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The Open Web, A Cliff Notes History

There’s a thing out there as ephemeral and futile as explaining to your parents your relationship with your on-again off-again boyfriend who’s really not your boyfriend over Thanksgiving Dinner and eight glasses of wine, and that thing is the Open Web.

 

Congratulations! You made it through the signature unwieldy metaphor of a hook! And a welcome back to…everyone because we’ve been off somewhere. Cooking up some great things. Really. And for those of you who have never been here before—thanks for nothing, and please continue on to the next paragraph.

 

The open web is a concept that many bend to define in their own ways. At it’s basest, it’s a really cool thing—and quite integral to understanding what the web was, where it came from and where it’s going. More importantly, it’s the key to figuring out whether you like the way the web is going or not.

 

To start at the beginning, take a look at this excellent post about the days of yesterweb at dashes.com. The drive of web profiteers has fundamentally shifted from curious scientists and hopeful idealists to, well, profiteering. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing (he said, as the CEO of JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and other various Republicans gave him the evil eye)—but there is a certain sense of…pungency that can’t be ignored. The rise of HTML5 compellingly counters such a tendency (though, yep, you guessed it, we’ll return to this certain stink in a later post).

 

HTML1 is a problematic language. Always has been, and always will be—mainly because it invigorates the dreams of so many web designers and encourages the constant forays over the edge of the envelope into the unknown, usually beyond the bounds of <strong> and <table> tags. The W3C2 started working on accommodating such visionary designers and never stopped. Early on in the emergence of the information superhighway came JavaScript. Taking a namesake laurel out of Java’s2.2 fame-by-loose-association wreath, this scripting language3 attempted to fill in the holes which HTML refused to dump topsoil into. At first this came mostly in the form of twinkling stars and buttons that go “woo!” when you roll your mouse over them. Also this.4

 

Pretty quickly, everyone got over the novelty of JavaScript and wanted something a little bit more—and specifically, they wanted to stop designing websites which consisted of tables, within tables, within tables…because this was the only way to make your site look nice and swagadelic and professional5,6. Enter CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, the language of appearance. Now, you could take an HTML framework and apply a space theme to it, or, take the same HTML and apply a caveman theme to it. Design and content had been separated, and JavaScript picked up the slack.

 

So why does this all matter? Because these languages are free to learn, free to implement, and only require a text file to write. Then, you fire up your browser and figure out exactly what you wrote and whether it works. Simple, cheap, effective. Cautiously avoiding talking about server side programming right now, the black sheep in this equation was Shockwave Flash. Unless you’ve been browsing the web like my grandmother (no offense, Yennie, I just don’t expect you to know what Flash is), you’ve no doubt encountered the error that prompts you to update Macromedia Flash to the “latest version”. If you don’t update, no deliciously eye-pleasing content. The main issue with this software—though it was free to download—is that it was a from a company. It wasn’t from a consortium and it wasn’t build with accessibility or ease of access in mind. The extra downloading and updating encapsulated the client side issue, and the developer side was hit with the economic one. Macromedia built its empire (bought up later by Adobe) based on this one technology. Subsequently, learning how to program and animate in Flash was a far cry from easy. It was constantly changing, buggy, poorly supported and above all, the best clients for programming Flash cost money. Adobe’s Flash programs in its popular Creative Suite could run the user near $100 bucks—a pretty penny if you don’t have a paying job or have fallen on financially hard times. And thus, the class structure of the web formed—a lower echelon of website developers that couldn’t afford to learn or implement Flash (or both), and those that could. The chasm was money.

 

And thus, HTML5 was beameth down from the sky, covereth inne golde.

 

Obviously, the real event was probably a bunch of geeks slamming a keyboard for a while then giving each other high fives before taking off in their Lambourghinis to a swanky nightclub in downtown Palo Alto. Regardless, HTML5 sought to standardize the different versions and syntaxes of HTML floating around7, further the development of CSS to encapsulate design effects and eliminate such coding from JavaScript, and to toll the death knell of Flash (and really, any other client-side language people had been embedding into their websites). The canvas, a new feature, used JavaScript to encode exactly what Flash accomplished—except it did so in a language web crawlers could understand. Better yet, no plug-ins were involved.

 

HTML5 is still relatively young and faces the fiercest opposition, unexpectedly, if you don’t believe in cell phones, on the mobile market. As a standard for laptops and desktops, however, HTML5 works quite well8. The canvas performs just as Flash would9—and is experiencing what one could call an accelerated adoption and development due to its familiar language. It’s the wave of the future. And best of all, it’s free. The web can continue to be truly open, with its framework resting solidly on the idea that anyone can learn to use it, if they have enough time within which they’d like to hide from the sun.

 

Currently Listening to: Mississippi Isabel – King Charles. 

 

______

 

1HyperText Markup Language—the framework of the web. I’m sure you’ve heard about it, just like you’ve heard about “DNA” or “fireworks” or “Grandma’s Homemade Fruitcake”.

2Not actually squared, it’s just a footnote. The acronym (buckle up, it only gets rougher from here) stands for World Wide Web Consortiuum. This is the nerdy governing body for web standards—although they don’t “govern” so much as “suggest dryly”.

2.2Another, more basic programming language for computers which still claims to be rather popular these days.

3A scripting language is like shorthand—it is designed for clever dorks who want to create their own program for a simple task within the bounds of an internet browser, so you don’t have to bother with all the rigmarole of creating a window, interfacing with the harddrive, and other such tasks I’m sure you’re incredibly, deeply concerned with.

4Common misconception: it’s not a virus. It’s JavaScript, which is arguably worse.

5Swagadelic and professional do fall into the same category, thanks for asking.

6See also—the 90s, when websites dealt with frames and small animated gifs (not the kind you’re used to, with witty pop culture references that can be used as a joke punchline. I’m talking more of “small animated beach ball bouncing while sun shines”. They would tend to be slightly bigger than this period and caused, I’m sure, a boon for eye doctors.

7There were a lot, and they were a librarian’s nightmare. It was like using two Dewey Decimal systems for the same section, but both were okay yet not entirely compatible, and thus, anyone who looked for anything gave up and went for a smoothie.

8Unless you’re using the non-dubstep version of Internet Explorer. I beg you, for the good of all web developers, please switch to ANY other browser (Chrome, or Firefox, or even Opera if you want to pretend like you’re in Belarus).

9Eye-canvas-dy found here. You’re welcome (for that pun).

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About Kyle

"I'm so enriched by my friends' political Facebook statuses and tweets!" said no one ever. So then we made a blog to continue said opinions over more that 140 characters. Op-eds, partisan-ship, unbiased reporting, pop culture, and book recommendations. Look at the headers, n00b.

One comment on “The Open Web, A Cliff Notes History

  1. […] ← The Open Web, A Cliff Notes History […]

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