The internet has been one of the fastest growing innovations in history and with websites becoming more and more sophisticated, we thought we'd take you back to the very beginning and show you the evolution of web development.

In the beginning

The origins of the internet go way back to the 1960s, with the US military’s Arpanet project linking computers remotely for the first time.

Significant milestones were achieved in the following years as technology improved, including:

  • The first email message sent, generally credited to Ray Tomlinson, who also pioneered the use of the @ symbol.
  • USENET went live in 1979. This was a precursor to modern-day social media and allowed enthusiasts to share memes and descend into obtuse arguments online for the first time.
  • The domain name system (DNS) was established in 1983, with the first .com registered by Symbolics Computer Corporation in 1985.

WWW

However, web development as we know it today began when Tim Berners Lee created Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) in the early 1990s. This was the catalyst for the modern World Wide Web, and HTML still forms the backbone of virtually every web page ever created.

The first HTML page and the beginning of web development

The first HTML page available to view at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html

Browser wars

During the early 1990s, ‘web developer’ was not a recognised profession. A variety of different roles, such as; designer, content manager and programmer were conglomerated under the term webmaster.

The introduction of the Mosaic web browser in 1993 brought with it the emergence of the Front-end Web Developer, as graphical user interfaces became possible for the first time. This early era also introduced the browser wars, as competing web browser vendors attempted to outdo each other with proprietary features and quirks.

‘Best viewed with Microsoft Internet Explorer’ was a common sight during this time.

Internet explorer ad during browser wars
This made the developer’s job very difficult, as it was almost impossible to guarantee that a web page would look and function as intended across different browsers without making separate versions of the same page.

User expectations were not particularly high during this period. Many popular websites were produced by hobbyists and browsing the web was a bit of a Wild West experience. Accepted standards of design and accessibility had not yet been established.

Developers came up with many innovative solutions to get around these limitations, such as using tables to control layout and infamous spacer gif files (an invisible gif file used to force a layout into the correct position).

Getting flashy

Towards the end of the 1990s, Macromedia’s Flash (later acquired by Adobe) seemed to open up a whole new world of possibilities for developers frustrated by HTML’s limitations.

The technology delivered content in a browser plugin rather than relying on the browser’s own proprietary features. This allowed animated, interactive content to be produced that would work on the majority of end-users’ computers.

However, it also led to some issues:

  • Most users relied on slow modem connections and Flash websites could take a long time to load.
  • Search Engines were unable to crawl sites created purely using Flash, causing difficulties for sites relying on organic search for traffic.
  • Accessibility problems - users relying on assistive technology could face severe difficulties navigating through Flash sites.
  • Even the most simple content updates would require a Flash developer to implement, making websites very costly to maintain.
  • It required the plugin to be installed in the first place. This could often lead to scenes like the below.
error message saying 'plugin is needed to display this content'

When Steve Jobs announced in 2010 that iOS devices would no longer support Flash, it effectively killed it off as a viable platform for web development.

Move towards standardisation

As we moved into the 2000s, there was a growing grassroots movement to establish independent standards for web technologies. Groups like the World Wide Web Consortium began to exert influence over the industry in an effort to make the web accessible for all and ensure that advancements were not driven by the profit motive of individual technology companies.

Gradually, browsers and developers began to adopt a standards-based approach. This has led to widespread adoption of open source technology and a greater focus on the experience of the end user.

A major issue with HTML-based websites at this time was that content and presentational code were mixed in together in one document. This made it very difficult for a non-developer to update a website and caused maintenance problems, e.g if a company wished to change a brand colour then they would have to ask their developers to individually update many individual pages wherever the colour was used.

It was around this time that I began to take an interest in web development. As I had programming experience from making ZX Spectrum games as a kid, I was the logical choice to look after my perennially struggling rock band’s website. In order to carry this out, I had to learn HTML and figure out a very complex layout built from many tables. Simple text updates could lead to the entire layout breaking and many long nights spent piecing it back together.

Internet Explorer 5.0, featuring a table based layout from The Web Design Museum

Internet Explorer 5.0, featuring a table based layout from The Web Design Museum (my old band website has long since disappeared)

Building sites with style (sheets)

CSS gradually gained widespread adoption and became the standard language used to separate presentation from content. As web browsers moved towards standardisation, developers could build more accessible, functional and performant sites. Content editors could update with confidence, knowing that a wrong move would not completely break the site’s layout.

In many ways, this made the developer’s job easier but for some, it meant having to learn an entirely new language and process for producing websites; unlearning carefully mastered techniques that had now become obsolete.

Javascript became the standard language used to add interactivity to web pages. Unfortunately, differences in how web browsers interpret this language made it very challenging to prevent bugs and inconsistencies in the end-user experience.

The jQuery framework emerged as a “wrapper” around the Javascript language in a (largely successful) attempt to iron out these inconsistencies by giving developers a standard method to add interactivity that would work across the majority of browsers. jQuery became an essential part of the front-end developer’s toolbox.

An example of spaghetti code. Different languages, styles and content all mixed together in one document.

An example of spaghetti code. Different languages, styles and content all mixed together in one document. Web standards are designed to eradicate this kind of thing.

The state of play

We have reached a stage where standards have become widely accepted, Internet Explorer is being phased out (yay!) and front-end development has become relatively mature.

The proliferation of smartphones and other web-enabled devices has brought a new set of challenges to the fore. Responsive, mobile-first development is the de facto standard practice to address this. Websites are now produced in such a way that the user experience is optimised for users on small screens and additional features are added to enhance the experience on larger screens.

Web users now expect a fast, accessible and seamless experience on whatever device they use to access a site. This has led to a trend for function over flash in web design and a much greater focus on the needs of the end-user.

Front-end development is no longer about hacking together web pages. Modern user interfaces should provide an “app like” experience. Today developers must adopt best practice from both software engineering and user interface design.

It is still an incredibly fast-moving profession, with new frameworks and trends emerging constantly. However; HTML, CSS and Javascript are still the core technologies that underpin everything that is built to be viewed in a web browser. This is unlikely to change in the near future.

If you are interested in building a new test-driven website or simply want one of our developers to give their audit on your site, then please feel free to get in touch!

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