1990–2000: The world’s first website – made in Switzerland

The 1990s laid the foundations for some profound transformations in our society. It was in this period that the digital revolution really began to take off, with computers and mobile phones becoming more and more common sights both in the professional and private sphere. It was also the decade in which the Internet became accessible to the general public, marking the birth of the World Wide Web.

Image caption: CERN’s first website (Source: line-mode.cern.ch/www/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html)

In 1993, British physicist and software developer Tim Berners-Lee and Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau from CERN in Geneva published the world’s first website. The reason why it was published at CERN was because its laboratories straddle the border between France and Switzerland, and the differences in network infrastructure between the two countries made exchanging information particularly difficult. The two scientists had been working on a project to make it easier for scientists all over the world to exchange and update information since 1989.

They went on to develop the programming language HTML, the transfer protocol HTTP, the URL and the first browser, WorldWideWeb. The world’s first publicly available website, info.cern.ch, went live on 30 April 1993. Amazingly, the inventors of the new World Wide Web never had the slightest intention of patenting their creation; even today, only non-patented standards have ever been approved.

Sources: Wikipedia, CERN, SNV archive

October 1997: «The SNV arrives on the Internet»

In October 1997, the SNV included the piece Die SNV neu auf Internet (The SNV arrives on the Internet) in its regular bulletin. The article announced that the SNV now had its very own presence on the World Wide Web, in the shape of its first website. Right from the beginning, the site offered a wide variety of information about the SNV and its products and services, including an order form. That first website from over 20 years ago might look a little dull now, with a distinct lack of colour and few icons, but in the course of the following two decades it developed into a comprehensive platform, providing a host of relevant content on standardization in Switzerland and around the world.

Today, our virtual visitors can do a lot more than buy any standard they need in the SNV online shop. The website also offers a range of subject areas for professional development, and users can get involved in drafting new standards in the «Members» area. It is very important for companies to keep their sets of standards current, which is why we offer an SNV standard subscription service to help them stay up to date. In addition, we provide support regarding licensing of the product portfolio.

«It was a revolutionary, era-defining period, with lots of challenges for those of us working in standardization»

Peter Scheibli joined the SNV in 1986, serving as Head of Standardization and International Relations and Deputy CEO with the rank of Deputy Director until his retirement in 2001. In our interview, he casts his mind back to the beginnings of digitalization at the SNV.

Image caption: Peter Scheibli

1) SNV: The World Wide Web appeared during your time as Head of Standardization and International Relations. What effect did that have on your work?

Peter Scheibli: It was a revolutionary, era-defining period, with lots of challenges for those of us working in standardization. First of all, digitalization completely changed the nature of standardization work. We started exchanging more and more information using electronic systems, and at the same time, we could start issuing standards on digital channels, too.
When we had to decide whether to allow standards to be downloaded from the Internet, there was a big question mark as far as copyright was concerned. We wondered whether we would lose money because now people would be able to forward our standards without us knowing about it. But we knew we couldn’t stand in the way of the technology, and we actually expected to sell more standards because it would be easier for a lot of our potential customers to access them. When we first introduced the download option, we set the price for a downloadable standard a little higher than the price for a paper copy. As expected, sales of standards increased. Soon the number of downloaded versions rose above the number of paper copies ordered, so we had to adapt our pricing. Today, the paper versions are slightly more expensive.
We introduced the electronic system for downloading standards together with our German counterpart, the German Institute for Standardization (DIN), which created some major synergies for us.

2) When did you realize the importance of the Internet at the SNV?

We were doing some intensive work in countless international committees, so we were very much aware of the need to encourage work on IT-related topics. I would say that we really addressed the issue of digitalization between 1995 and 2000, and we managed to implement it in a way that met the SNV’s needs.

3) What was your team’s standardization work like before digitalization?

Before digitalization, our customers used to order standards over the phone and take our advice on what they needed, because often they didn’t know which specific standard was suitable for their requirements. Our team looked for the right standard in a printed catalogue, went into our storage, found a paper copy of the relevant standard, and then sent it by post to the person who had ordered it.
As time went on, we developed a research tool called Perinorm, where we could search for all the existing standards. Our customers could buy this tool on a CD, which meant they could look for the applicable standards themselves. Perinorm is still available (www.perinorm.com), and now contains more than two million standards.

4) What did making standards downloadable from the Internet mean for you and your team?

It was an enormous project. As I’ve already mentioned, we were lucky to be able to collaborate with the DIN on the project. The first step was to digitalize – basically to scan – all our existing sets of standards.
I had always been interested in digitalization, which was why I used to sit on the World Standards Cooperation (WSC)* committee. This committee dealt with digitalizing standardization work and the issuing of standards. That meant I had first-hand knowledge of current topics and could transfer that knowledge to the SNV. Training our teams, including the experts, was complex yet important work so that when we came to introduce the download system at the SNV, everything went smoothly. When the electronic system for downloading standards was finally introduced, our staff’s work became less about providing advice and more and more about IT skills.

((Footnote)) * The WSC comprises the International Organization for Standardization ( ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

5) The 1990s saw a wide range of new technologies come to prominence, which also meant new standards were required. Was the SNV involved in developing standards related to IT?

IT standards tended to be developed outside of the usual standardization bodies. In particular, the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), which is based in Geneva, was heavily involved in that. Its President had a seat on the IT Committee at the SNV and kept us informed of developments and standardization in the IT sector. Switzerland generally wasn’t actively involved in IT standards very often, except for in the development of security-related standards for banks, where it played an important role.

6) What experience do you remember most fondly from your time at the SNV?

The farewell celebration that was organized when I retired was very moving. Colleagues from all over Europe came to Switzerland to take part in my send-off. We met up at SNV headquarters in Winterthur, then visited the Oskar Reinhart Collection «Am Römerholz», and rounded off the day with an excellent dinner. I was absolutely delighted to find myself in such illustrious company to celebrate my retirement, and even today I still feel honoured to have been given that kind of personal recognition.

Mr Scheibli, thank you for this discussion.

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