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How the web went viral: a look back at 30 years of the internet

The web has become a part of our daily lives. How did we get here, and where is the internet going next?

The web is everywhere. We use it to communicate with our friends and family, consume entertainment, work our jobs and do just about everything else besides. In just three decades, the internet has gone from something that a select few at universities and laboratories used to share data to something that more than half the world’s population uses.

Since the web is where your customers are, it is also where marketers must be. Inventions like search engines and social media have created new challenges but also great opportunities for reaching the right audiences at the right times. The web has gone from a curiosity to the main arena for many marketers, and keeping up with online developments has become critically important.

This article looks at how the web has progressed over the years and what the major milestones have been.

The early years (1989-1994)

Before Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, the internet was mostly restricted to use in scientific and military applications. The web, consisting of the HTML, HTTP and URL technologies, allowed a common format for internet access from any internet-connected computer.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Credit.


  • Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web at the CERN research facility


  • Berners-Lee develops HTML, HTTP and URL



  • Mosaic web browser launches and soon becomes the most used browser


  • Tim Berners-Lee launches the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to oversee the Web and related technologies
  • Yahoo! launches

The browser wars (1995-2002)

The web became an international phenomenon in the mid ‘90s. Companies like Microsoft quickly realised that control of the internet browser market would allow them considerable influence over the new technology. In the late ‘90s, the web was defined by competition between the two most popular browsers, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator, as well as the launch of the first search engines and eCommerce sites.


  • Amazon launches as an internet bookstore

Screenshot of Amazon website at launch in 1994

  • Netscape releases Navigator, which soon becomes the most popular browser


  • The auction site eBay launches
  • Microsoft releases Internet Explorer with their Windows ’95 package, starting the first ‘browser war’ against Netscape which holds 75% of market share


  • Ask Jeeves launches search engine
  • Launch of the Nokia 9000, the first phone with a mobile internet connection


  • Google comes online, listing 26 million pages on the web in its first index

Screenshot of the first Google page in 1998

  • Internet Explorer becomes the most popular browser, winning the first ‘browser war’ – Netscape Navigator falls to 20% market share


  • Peter Merholz coins the term ‘blog’ (web log)


  • Google indexes one billion pages, serves 18 million searches per day
  • Adam Kontras credited with creating the first ‘vlog’ (video blog)


  • Jimmy Wales launches Wikipedia

The rise of social media (2003-2006)

Even as the web went mainstream in the late ‘90s, the main form of communication between individuals over the internet remained email – a technology from the ‘60s. In the early 2000s, many inventors and companies started to develop innovative ways for family, friends and colleagues to keep in touch and for new connections to be made.


  • LinkedIn launches
  • MySpace launches
  • WordPress launches
  • Apple releases first version of its Safari web browser


  • Facebook launches

Screenshot of Facebook when it launched in 2004

  • Mozilla releases Firefox, the ‘successor to Netscape’, and re-ignites the ‘browser wars’ with Internet Explorer, which holds 90% market share


  • YouTube launches


  • Twitter launches

The smartphone era (2007-2015)

Until 2007, there was little choice but to sit down in front of a computer to use the web. While the reigning mobile champions Nokia had released their first internet-enabled phone back in ‘96, mobile internet had not caught on. The models were expensive, the connection was painfully slow and the interface was simply not designed for online browsing. This was to change in 2007, as Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone.


  • Apple releases the iPhone

Image of the first iPhone in front of an advert for the iPhone


  • Google releases the first version of Android along with HTC Dream, the first Android phone
  • First release of Google Chrome – Internet Explorer and Firefox control 70% and 20% market share respectively
  • Google indexes one trillion pages
  • DuckDuckGo privacy-first search engine launches


  • Microsoft launches Bing search engine
  • Brian Acton and Jan Koum launch WhatsApp, an online text messaging service


Original Instagram logo

  • Instagram launches
  • HTC releases the Evo 4G, the first phone with 4G mobile connection


  • Chrome overtakes Internet Explorer to be the world’s most popular browser, winning the second ‘browser war’
  • Google indexes 30 trillion unique pages, serves 3.3 billion searches per day
  • Facebook buys Instagram for one billion US dollars


  • Audi releases first car with an in-built Wi-Fi hotspot


  • Microsoft discontinues Internet Explorer and releases their new browser Edge

Mobile dominance (2016-present)

In 2016, less than 10 years after the first iPhone was revealed, smartphone browsers account for a higher share of web use than desktop browsers. The mobile web has gone global. With fast 4G mobile connection and Wi-Fi accessible almost everywhere, smartphones had become the easiest way to browse the web. In developing countries, mobile phones allow millions without broadband access to become part of the digital world.


  • Mobile web usage exceeds desktop browsing for the first time
  • Google indexes 130 trillion pages, serves 5.4 billion searches per day


  • Chrome market share rises above 60%
  • More than four billion people use the internet worldwide

What’s next?

In just 30 years, the web has gone from a scientific invention to something that half of the world carries around in their pockets. The spread of the web will no doubt continue in the coming years, especially in mobile form.

The web will also continue spreading to other devices at work and at home: almost all new cars are now internet-connected and other devices like doorbells and microwaves are following suit. It’s impossible to even begin to guess what the web will look like thirty years from now, but one thing is for sure: the web is here to stay.


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