We all know that there is a lot we can do using Web technologies, but the way the Web became so complex and ubiquitous is instructive in understanding what its future will bring.
The original Web server, invented by Tim Berners-Lee, was a pretty primitive affair compared to what even the lowliest server can do today. The original machine used a 25Mhz CPU, 2GB of disk and a gray scale monitor connected to a NeXT computer running Unix, which even then wasn't a lot of resources as servers go. Back in the early 1990s, a original Web server dealt with mostly static content. The first Web server (and the first browser, too) was just text: no images, no video, no dynamic content. The main innovation was hyperlinked text. The notion of dynamic pages that would automatically update from a database server came later. This was exciting and difficult to pull off without a lot of programming help.
Those days seem so quaint.
Now we have more complex content. AJAX applications have given us dynamic response, so that it’s hard to discern the difference between a desktop application and a Web application. Typical commercial websites employ custom-built ad servers, built-in analytics to track page views and visitors, discussion forums to engage customers (with add-ons to moderate comments), social media connections to share the post on Twitter and Facebook, and videos embedded in various ways. All of these require coordinated applications and add-ons to the basic Web server, often requiring various cloud services For example, some of the sites that I run make use of Moveable Type or Wordpress for our content, connect with Google Analytics to monitor our traffic, use Disqus discussions, and bring up interactive polls from PollDaddy.com, just to name a few of the numerous add-ons.
Tending to this mish-mash isn't easy, and requires a lot of detailed adjustments on a too-frequent basis.
(Image c/o blogiseverything.com)
Bottom line: Enterprises have a lot more to coordinate over Web protocols these days than just setting up a repository for their text.
Since the early days of the static Web we have seen the rise of everything-as-a-service. These applications typically employ an army of Web-based servers to work their magic. We don't need to rely as heavily on desktop-based apps because everything can run in our browsers, for better or worse. Indeed, it is more common to see an entire data center virtualized and running on top of various Web services.
What is more, we have gotten used to having the Web as the go-to place for new tools, software drivers, and programs. Software repositories such as GitHub and open source projects such as Apache have blossomed into sites that corporate developers use daily for building their own apps. And why not? These sites and online services have large support communities and hundreds of projects that are well tended.
Bottom line: The Web protocols have vastly increased the kinds of on-demand services that are now available to large and small organizations, with or without any IT involvement.
The browser is getting more complex. Back in the 1990s, there were differing interpretations over HTML standards, but the Web browsers mostly handled static text. Today's browsers are used for everything under the sun, including streaming video and audio content, interaction with databases, and more.
Now we have at least four major browser "families" (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome) and both desktop and mobile versions across a variety of operating systems. While once a developer could assert (rightly or wrongly) that 90% of her users would run, say, a certain version of Internet Explorer, today the user community is far more diverse.
Bottom line: Testing applications is a lot messier, and it’s harder for software developers to ensure that a website works correctly across every option.
Moreover, the tide is turning towards mobile. According to research firm NetApplications, the share of Web browsing originating from mobile devices has more than doubled in the past year. While desktops still account for more than 90% of the data accessed from browsers, mobiles are consuming the Web at an increasing rate.
Bottom line: It is important for website designers to optimize content for the best mobile experience.
The Web has gotten more social too. It used to be the odd person in your professional circle who didn't have an Internet email account. Now that has been transformed into the odd person who doesn't have an account on Facebook or some other social network access. What was begun in a Harvard dorm room in this decade has turned into a juggernaut of nearly a billion users, and Facebook (and its competitors) are still growing rapidly.
This is much more than a "Like" button on a particular page of content. It is a way to curate and disseminate that content quickly and easily. Social media has replaced the Usenet "news groups" (see above) that many of us remember with a certain fondness for their arcane and complex structure. (Or maybe that is just nostalgia talking.)
In the past, if you wanted to share something you found online, more than likely you would email your colleagues a URL. Now you can Tweet, post on Facebook and Google+, add an update to your LinkedIn account, put up a page on your corporate Yammer.com or tibbr.com server, or use one of dozens more services that stream your likes and notable sites to the world at large. Or you might do all of the above.
There are even services such as Ping.fm and Graspr.com that can coordinate batch updates to numerous services. At the push of a button, all of your social media connections get your news at once. Services such as Nimble.com (shown below), attempt to coordinate your entire social graph (as it is called) of friends and admirers so you can track what is going out across all your various networks.
Bottom line: Making use of the social Web is an important part of any business's marketing and customer support plan.
Finally, the Web has become less formal when it comes to a publishing medium. Services such as Medium.com, Branch.com and others have made it almost effortless to post content online. And instead of putting together collections of pages as we have in the past, more sites are streaming their content, "organized by topic and sorted with the newest stuff on top," as Anil Dash wrote. "Stream-based content naturally flows across different devices and media, from tiny phones to tablets to giant desktop monitors, with an adaptivity that works naturally hand-in-hand with responsive design."
The days of the simple static Web are so over, as many GenY'ers are fond of saying. Clearly, we have a long and rich future ahead of us for more interesting Web applications. And mobile and social extensions are just the beginning of taking the Web into a more interactive and exciting place.