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Roger Clarke's 'Birth of Web Commerce'

The Birth of Web Commerce

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 21 October 2002

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2002

This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/WCBirth.html


Abstract

Commerce on the Internet now takes many forms. This document presents a history of the earliest means whereby orders, invoices and payments were effected on the Internet in an integrated manner. This involved web-forms implemented in browsers, CGI scripts implemented in servers, and integration of applications out to the pre-existing credit-card clearing schemes.


Contents


1. Introduction

The purpose of this document is to answer the question "When did we start seeing web-forms that captured credit-card details, and passed them to CGI-scripts, thereby enabling interaction with server-side applications, in particular interfacing with the EFT/POS network?". The document presumes some understanding of the technologies underlying the World Wide Web.

The elements that were necessary to support eCommerce of this kind are:


2. The Web-Form Feature of HTML

The earliest descriptions of HTML did not include the forms capability. See Berners-Lee (1992). David Raggett's description of HTML+ in 1993 comprised "a set of modular extensions", including "features like figures, tables and forms". The specification for the forms feature is internally dated "November 8, 1993". A revised version was presented at the first WWW conference in October 1994.

The original HTML had the ability to "enter a character string to search remote databases". HTML+ extended this by adding "single and multi-line text input fields, radio buttons, and checkboxes". Raggett (1993) stated that "most browsers now support simple fill-out forms, following the pioneering work by NCSA on X MOSAIC". It appears that Raggett's X11 HTML+ browser of 1993 already provided a working implementation of the forms capability.

HTML 2.0, which was formalised in RFC 1866 (November 1995), included the forms feature (in s.8, pp.39-48). See also RFC 1867 (November 1995).

Additional information and resources are provided by Blooberry.


3. Web-Browsers That Supported Forms

The various browsers implemented different sub-sets of HTML. In addition, some features were interpreted a little differently in each implementation, and many of the browsers implemented extensions to the HTML standard. It is therefore not simple to make general statements about what browsers could and could not do.

Although there were several predecessors, popularisation really began when NCSA made Mosaic available in February 1993. The people and ideas shortly afterwards escaped into Netscape. The first version of the Netscape browser (Mozilla) was released in October 1994 (although it was technically a beta version and the first commercial version came out in December 1994).

Mosaic 2.0 supported forms. The version history for the X version does not provide a date of release, but the document refers to HTML+, and not to HTML 2.0, suggesting a date in late 1993 or early 1994. The version history for the Macintosh version, on the other hand, dates v2.0 to June 10, 1994 (alpha) and March 16, 1995 (beta). There does not appear to be any comparable information available on the site relating to the Wintel version. Blooberry states that forms were supported by Mosaic 2.0A1 (i.e. the first release of June 1994)

Bloobury's history states that Netscape v.1.0B1 of October 1994 supported all basic HTML 2 elements. A separate document within the Blooberry site states that forms were included in the feature-set.

Netscape quickly took over from NCSA as the browser-of-choice, just as the adoption curve began its explosive growth. It was reported to have had about 80% market-share by mid-1995.


4. HTTP POST

The POST method is the means whereby a browser transfers data to a server. The description of HTTP 0.9, as implemented in 1991, refers only to the fundamental GET method, i.e. neither POST nor any other methods appear to have been specified or implemented at that stage.

The POST method does appear, however, in the 1992 specification of HTTP.

HTTP 1.0 is formally defined in RFC 1945 (May 1996). The POST method is defined in s.8.3 on pp.30-31.


5. Servers and CGI

The original web-server software, the CERN server, was implemented in 1991-92, and by the end of 1992 there were 26 reliable web-servers in existence (W3C). Several references mention that the CERN httpd server was re-written in July 1993. The reasonably inference is that the POST method was implemented in the CERN server by the end of 1992. (In the Internet community, software seldom lags specifications by very much at all. Indeed, the software is commonly written before, or in parallel with, the specifications).

According to Apache's history page, "In February of 1995, the most popular server software on the Web was the public domain HTTP daemon [httpd], developed by Rob McCool at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications [NCSA], University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign [UIUC]. However, development of that httpd had stalled after Rob left NCSA in mid-1994 ... ".

NCSA's guidance on the forms feature within httpd does not provide evidence of the dates on which the feature was made available. The httpd Version history shows that the forms feature was enhanced in v.1.0a4. No dates are provided; however it appears from the context that the feature was created during late 1993 or early 1994.

Apache's history page continues "Using NCSA httpd 1.3 as a base, we added all of the published bug fixes and worthwhile enhancements we could find, tested the result on our own servers, and made the first official public release (0.6.2) of the Apache server in April 1995. ... Apache 1.0 was released on December 1, 1995. Less than a year after the group was formed, the Apache server passed NCSA's httpd as the #1 server on the Internet and according to the survey by Netcraft, it retains that position today".

According to the Apache FAQ, "The Common Gateway Interface (CGI) specification [v1.1] can be found at the original NCSA site http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/cgi/interface.html. This version hasn't been updated since 1995 ... ". The document is internally undated. (Note that CGI has not enjoyed the attention of either the W3C or the IETF).

The reasonable assumption is that the NCSA httpd server supported CGI scripting from some time in 1993-94, and that Apache supported it from the outset in April 1995. Documentation supporting or denying this contention would be greatly appreciated.


6. Gatewaying into the EFT/POS System

[I haven't done any serious research on this aspect yet. My memory is that the early applications had an air-gap, and that companies re-keyed the credit-card details. Interfaces were soon written, however (to save manual effort, errors, and cost, and enable speed of response). At first, they were unofficial, because there were lots of rules about connection to, and capture of data into, the EFT/POS system. But official gateways had emerged by 1996.]

[You'd think I'd remember it better, given that in early 1999 I wrote a document called 'Getting Paid on the Internet'.]


7. Conclusions

It appears that all of the elements were in place in the fourth quarter of 1994, with the Mosaic v.2.0 and Netscape v.1.0 browsers and the NCSA httpd server implementing the forms feature defined in HTML+, and the POST method within HTTP 1.0.

This is consistent with my recollection that Hotwired claimed to be the first eCommerce site to accept payments in the form of credit card details, in October 1994 (although I've heard competing claims from time to time). But I can't find anything about it on the Wired and Hotwired sites.


Resources

Berners-Lee T. (1999) 'Weaving the Web' Harper Collins 1999

Blooberry 'Index DOT Html: The Advanced HTML Resource', at http://www.blooberry.com/indexdot/html/index.html

Feizabadi S. '1. History of the World Wide Web', at http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~wwwbtb/book/chap1/index.html

Gromov R. 'History of Internet and WWW: The Roads and Crossroads of Internet History', at http://www.internetvalley.com/intval1.html

W3C 'A Little History of the World Wide Web from 1945 to 1995' at http://www.w3.org/History.html

W3C 'Some early ideas for HTML', at http://www.w3.org/MarkUp/historical



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From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 40 million by the end of 2012.

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Created: 21 October 2002 - Last Amended: 21 October 2002 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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