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A Bit of Web History

The early Web was text only—without images or colors—and browsers worked in line mode. In other words, you cursor-keyed your way through page links sequentially, like browsing on a low-end cell phone. It was not until 1993 that a graphical browser called Mosaic was made available from the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Mosaic was easy enough to install and use on Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX computers.

Mosaic was written by a group of graduate students—principally, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina. They built Mosaic because they were excited by the possibilities of hypertext and were dissatisfied by the browsers available at the time. They were supposed to be working on their master's projects.

Mosaic was the progenitor of all modern browsers. It displayed inline images, multiple font families, weights, and styles, and it supported a pointing device (a mouse). Distribution of the technology and Mosaic trademarks was managed for the NCSA by the Spyglass Corporation and was licensed by Microsoft, which rewrote the source code and called it Internet Explorer.

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After graduating from the University of Illinois, Andreessen teamed up with Dr. Jim Clark to form Netscape Corporation. Dr. Clark was the former CEO of Silicon Graphics, Inc., whose sexy, powerful graphics computers/workstations revolutionized Hollywood moviemaking. The Netscape Navigator browser introduced major innovations and became extremely popular because Netscape Corp. did something quite astounding for the software industry at the time—it gave away Navigator! At its peak, Netscape had captured close to 90% of the browser market.

In 1994, something wonderful happened. Vice President Al Gore, as chairman of the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government program, arranged for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to sell the Internet to a consortium of telecommunications companies. This ended the NSF's strict "no commercial use" policy and gave birth to the dotcom era and jokes about Al Gore inventing the Internet. In mid-1994 there were 2,738 websites. By the end of that year there were more than 10,000.1

From the beginning, competition to commercialize the Internet was fierce. In the mid-1990s, the tech community was abuzz about the "browser wars" as browser makers threw dozens of extra features into their software, adding many new elements to HTML that appealed to their respective markets. Netscape added features that appealed to graphic designers, including support for jpeg images, page background colors, and a controversial FONT tag that allowed Web designers to specify text sizes and colors. Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer into its Windows operating system and tied Web publishing into its Microsoft Office product line. These moves resulted in considerable legal troubles for Microsoft. These problems lasted until 2001, when the U.S. government suddenly dropped its antimonopoly suit against the corporation in the first days of George W. Bush's presidency.

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Other companies introduced browsers with interesting ideas but never captured any significant market share from Netscape and Microsoft. Arena, an HTML3 test bed browser written by Dave Raggett of Hewlett-Packard (HP), introduced support for tables, text flow around images, and inline mathematical expressions. Sun Microsystems came out with a browser named HotJava that generated a lot of interest. It was written in Java, a programming language that Sun developed originally for the purpose of controlling TV set-top boxes. Sun repurposed the language for the Internet with the dream of turning the browser into a platform for small, interactive applications called applets that would run in a virtual Java machine in your PC. Sun put Java into the public domain to encourage its adoption. This allowed Microsoft to make and market its own version of the language. Microsoft's Java was sufficiently different from Sun's version to make using applets (not to mention writing them) difficult. Although the Java language eventually gained widespread use in building in-house corporate applications, HotJava died along with Sun's Internet dreams.

On a related note, a company called WebTV Networks produced a low-cost Internet appliance and service for consumers to browse the Web and do email on their TV sets using a wireless keyboard and remote control. Despite funding difficulties and an on-again/off-again relationship with Sony Corporation that almost killed the project, WebTV succeeded in bringing the Web and email to nearly a million customers seeking to avoid the cost and complexity of personal computer ownership.

To illustrate how weird Web-related events can get, according to Wikipedia, WebTV was for a brief time classified as a military weapon by the U.S. government and was banned from export because it used strong encryption. In 1997, Microsoft bought WebTV and rebranded it as MSN TV to expand its Web offering. Without marketing the service or servicing its customers, MSN TV died a few years later. But the WebTV technology survived, eventually resur-facing in Microsoft's Xbox gaming console.

One of my favorite Web browsers was Virtual Places, created by an Israeli company, Ubique. Virtual Places combined Web browsing with Internet chat software and enabled collaborative Web surfing. It turned any web page into a virtual chat room where you and other visitors were represented by avatars—small personal icons that you could move around the page. Whatever you typed in a floating window would appear in a cartoon balloon over your avatar's head. It had a "tour bus" feature that allowed a teacher, for example, to take a group of students to websites around the world and back.

Unfortunately, the server overhead in keeping open connections and tracking avatar positions kept Virtual Places from expanding as the number of websites exploded. At the time, Netscape was updating Navigator every few weeks. Because Ubique couldn't keep up, nobody used Virtual Places as their default Web browser. AOL bought Ubique for no apparent reason and sold it to IBM a few years later. IBM used some of the technology in its software for corporate communications and collaboration. Virtual Places died during the dotcom crash at the start of the twenty-first century, but the avatars survived.

While Java was hot, Netscape developed JavaScript, a scripting language that ran in the Netscape Navigator browser and allowed Web developers to add dynamic behaviors to the HTML elements of a web page. Despite having the same first four letters, JavaScript and the Java programming language are quite different. It is suspected that Netscape changed the name from LiveScript just because of the buzz around Java. Superficially, the code looks similar because both are object-oriented programming (OOP) systems and have similar syntax.

America Online (AOL) acquired Netscape in 1998, and the browser's source code was made public. Eventually, this became the foundation on which the Mozilla organization built the Firefox browser. Other companies followed suit, and over the ensuing years, a variety of graphical browsers based on Netscape came to market. Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser improved with each new version and eventually became the most popular browser due to its bundling with the Windows operating system.

The browser wars ended with the dotcom crash, and manufacturers began to bring their browsers into compliance with emerging standards. Under the W3C's guidance, HTML language development slowed and stabilized on an HTML4 specification. The use of CSS was promoted to give Web developers finer control over typography and page layout over a much wider selection of devices. HTML attributes and actions (more about these later) were generalized. The HTML syntax was modified slightly to conform to XML (eXtensible Markup Language), and a transition path was provided to the merging of the two in the XHTML specification.

The way HTML source code looks has changed. Currently, most websites are written to the HTML4 and/or XHTML standards, in which valid markup element and attribute names are written using lowercase letters. By contrast, a web page written to the HTML3 standard is filled with names written in all uppercase letters. This convention emerged from early website developers, who had to write HTML without the benefit of text editors that provided color syntax highlighting. Using uppercase names provided contrast that distinguished the markup from the content.

More importantly, the ways in which content creators, software developers, and people in general use the Web has evolved dramatically. This change is encapsulated in the term Web 2.0. Although this suggests a new version of the World Wide Web, it does not refer to any new technical specifications. Instead, it refers to the changing nature of web pages. The features and functionality that characterize a Web 2.0 site are a matter of debate. Web 2.0 is better understood as simply a recognition that today's websites do new things with newer technology than yesterday's websites.

Many of these changes have come about due to the embrace of open source as a philosophy of design and development by the tech community. Much of the software that powers the Web is nonproprietary. It is freely available for people to use, copy, modify, and redistribute as they please. Open-source development has greatly reduced the cost of software development while increasing its availability, stability, and ease of use. Equally interesting is that the Web is self-documenting. Information about what is on the Web, how it is organized, and how it can be used is everywhere on the Web.

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