The Web Comes of Age | WebReference

The Web Comes of Age

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The Web Comes of Age

Acouple of years after its birth, the Web was making it big. The program that probably first popularised the Web was the Mosaic browser created at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in the United States. Since Mosaic came out before there was a formal specification, what it understood as HTML became sort of a de facto standard at the time. Everybody was using Mosaic to read HTML documents, so if Mosaic understood it, it was HTML.

This created numerous problems. HTML was supposed to be a universal standard for information exchange. The idea was that anyone, anywhere, could access the information. But if the information was only accessible to people who could see it with the Mosaic browser, this seriously diminished its audience.

Firstly, seeing the information is not everything - not by a long shot. The information had to be authored, organized, linked, transmitted, printed, indexed, searched and processed in hundreds of other ways. Having a way to present it visually on a computer screen is not enough. People needed a variety of programs that dealt with HTML, so a common standard was needed for these programs to understand.

Secondly, not everyone had access to Mosaic. Some people had computers for which there was no version of Mosaic, others didn't have a graphical environment, and others just couldn't install Mosaic on their computers for whatever reason. Also, having any single program in control of something as important as HTML is not a good idea - the people who use it should be able to guide it and develop it in the way they see fit.

So our hero, Tim Berners-Lee, founded the Knights of the Round... um, sorry, the Word Wide Web Consortium. The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C for short, is a place where all the parties interested in the Web can meet and develop the technologies that relate to the Web. They came up with the first ever HTML specification, which was christened HTML 2.0. It was a glorious day for all indeed, since now authors could write HTML according to the specification and be sure that programs could process their documents, while programers could write programs that processed documents conforming to the specification without having to check that each individual document conforms to their software. Developments were under way, and the W3C, through its members which represented all the major players in the Web, and by operating open forums in which anyone could participate, was developing this exciting new technology and pushing it in new directions.

But all is not well in the kingdom of Camelot... excuse me, the Web. Following the footsteps of Mosaic came Netscape Navigator, a browser that is still by most accounts the most popular browser about. The makers of Netscape saw it fit to extend HTML in their own ways without consulting their peers at the W3C. This was both good and bad. It was good because HTML was pushed into new frontiers that no one had thought of before. It was bad because people stopped paying attention to the specification, which became an obsolete ideal that everyone aspired to but no one could attain.

Soon after Netscape dominated the market, a new player entered the field, called Microsoft Internet Explorer. At first, Explorer attempted to mimic Navigator so it could easily replace it. This meant that Explorer inherited all the misimplementations and hackish extensions that Navigator had at the time. Once this failed, the makers of Explorer started competing in the extension game with Netscape, with each new version of each browser including as many new features as possible. This created even more problems than before.

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Created: July 12, 1998
Revised: July 12, 1998