Web development milestones (Oct 2011)

web milestones

It is extremely useful to have an overview of how and why the the principal web site building technologies came about, how they developed over time, the key milestones, and where we are today. This page provides a basic overview.

Description Authoring technologies
Milestone: Web 0.0 - early 1990

In the early 1990s, a scientist named Tim Berners-Lee, working at the nuclear physics research centre at CERN in Europe, came up with a new way of accessing text based documents stored on any computer connected to the internet. His primary aim was to overcome the problem of staff turnover and specifically the loss of access to documents and knowledge.

Rather than have individual documents (research papers etc) reside on a creators machine, which must be sent individually to colleagues, his idea was that any computer connected to the internet would be able to find a link (hyperlink) to any document and view it, and that documents would contain links to other documents. He envisioned a kind of universal publishing system in which the written word (content) was king.

He created a new protocol for viewing (sending and receiving) documents (HTTP - hyper text transfer protocol), and a new document markup format named HTML (hyper text markup language). Documents could be created and linked in a simple "in-browser editor" application.

The HTML standard includes ...

  • A simple text based document format (.html)
  • A system of "tags" which allow the creator of an HTML page to perform basic text formatting such as headings, lists, annotations etc
  • The ability to include clickable hyperlinks to any other HTML document.

The compelling feature of this idea was UNIVERSALITY. I put that in capitals to stress how important this basic idea is. Tim wanted ANY computer running ANY operating system to be able to access and display documents the same way.

In this version of the web, all web pages looked the same and there was little opportunity for "branding". You moved from one page to another by clicking on hyperlinks and using a "back" button.

In 1994 Netscape Navigator, was used by over 95% of web users. Unfortunately, Netscape decided that they would add extra non-standard features into their browser, such as the ability to view images and coloured text, and encouraged web designers to employ these proprietary "tags" to improve the look of their pages. This meant that pages built with these new tags could only be viewed using Netscape Navigator.

Microsoft saw what Netscape were up to and frightened that they might lose control of the web, launched Internet Explorer with its own set of unique tags. The battle between them damaged the concept of universality. Berners-Lee saw that his vision of the web was under threat and established the World Wide Web Consortium as a forum for the discussion and agreement of future web standards. organisations and companies agreed to contribute to and support the official HTML specifications and ensure their browsers and technologies worked with them.

"In-browser editor", HTML, HTTP

Milestone: Web 1.0 - mid/late 1990's

By the late 1990's people wanted to create branded and styled websites. In-browser editing did not allow this. The dominant web browser, Netscape Navigators was read only, so there emerged a new breed of application, the design focused wysiwyg web page editor (eg Cyberstudio, FrontPage). It was still possible to hand code sites in a simple text editor but a new breed of designers favoured applications that allowed them to focus on design decisions, see a preview of the page as they worked on it, primarily because many came from a graphic design background.

This era was dominated by a static page publishing mentality in which designers struggled with primitive layout tools (employing tables to help) and multi-page website navigation. Applications like Dreamweaver added tools to facilitate the development and maintenance of complex site structures which further removed web-development from the self publishing/amateur model and put it into the hands of a new breed of experts, the so called webmaster. Also, there was now little opportunity for site owners (clients) to update the content of pages themselves, instead having to reply on the webmaster.

CSS was introduced in the early 1990s to allow the separation of content from its styling. The principal advantage of this is that a single CSS document can contain instructions (or rules, or styles) to format the appearance of multiple HTML documents in a web site. Some old HTML tags were marked for removal from the specification, the idea being that CSS would take their place. Such tags are referred to as deprecated. CSS reached version 2 in 1998 and version 2.1 in 2006.

Text/code editors and WYSIWYG HTML editors (eg FrontPage, Cyberstudio, Dreamweaver etc), Java, JavaScript, CSS, Flash etc

Milestone: Web 1.5 - dynamic database driven websites

The static page publishing model, whilst still being useful for smaller personal websites, is wholly inadequate for large websites in which content needs to constantly change and update, such as a large ecommerce site, or information resources.

In a dynamic site, content is retrieved from a database, by way of queries or requests (usually based on specific search criteria) sent from the web page. The static web page doesn't really exist as an html document but are created in real-time, on-the-fly. In effect, the web site becomes an application itself.

Initially, technologies were basic but now there are both powerful dedicated systems (ASP, .NET etc) and free open sources technologies (MySQL, PHP etc).

The great advantage is that structure, organisation and navigation becomes fluid and "automated", and clients, without web design skills, can simply edit the database using a simple administrative interface .

.Net, ASP, MySQL, PHP etc

Milestone: Web 2.0 - 2-way interaction - 2006 onwards (approx)

Web 2.0 is the term coined for an era when the internet became a 2-way communication between sites and the audience. In this era, the audience is adding content to database systems rather than those systems just performing administrative tasks such as recording retail site log-ins and tracking inventory. With the development of scripting languages, forms, and rich internet applications, websites enable the audience to interact in a number of ways ...

  • They might contribute content to a site (eg write a review of a product)
  • Engage in discussions (eg forums and discussion groups)
  • Take a training and assessment course
  • Use an internet application to edit their photos
  • Create their own web page(s) (eg MySpace, Facebook etc)
  • etc

JQuery, Flash/ActionScript, XML, Ajax, rich internet applications etc

Milestone: Wide use of content management systems (CMS) - 2008 onwards (approx)

The disadvantage of web 2.0 for the static website designer is that a new degree of authoring complexity is introduced requiring advanced programming skills. Clients want their sites to have the added functionality but the cost of creating bespoke systems is prohibitive.

A CMS is a development platform (or web application) for site development and management which utilises preset templates and plug-ins (forums, shopping carts etc) to produce rich interactive web sites. A designer can add enhanced functionality to a site without needing programming skills, and tailor HTML and CSS templates to produce powerful, and if the system has the tools, bespoke designs. A client has a simple (usually) browser based interface to update content.

For designers, a CMS can also function as a complete organisation and administrative environment for the development of multiple websites for multiple clients.

Some larger design companies have developed their own CMS's to serve their and their clients needs, but some systems are open source (free!) with features and functionality being constantly added by a world wide network of unpaid programmers (eg WordPress).

More on CMS ((content management systems) here

WordPress, Joomla, Drupal etc