The browser's resized future in a fragmented www world
The safe option in a native jungle
The Web @ 25 "We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities."
So wrote Tim Berners-Lee in a document 25 years ago on Wednesday that’s being celebrated as marking the birth date of the web.
Berners-Lee never actually proposed a system for the whole world. What he had in mind when writing that document in 1989 was a system that would help colleagues at CERN solve the riddle of how to share data between themselves.
Call it groupware, call it a big data problem, what it wasn't was "the world wide web" or something intended to revolutionise the internet as it then was.
As such, Berners-Lee was less interested in presentation and more interested by data – both storing it and discovering it.
The story of the web, however, has been dominated by how it is presented – how web pages look. The vehicle for that has been the browser.
Berners-Lee’s first browser was a boring text-based thing, an information retrieval tool. It was the browser that got millions first signed up to the web in the 1990s.
Two-and-a-half decades on, this old shovel is getting cast aside and a new tool – the native app – is being taken up to get people online. Question is: is this the future?
The World Wide Web was the byproduct of an answer to an information silo problem tasking the brains at CERN.
The problem at CERN was that it was a huge and growing organisation, facts which made it hard to find data and valuable documents. The challenge was that information was not being stored using a single structure and data was being described in different ways. If you were looking to be pointed in the right direction, it depended on whom you knew.
Berners-Lee's 25-year-old memo proposed a way to search for and retrieve information in such a large and unstructured organisation as CERN.
His answer was hypertext, an idea dating from the 1950s and Ted Nelson.
By 1990, Berners-Lee had built a web server, running on a NeXT system, and a browser – called WorldWideWeb and later Nexus – to access documents.
This was shared with the rest of the high-end physics community in 1991, with CERN releasing the source code for Berners-Lee's browser in 1993. It was the browser that really pulled the mainstream into the web.
Before the release, there had been 500 web servers, but this had grown to 10,000 with 10 million users by the end of 1994. A full 2,000 of these servers were commercial. Today it is estimated that there are nearly one billion websites served by an unknown number of web servers and 2.4 billion users.
Tim Berners-Lee's first browser was simple and text-driven. The first successful browser, Mosaic, used graphics, and was originally the project of wunderkind Marc Andreessen of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.
Google rendered in Mosiac
Andreessen’s Act II, of course, was Netscape Navigator from his Netscape Communications. Netscape catapulted to 90 per cent market share running on Windows, Linux, Mac, OS/2 and many versions of Unix. Netscape went public in 1994, doubling its opening price of $14 a share to hit $75 a share. It was the start of the dot-com bubble, as Netscape soon became the way to view newly created websites.
The browser succeeded by going against the grain of technology at that time. Most systems were built by companies to lock you in to their stack and therefore pay them money over the long term. Being generic and open were key, and websites and browsers worked together using a set of emerging and open common standards, technologies and practices.