchical menu structure which was easy (if sometimes tedious) for novices to navigate.
There was even a predecessor to Google in the form of Veroncia (Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives).
In his 1989 paper, Berners-Lee said “generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities”. In contrast Gopher included support for a wide range of materials, including images right from the start.
So why today are we surfing the ‘net instead of burrowing it?
It is likely the biggest contribution to the demise of Gopher was the announcement by the University of Minnesota in 1993 that they would charge licensing fees for the implementation of Gopher servers, which encouraged other Universities to look for alternatives. There were no costs associated with using the Web, so it became the preferred choice for developers. Although in some ways the Gopher protocol was initially superior to the Web’s http prototcol, this hotbed of developers soon had the Web matching Gopher’s capabilities which ultimately led to more capable and flexible services.
If U of M had not attempted to commercialise Gopher, perhaps it could have gone on to become the predominant global information system and the World Wide Web just another research project.
This blogger has fond memories of burrowing the Internet using Gopher via a 9600 bps modem (more than 6,000 times slower than my current broadband connection!) and exploring the Internet for the first time. Happily you can recreate those pioneering days – though I don’t recommend using a modem – through one of the 1200 or so surviving Gopher servers via http://gopher.floodgap.com/gopher/. It’s not pretty – but neither were the early web sites.