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The Woe of the Web

The World Wide Web is fifteen. Like a typical teenager, it’s pimply, ungainly, and still has a lot of growing up to do.
Believe it or not, the Web browser celebrated its fifteenth anniversary this past Christmas day. Released on December 25, 1990, Tim Berners-Lee first iteration, called WorldWideWeb, was written in Objective-C on a NeXT computer, largely because Berners-Lee was smitten with the then-novel development tools available only on that system. (You can read Berners-Lee’s own recollections in his nascent blog at http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/blog/4.) That initial software didn’t display images inline and worked only in grey-scale (a limitation of the early NeXT), but it realized concepts — URL’s, hyperlinks, sites, pages— that are now essential to the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, having access to an Internet connection is perhaps even more vital nowadays than a telephone line or a cable connection.
But when I fast forward through hand-crafted, static web pages, the pastime of “surfing,” search engines galore, CGI, billions spent in the virtual gold rush, the usurpation of Netscape by Internet Explorer, PHP, the Google IPO, (just to name a few of the many milestones in the Web’s short life), I feel like something is missing.
To be sure, the combination of the modern browser and modern server-side technologies offers some wonderful applications. I keep track of my college friends’ lives via Buzznet photo blogs. I eschew surfing and prefer skimming, using RSS and a good feed reader. I can post content from my desktop using a little bit of XML and a handful of web services. And as a consumer, I can bank, shop, remain informed with just a few clicks of the mouse. If it weren’t for the post office, I might not ever leave the house (my postage is created on-demand, but it’s that proverbial “last mile” that still makes it inconvenient).
But when I compare the browser to the level of integration between my desktop applications, especially on Mac OS X, the facade of the interwoven Web falls away to reveal a rather stiff skeletal structure. Worse, the browser and the thousands of electronic moving parts that serve content seem like the Windows desktop circa 1995: you want applications to work seamlessly together, but some speak Portugese and others use sign language. Poor you: you have to speak all of the languages fluently and liasion between the various constituencies.
Now, am I calling for the browser to be as powerful as my desktop operating system? I suppose I am. As more and more necessities of life move to the Web, it seems natural that the browser and the underlying technologies that create and serve content rise to meet those very demands. Ideally, I’d be untethered from my desktop completely, able to access my data and the services I need from anywhere on the planet. To do that the single computer (that ball and chain attached to the end of my keyboard and mouse) must become irrelevant, shifting the burden to servers and software to deliver the information and tools that I need. Even today, servers are largely black boxes. The software — the browser — isn’t.
Perhaps on the browser’s 25th birthday, we can all meet virtually, share our memories of writing HTML by hand, savor the moment we replaced Internet Explorer with Firefox, laugh at the very notion of RSS, and wonder how we ever survived before the “Web 3.0” revolution. Until then, though, fire up Gaim, Skype, Thunderbird, Flock, open a bunch of browser windows, put “Fear of a Black Planet” on, and party like it’s 1990.

Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine.

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