We all know that there is a lot we can do using Web technologies, but the way the Web became so complex and ubiquitous is instructive in understanding was its future will bring. Let’s take a closer look at its evolution and its interesting twists and turns since it first came to be in the early 1990s.
By seeing these origins, we can better understand where Web technologies are headed in the future with new uses for both mobile and social browsing.
The original Web server, invented by Tim Berners-Lee, was a pretty primitive affair compared to what it can do today. The original machine used a 25Mhz CPU, 2GB of disk and a gray scale monitor connected to a NeXT computer running Unix. Back in the early 1990s, the original Web server dealt with mostly static content; it ran on a single computer with a relatively small software footprint. The first Web server (and the first browser, too) was just text: no images, no video, no dynamic content. The main innovation was hyperlinked text.
The Web and databases were soon married together, but it was a rocky relationship. Because of its stateless nature, it wasn’t easy to interact with database content and products such as Cold Fusion was one of the ways to make the Web more serviceable for dynamic content.
Starting in the late 1990s, the modern website was born that employed a variety of different Web servers all producing the kinds of pages that we now have come to expect. For example, there are custom-built ad servers, built-in analytics to track page views and visitors, discussion forums to moderate comments, connections to share the post on Twitter and Facebook, and videos embedded in various ways. All of these require coordinated applications and add-ons to the basic Web server that require various cloud services. Some sites that I run use Moveable Type or WordPress for content, connect with Google Analytics so we can monitor our traffic, use Disqus discussions, and bring up interactive polls from PollDaddy.com, just to name a few of the numerous add-ons. The days of having a single HTTP server seem so quaint now.
Since those early days of the static Web we have seen the rise of everything-as-a-service, and these applications typically employ an army of Web-based servers to work their magic. We don’t need to rely as heavily on desktop-based apps because everything can run in our browsers, for better or worse. Indeed, it is more common to see an entire datacenter virtualized and running on top of various Web services.
What is more, we have gotten used to having the Web as the go-to place to get new tools, software drivers, and programs. Software repositories such as GitHub and open source projects such as Apache have blossomed into sites that corporate developers use daily for building their own apps. And why not? These sites and online services have large support communities and hundreds of projects that well tended.
And the browser is getting more complex. Back in the 1990s, there weren’t too many different browsers, or at least it seemed that way. While there were differing interpretations over HTML standards, the browsers mostly handled static text. Today’s browsers are used for everything under the sun, including streaming video and audio content, interaction with databases, and more.
Now we have at least four major browser “families” (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome) and both desktop and mobile versions on a variety of operating systems. Testing applications is a lot messier, and harder for app developers to ensure that a website works correctly across this collection.
Moreover, the tide is turning towards mobile. According to research firm NetApplications, the share of Web browsing originating from mobile devices has more than doubled in the past year. While desktops still account for more than 90% of the data accessed from browsers, mobiles are consuming the Web at an increasing rate.This makes it important for website designers to optimize their content for the best mobile experience.
And the Web has gotten more social. It used to be the odd person in your professional circle who didn’t have or use an Internet email account. Now that has been transformed into the odd person who doesn’t have an account on Facebook or some other social networking access. What was begun in a Harvard dorm room in this decade has turned into a juggernaut of nearly a billion users, and Facebook (and its competitors) are still growing rapidly.
Bottom line: Making use of the social Web is an important part of any business’s marketing and customer support plan.
This is much more than a “Like” button on a particular page of content. It is a way to curate and disseminate that content quickly and easily. Social media has replaced the Usenet “news groups” that many of us remember with a certain fondness for their arcane and complex structure.
In the past, if you wanted to share something you found online, more than likely you would email your colleagues a URL. Now you can Tweet, post on Facebook and Google+, add an update to your LinkedIn account, put up a page on your corporate Yammer.com or tibbr.com server, or use one of dozens more services that stream your likes and notable sites to the world at large. Or you might do all of the above.
There are even services such as Ping.fm and Graspr.com that can coordinate batch updates to numerous services. At the push of a button, all of your social media will get your news at once. Services such as Nimble.com (shown below), attempt to coordinate your entire social graph (as it is called) of friends and admirers so you can track what is going out across all your various networks.
The days of the simple static Web are so over, as many GenY’ersare fond of saying . Clearly, we have a long and rich future ahead of us for more interesting Web applications. And mobile and social extensions are just the beginning of taking the Web into a more interactive and exciting place.