A tale from 30 years of HTML

Netscape Navigator on Windows 3.1

How to build a website — 90s style

The very first challenge in the mid-90s was to find someone to host your website. Registering a domain was a completely different story back then. Assuming you had your own server or found someone to host your website, they’d probably just give you FTP access to a Unix machine that would store your HTML and some nice GIF images to serve to anyone that wanted it.

’95, ’96 and the boom

The year ’95 and ’96 were milestones for the world-wide-web and the Internet as we know it today. Usage took off and services flourished, from free web hosters like Yahoo’s GeoCities, auction platforms like eBay and online stores like Amazon.com. Specifically software like Microsoft Frontpage, the WWW Artist from Sierra and many others made it way easier to build your own HTML pages and upload them with FTP.

Microsoft Frontpage 1.1 released in 1995

’97 to 2000 and beyond

The software products from a small San Francisco-based company called Macromedia which included Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash quickly become the go-to solution for many professional webmasters. Webmaster was a job that people had. Although with the rise of CSS, JavaScript, PHP and many other programming languages that focused purely on the Web, building websites was becoming a pure software development or engineering job.

Macromedia Dreamweaver back in 1997/98
Real Player in 1997 — one of the first streaming software systems

WML in ‘98 — the mobile web was born and died

The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) used the Wireless Markup Language (WML) and could organise different pages (called “cards”) in a set of cards. This would reduce the amount of data transferred since multiple pages could be transferred to the client at once. A bit like modern frontend frameworks do today — Déjà vu again? Given the horrible pricing the mobile network operators had, WAP and the mobile browser quickly became a frightining experience since they would rack up hefty bills in seconds. Users did not like it that much, to say the least.

Nokia 7110, the world’s first WAP phone

2002 — Say hello to Windows XP, IE 6 & Firefox

The year 2002 marked the Birth of Firefox and Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6. After the Dotcom Bubble in 2000, the Internet and the Web matured. Commercial Web services like online shops, hotel and flight booking sites started to become a real thing. With JavaScript, CSS and HTML maturing with HTML 4.01, the web was progressing towards what was often defined as “Web 2.0”. Browsers were now able to render and operate relatively complex user interface components like calendars, auto-complete text boxes, interactive tables, maps and much more.

Phoenix 0.1 on Windows XP
Google Maps in 2005, by Google Inc.

2008 — the mobile web is born again

Since it’s birth in the mid-90s, the mobile web basically always had two significant problems that blocked it from growing and becoming a real thing that people would use every day.

  • the horrible pricing of the mobile network operators
  • websites that weren’t optimized for small screens and fat fingers
T-Mobile G1 with integrated Web browser

2020, 2021, 2022 and beyond

In early 2020, the web and web browsers had solved allmost all challenges of the past decades. Browser could now stream videos, manipulate images and videos, adapt to any type of device and run basically any full application in the browser. Even so far that browsers can run entire operation systems that have been ported to WebAssembly. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, WebAssembly and tons of native APIs, are today the main components of modern applications. And HTML has made it well beyond just the Web browser as it became a common standard also for desktop applications and mobile apps with frameworks like React Native, Electron and many other implementations.

Challenges that still remain

Back in the old days, browser testing was a pain. And it still is. Although Internet Explorer is a thing of the past now, the variety of mobile devices, different form factors and varying support of HTML5 or Web APIs remains a challenge. However modern development environments are very good at keeping up. With Chrome, Safari and Firefox, the differences between these browsers both on desktop as well as mobile devices aren’t as severe as Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator were in the early days.

Recap and outlook

There are a lot more things on the roadmap of the W3C for the web and the W3C continues to prove its capabilities to solve very complicated challenges in standardization. It has never been more flexible and more complex to build web applications than today.



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Jan Kammerath

Jan Kammerath

I love technology, programming, computers, mobile devices and the world of tomorrow.