Internaut Day: A day we should all celebrate

August 23 is a day that changed the course of all of our lives forever.

On August 23, 1991, the public was first able to access the World Wide Web.

Conceived in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee while working at CERN (yes, that CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland), the Web was created as a solution for scientists to share information with each other. It was originally visualized as a large virtual book with pages that linked to one another and could be added to by any computer in any location. The first web page was written by Berners-Lee and described the concept of the World Wide Web, hypertext, and hyperlinks.

Is the Web the same thing as the Internet?

Nope. The Internet was invented in the 1960’s and is now a massive global network infrastructure that allows computers anywhere in the world to communicate with each other. Information is shared across the Internet using a variety of languages, called protocols. The World Wide Web is just one of many systems allowing access to the Internet and uses the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (or HTTP) to communicate. Other protocols include TCP, IP, SSH, FTP, SMTP, POP, IMAP, SSL, Bluetooth, WIFI, and Bitcoin.

So how does the Web work?

Web servers are computers that are built to allow access to the web pages stored on them. When a web browser — like Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer — requests a web page from the World Wide Web, it says, “Hey there, server! Will you please send me the code for this page?” The web server looks for the corresponding code on its system and sends it back to the browser, which then interprets the code and displays it as a web page. Web pages include hyperlinks to other web pages. These links can point to any other web page on the Web. A group of web pages that all live together at the same address is called a website.

Early web design

Web pages throughout the early 1990s were written in Hypertext Markup Language — or HTML — and were devoid of much style. They were text-based, with occasional images, sounds, and videos. Clever programmers who wanted to spatially organize information used data tables as grid systems to place elements almost anywhere on the page.

JavaScript came to the scene in 1995, which added the ability for web pages to be more interactive and respond to the user’s actions.

Cascading Style Sheets — or CSS — were proposed in 1994 as a semantic solution to separate content from design. After a rocky start with support from early web browsers, it took about 10 years for CSS to become widely used.

Illustration from another article about the history of web development for designers
A brief history of web design for designers

In an attempt to break the boundaries of what could be created with early HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, a platform called Flash was released in 1996. Interactive experiences that included graphics, sounds, videos, and text — in any typeface! — were created in a design program that produced a single file, which was then embedded directly onto a web page.

Apple changes course

It was all pretty magical, but there were huge limitations with Flash. It required proprietary software to be installed on an individual user’s computer, in addition to the web browser. The files were large and consumed a lot of the computer’s processing power. The technology was not open source and the resulting web pages were not accessible to assistive technology or search engines. In 2007, Apple decided not to support Flash on the first iPhone and the platform’s use for much of the Web has since been relegated to history.

With the advent of more extensive browser support of CSS styling in the early 2000’s, web designers were able to design more freely without relying on the clunky Flash platform. Early CSS wasn’t very flexible, but it has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time and has been a strong tool throughout the very quick evolution of personal computers.

Responsive design

Responsive design was a term coined in 2010, which is simply a conceptual advancement in how designers approach a design and how developers write code. It allows HTML and CSS to present a single web page in layouts customized for a multitude of different media: high resolution displays, large monitors, small laptops, tablets, smartphones, tiny-screened flip phones, printers, and assistive technology, just to name a few.

An over-simplification of the Web today

Today, most web pages are served to browsers in a mix of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which are front-end programming languages. There are also back-end languages that web servers use as a means of dynamically building web pages. These special languages came about in the mid 1990’s. They allow communication with databases — which store the data or content — and then write the data into front-end languages that are readable by the browsers. The most popular back-end languages of today are PHP, Ruby, and Python.

With a systems administrator for a dad, I was born with a mouse in my right hand and my left-hand fingers on the ASDF keys.

I have known computers my entire life, which for someone my age isn’t as mundane as it sounds. Some of my earliest memories are of playing on the computer with my dad in the late 80s. In my nerdy middle school years, I made websites for fun.

My dad taught me the basics of HTML using Notepad on our Windows 95 computer, and in 1996 I launched my first webpage. “Isabisa’s Play Place” was an epic orange and blue outer-space and NutRageous-themed page of animated GIFs. That one webpage blossomed into a my own little personal network of fan sites for everything from candy bars to music groups. I often challenged myself to create websites with the fewest lines of code possible, which naturally led to teaching myself CSS in 2000. I continue to love the magic of weaving together a website with nothing but a string of characters.

When did you first start using the Internet? What are your earliest memories of the World Wide Web?