A Brief History of the Web

Written by Brian Ledebur

Why is this important?

If the name Tim Berners-Lee doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. It still won’t after this lesson. We’re not necessarily interested in important names, dates, organizations, and the various acronyms that dot the Internet’s short history. As a result these are used sparingly. There are plenty of references available (ironically) on the Internet if you are interested in learning more.

What is important, however, is how the Web came to be, and what circumstances helped shape it. As we will find out, the Internet evolved from humble beginnings meant to serve a different purpose than what we use it for today. And the circumstances that brought it from there to here have huge implications on how it works – and how we design and create Web pages today.

OK, a Couple of Acronyms:

During the 1960s and 70s, a group of visionary scientists and engineers dreamed up new ways for computers — and therefore people — to communicate with each other. Their motivations for this were twofold. One was to share scientific information like notes, thesis, formulas, and all the things scientists like to talk about and collaborate on. The other was to create a network that the military could use to link its command centers together, the idea being that If WWIII came around (remember this is the Cold War era), the network would still function even if some parts of were taken out.

HTML and Web pages were still far off, but these engineers and scientists devised the methods for computers to talk to eachother that we still use today with the modern Internet. Some of the noteworthy ones are listed, briefly, below (and yes there are a few acronyms here).

The Web Was Created by Engineers and Scientists, Not Designers

Once we knew how to communicate, we needed a language to help us with what we wanted to say. HTML became that language. During the late 80s and early 90s, the first few drafts of HTML were created and presented by many of the same pioneers we just mentioned. Some had inklings of what the Internet could become, but most had no idea it would explode into the vast commercial and marketing medium it is today. As a result, they stuck by their desire to create a tool to share scientific information, not fancy graphics, animations, and products for sale. In fact, there was little focus on the “user experience” in general. Instead, the tools they first built into HTML were headings and paragraphs of text to write scientific papers, tables to display rows and columns of data, bulleted and numbered lists, definitions, and of course the friendly link to get from page to page, or from site to site.

Yes, HTML has come a long way since these early drafts (version 4.01, to be exact), but unfortunately we still use these same tools for the layout and presentation of our Websites. As you may imagine, many of these tools are ill-advised for the job. Take the case of the table, for instance. The table is the most abused element in HTML, as it is the tool we use to control most of our layout and placement of items of our page. Created to hold simple rows and columns of data, and adapted to do much more, the table must be stretched, bent, broken, and deformed to handle our needs.

The table is central to Web design, and central to our class, so we will get to know it well. But remember, if you run into a situation where the table just won’t seem to do what you want, go easy on it. We’re basically asking an inflatable raft to carry an elephant across the river. But don’t get too discouraged, there’s almost always a way to make table work for us, we just need to know how to ask.

Browsers Were Created by Businesspeople, not Scientists, Engineers, or Designers

During the mid 90s, the incredible potential of the Internet became apparent to some software companies and vendors. They had a huge stake in getting as many users as possible to use their browser, and gain the largest market share. To entice these users, they crammed as many bells and whistles, and as many proprietary features as they could into the latest versions. Creating reliable, stable programs that adhered to any sort of standard fell by the wayside, as did the mere idea of Web designers and developers being able to create Websites that would work across all browsers and look as intended.

The culmination of this mentality came with the releases of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communicator 4.0, during what became known as the “browser wars”. By this time browsers had strayed so far from the original simplicity and standards of HTML that creating a Website compatible with both was nearly impossible. Designers and developers were forced to create two versions of their Websites: one for IE and one for Netscape. These versions were linked with complicated and unreliable scripts that attempted to detect which browser was being used, then feed it the appropriate HTML.

Although things seemed dire for us designers at this point, things would get better, thanks to an organization called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The W3C: Finally Designers Have a Say

It soon became apparent that things had to change. The Internet was a nightmare for developers and designers. Creating and maintaining Websites were not economically viable for most companies. They had to choose between paying a team programmers to do the same work twice, or risk leaving a significant part of their target market in the dark.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, HTML’s original creators, along with other experts, programmers, designers, developers, and software makers joined forces to create the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. The W3Cs goals were to define and recommend a set of standards and best practices that all developers, designers, and browser makers could follow. This would help ensure all interested parties were on the same page (no pun intended), and that Websites would look and function the same across all browsers and platforms.

In addition to standards for using and rendering HTML, the W3C developed another tool to aid designers creating Websites: Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS. CSS was created to give designers a more precise, robust, and reliable way to control layout and presentation. It is also a way to separate the structure and content of our Websites from the layout and presentation by keeping our CSS in one file, and our HTML in another. The concept of separating content from presentation is an important one, and one that we will return to later in the course. We will also be introduced to CSS later in the course.

So Where Are We Now?

The state of Web design can best be described as being in a transitional period. Things are much improved over the old days of cross-browser nightmares, and there are many more tools (not to mention better browsers) at our disposal. Through the W3Cs guidance, we will even be able to use CSS to abandon tables as a layout tool altogether. But if this capability exists, why don’t we learn how to use it now? Well, we aren’t quite there yet, and there are a few reasons for this.

For one, the W3C can only recommend – they don’t have any power to force designers, developers, and browser makers to comply. Some designers and developers and simply set in their ways, and browser makers are afraid of alienating them by no longer supporting how they make Websites. Microsoft in particular has been slow to adopt web standards in their Internet Explorer browser. To understand why, we need to go back to the mid 90s for a moment.

Remember those “browser wars” we talked about? Microsoft eventually won those wars, and most corporations and big businesses adopted Internet Explorer as the browser of choice. As a result, many corporate Websites are still based on code developed during this time. In addition, these companies “intranets” and web applications also use a lot of IE’s proprietary features and technologies. If Microsoft were to suddenly stop supporting these old, wrong ways, these companies’ infrastructures could break, and there would be a lot of unhappy CEOs forced to spend a lot of money to fix them.

But as stubborn as some companies – and Microsoft – may be, the average Internet user is the main factor hindering our progress. Almost everyone uses the Internet today for a variety of reasons. Many of these people are not particularly tech savvy. Many use computers purchased years ago with some obsolete browser pre-installed. Most are unaware they need to upgrade these browsers to newer versions. As a result, the old, outdated ones still linger among the Internet populace. There’s very little we can do – we can’t force them to upgrade, nor can we ignore them, as they still make up a significant portion of our clients’ target market. All we can do is wait it out.

In the meantime, the best thing we can do is learn to make Websites that work today while becoming acquainted with the techniques and technologies of tomorrow. This way our skills are marketable and useful now, and yet we are still prepared to adapt to what’s to come. Beginning in week 8, we will learn a technique called the “hybrid layout” that uses tables to hold our basic elements and CSS to control our site’s appearance and separate as much of the content and presentation as possible.

For More Information on the History of the Internet: