The Art & Science of Web Design | 5 | WebReference

The Art & Science of Web Design | 5

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The Art & Science of Web Design

The Birth of the Web

Fast forward to 1989. A researcher named Tim Berners-Lee, working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, made a proposal for a simple hypertext system. Hoping to connect the distributed work of physics researchers, Berners-Lee developed a prototype system for linking information including three critical pieces: a way of giving everything a uniform address, a protocol for transmitting these linked bits of information, and finally a language for encoding the information. Working with fellow researcher Mike Sendall, Berners-Lee created both a server for storing and distributing information, as well as a client application for browsing. They called this system "Worldwideweb," set it up on a NeXT server, and began distributing the software. Popularity grew as clients, or "browsers," were developed for other computer systems. By 1994, traffic on the Web had surpassed all other forms of Internet traffic and new browsers like Mosaic and Netscape's Navigator had entered the public conscience. The Web was alive.

Part of the incredible growth of the Web has been attributed to its simplicity-especially the ease of creating documents for reading in browsers. Berners-Lee knew that a basic document format would be required for passing information back and forth between computer systems. His first effort, the HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, closely followed the basics of SGML, but with a few differences. He knew that for his proposal to succeed, it had to embody the following characteristics:

Simplicity: Keenly aware of the incredible complexity inherent in SGML, Berners-Lee opted for a tiny subset of tags for describing a document, and didn't bother with a method for describing a document's styles.

Universality: He imagined dozens, or even hundreds, of hypertext formats in the future, and smart clients that could easily negotiate and translate documents from servers across the Net. While this vision may not have become reality, the fact remains today that HTML and its derivatives can be read on virtually any computer, and on many devices like phones and hand-held units.

Degradability: While maintaining a simple system, as well as one that worked across the diversity of the Internet, Berners-Lee realized that HTML would eventually have to expand. To accommodate managed growth, he added a final axiom regarding new versions: they must never break older releases of the language. So as the nascent Web evolved, it would never require upgrades. New versions would simply be embellishments of old versions.

Thus, the first version of HTML was created with a few basic elements: <H1> through <H6> denoting headlines and subheads, <P> for paragraphs, <LI> for lists, etc. Since there was no associated presentation information, any browser-running on any computer system-could interpret this basic collection of tags and display them in the most appropriate way. High-end workstations could present typographically rich documents on color monitors while simple terminal emulators could offer a stripped down version that matched the limited capacity of the device. Suddenly, everyone could exchange electronic documents, and they could do so in an incredibly simple, albeit constrained, way.

And suddenly, they did.


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Revised: March 20, 2001
Created: March 20, 2001