For most people, their first experience of the web was in the late nineties with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer. What surprising few people realise is that the World Wide Web (or WWW) is quite a late coming service to the Internet and was developed in 1990 at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland by an Englishman called Tim Berners-Lee. What even fewer may realise is that once, not so long ago, the web had no pictures, no fancy layouts and no styles.
A brief history of the World Wide Web
In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a way to share academic papers between colleagues. He was interested in an idea called 'hypertext', in which relevant words in one document are linked to other documents that are in some way related. The dream of hypertext is the so called 'semantic web' whereby all information in a domain is linked together appropriately allowing a user to explore a whole subject area just by clicking around.
Working out a way to put the ideas of hypertext into practice, he developed a markup language, HTML1, and a client-server protocol which he named HTTP2. Into HTML (which he defined as a subset of the much larger SGML3) he placed those tags he thought were of most use to the writer of academic reports. It is from these that we have tags such as TITLE, H1 and A.
These tags were always intended as semantic markups of the document in proper SGML tradition. Every tag has a semantic meaning; the contents of TITLE is the title of the document, the contents of an H1 tag is a level one header, the contents of an anchor (A) tag is a link to another place. No tag had rules attatched to its definition saying how it should be formatted. For a time a purely semantic, yet academic, world wide web of information seemed to be the way of things to come.
The first graphical web-browser
In 1993 a small company released an application that was to change the world. This company, Mosaic, released the world's first graphical web-browser. To do this, they introduced a new tag into HTML, the IMG tag. This little tag allowed, for the first time, images to be shown inline with other content in a document. Combined with hypertext, the possibility of branded corporate sites occured to many and the move to the web of today had begun.
Soon, feeling that he had many good ideas of his own, Marc Andresson4 left Mosaic to found Netscape. Version one of the Netscape browser was fairly unimpressive, although it did include some non-standard 'HTML' tags designed to make websites look better in it than in Mosaic and so increase Netscape's market share.
Version two of Netscape's browser brought in some more non-standards compliant 'HTML'. Now we had FONT, FRAME and most obnoxiously BLINK amongst many others. Tables were now being used to force the semantic linear language of HTML into displaying pages laid-out 'right'. However, webdesigners (as they were beginning to be called) had no guarantee that the pages would look anything like they intended. The confusion had, however, only just begun.
By now, Netscape's marketshare had steadily grown until it commanded roughly 90% of the web-browser market. It was about this point that the great behemoth of Microsoft woke up to the Internet, and realising the way the world was moving saw Netscape as a threat to its dominance of the desktop world. Quickly releasing a very flawed browser called Internet Explorer 2, Microsoft began parrying Netscape with its own, propriatory tags. The Browser Wars had begun, and the possibility of two completely incompatible world wide webs arose.
The founding of the World Wide Web Consortium
In 1994 Tim Berners-Lee, together with a body of industry figures and academic institutes such as MIT, founded the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C). Its mission was to provide a set of recommendations for developers to follow to try and prevent mutually exclusive implementations of technologies. In effect, the mission of the W3C was to promote the accessible web, a world wide web that anyone can view and use.
As the Browser Wars became more intense, the W3C decided that they could no longer spend their time documenting every piece of markup that the browser developers placed in their parsers. The browsers were becoming too large and unstable and increasingly, tags which varied only minimally in function were being released. At this stage (1997), the W3C decided that they were going to dictate what HTML should look like. They laid out a plan for the markup language that saw it becoming, increasingly with successive generations, a semantic markup once more. Style, layout and behaviour would be separated out from HTML and placed in stylesheets separate to the pages themselves. HTML would be made small and managable again and accessibility would be able to be universal.
The first version to come out of this new drive towards the separation of style, content and behaviour was HTML 4. Released as a recommendation in December 1997 and updated slightly in April 1998, the recommendation document for this version explicitly stated that non-semantic formatting elements in HTML were deprecated and future versions would probably not support them. This was a brave move to make, but one that the W3C followed up with XML5, an XMLised version of HTML called XHTML6 and a standard for specifying style and layout called CSS7. These standards8 have begun to realise the dream of the Semantic Web, only this time the semantic web looks good as well.