Kyle Schaeffer, Senior UX Developer
There was a time, not so long ago, when the notion of the world wide web hadn’t yet crossed our minds. Books were read on paper. Movies were watched in theaters. We bought magazines that told us when our favorite shows were scheduled to appear on the television. We huddled around our tiny, fuzzy, distorted screens to enjoy the simple pleasures of entertainment. The year was 1989, and in that year an amazing thing happened. The seeds of change were sewn into every facet of our lives, and we would, all of us, eventually be touched by this amazing evolution of technology.
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. During his time at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, he created the world’s first web server. This web server served a hypermedia document based on a technology he called HTML, or hypertext markup language. By 1990 he had created specifications for familiar acronyms like URIs, HTTP, and HTML. All of these technologies were widely adopted and quickly became known as “web technology,” the basis of the Internet as we know it today.
While you may think it strange to talk about web technology as it existed over twenty years ago, this trip into the past is far more than an exercise of nostalgia. Since the birth of the world wide web, this technology has changed many times over. It has adapted and evolved into something completely new, almost unrecognizable as compared to Berners-Lee’s initial specifications. We identify new technology using acronyms like “HTML5” and “CSS3.” Truly, the newest specifications of this technology represent much more than new capability and exciting new features. On a deeper level, these technologies represent the direction and evolution of Our Internet. The changes introduced in HTML5 represent the mobilization and diversification of our lives. It represents a change in our behavior, not in the context of technology, but in the context of us, of people.
The diversity and amount of screens in our lives has noticeably changed. We have powerful devices in our pockets capable of consuming the web at any time from nearly any place in the world. We have screens in every corner of our daily routines. Computers, phones, tablets, televisions, watches, tables, refrigerators, treadmills, and even eyewear serve as the windows through which we browse the web. We have changed, and so too has our technology. HTML5 is a response to the way we have changed our behavior. It’s not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.
The early days
By 1994, the promise of the world wide web was plain to see. Companies and organizations worldwide found their presence online. The Mosaic web browser was released in 1993, and Netscape Navigator was made available as a free download in November of 1994. Yahoo made its debut as a search and link portal. The web was becoming more complex, and a need for standards on the web was strikingly apparent. Visiting websites often prompted users with messages like “Please visit this website using Netscape Navigator version 1.1.” If you didn’t have the right version or the right web browser, you were out of luck. To answer this call, Tim Berners-Lee and others founded the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C in 1994. This organization established and published standards for web technology, and continues to do so even today. The specifications for HTML were quickly released as HTML2 and HTML3. A new technology called Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, was created and released to provide online publishers with a means to apply presentation and style to their web content. Much like HTML5 of today, this was a major evolution of web technology based on our growing need for more complex online interaction.
For nearly seven years, the web community embraced this new technology and pushed the limits of HTML3 and CSS. The birth of popular sites such as MSN (1995), Amazon (1995), New York Times (1995), Craigslist (1995), Google (1996), and Blogger (1999) contributed to the Dot-Com Boom (and eventual Bust). New ways to access the web emerged with the release of Mozilla (formerly Netscape Navigator) in 1998, Internet Explorer versions 1 (1995) through 5 (1999), and finally with the release of Microsoft’s reigning champion, Internet Explorer 6 in 2001. People often forget that the reason we all hate Internet Explorer 6 is because it stuck around for over a decade. Its lengthy tenure is largely due to the fact that at the time when it was released, it was truly an innovative and amazing web browser. It’s hard to see that now, but Internet Explorer 6 essentially defeated every other browser on the market, gaining nearly 90% market share at its peak. Perhaps all that success led to the stagnation of development and innovation that followed, earning Microsoft and the Internet Explorer browser the ire of the web community for many years to come.
The new millennium
In all the growth of the web, yet another evolution of the technology upon which it rests was nigh inevitable. In 2001, web technology endured another shake-up. Web publishers needed more from CSS, crying out for the ability to control layout and style in their finely-tuned collections of web content. The W3C complied and released new specifications for both HTML and CSS, released as HTML4/XHTML and CSS2. These specifications largely resemble the basis for HTML and CSS as we know it today, over a decade later. This period of development was marked by web newcomers Wikipedia (2001), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). In our memories, the birth of these internet giants may seem fresh and new, but the world wide web is not known for stagnation. It is a constantly changing landscape that adapts and evolves with each passing year.
The mobile evolution
Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, which was arguably the first mobile device capable of providing a true web experience outside a desktop monitor. Apple’s iPhone was a truly innovative and groundbreaking device. It opened the gates, and what emerged was a flood of new technology, devices, and capabilities surrounding the alarming success of the mobile web.
Technology giants took notice, to say the least. Google purchased Android, Inc., and went on to develop the Android operating system. The first publicly available Android mobile device was the HTC Dream released in October of 2008. Following the Dream, a slew of Android devices hit the market, granting internet connectivity to people at every corner of the globe.
Apple pushed the limits yet again in April of 2010 with the release of the iPad, the world’s first largely adopted tablet device capable of providing a rich web experience. Android tablets quickly followed, and suddenly the canvas of the web had changed. As curators of online content, we could no longer assume a cozy desktop landscape resolution. We suddenly had to contend with displaying our web content not only on desktop monitors, but also on increasingly popular mobile phones, tablets, televisions, and everything in between.
Today’s evolution, tomorrow’s history
Human behavior has changed, and as a result so too does our technology. HTML5 is simply an acronym that represents technology’s response to this change. It is the latest rendition in a pattern of change that we’ve seen over the last twenty-four years since the invention of the web. Understanding the bells and whistles that make up the HTML5 specification won’t hurt you, but it won’t guarantee your success either.
Finding the intersection of technology and human behavior is where great success is found. Microsoft identified a human need for simple user interfaces and created the Windows operating system based on that desire, to which they found great success. Similarly, Apple identified a growing human demand for mobile web access when they released the iPhone. They designed a human-centric mobile device that addressed the demands of user behavior, and found astonishing success. Companies like BlackBerry and Nokia who were slow to adapt to changing human behavior saw declining sales and profits as a result.
HTML5 gives us new capabilities allow us to connect with people in new contexts. It provides new features that allow us to create adaptive experiences that can be displayed on any range of devices. Most importantly, however, it provides an opportunity to change the way we perceive the web in general. It’s no longer about publishing content outward, the web has changed to be all about Me. It’s about what I like, what I’m interested in, what I subscribe to, and I’ll consume it when, where, and on whatever device I please. Web technology has changed, but only because I have too.