The Future Is Behind Us – Why Developers are Bringing Back the Classics

It doesn’t sound like that long ago: 1997. But back then, when I was building my first web page, the world wide web as we know it today was basically unrecognizable. That first hideous, virtually unusable, and entirely pointless personal web page that I built thirteen years ago still put me on the cutting edge of the Internet. Companies were just starting to “get on line” and the early sandbox environments like AOL and Prodigy were only just beginning to give way to the open Internet. There was no Google, no concept of modern file sharing, few standards, and even fewer experts.

You’d think that as a developer in those early days I would have faced far different challenges than the developers of today but as it turns out when it comes for developing on the modern devices, maybe not so much.

Searching

1997: There was no consensus on the premier Internet search technology. Google was years away, and companies like Lycos, Alta Vista, and Web Crawler all competed for search traffic. Many search engines were still manually indexed or counted the total number of sites listed in the low millions, rather than hundreds of billions. Browser bookmarks were king. Searching was so hit or miss that most users learned about good links by word of mouth.

2010: Google has indeed dominated the web search market, but modern mobile devices have another problem. The Android marketplace has it’s own search, as does iTunes for Apple’s iOS along with the marketplaces for Windows Mobile and Blackberry. Today, most web searches don’t find mobile apps and mobile app searches don’t find web pages. Mobile applications are still primarily indexed manually and word of mouth is by far the most common method of learning about an app.

Screen resolution

1997: Most users kept their monitor resolutions at 800×600 pixels. As a developer creating an application it was a very real likelihood that you would get users using only 640×480 – three times smaller than most PC users today. Building an app was a real challenge, you needed to keep in mind the tiny screens by minimizing horizontal scrolling, image size, and overall layout.

2010: Most modern mobile devices have even smaller screens. Netbooks and tablets have brought back the 640×480 and other small resolutions. Many devices have pan and zoom features that allow them to view web pages and apps designed for higher resolutions, but this is considered a stop gap. Application developers are expected to build specifically for the smaller screens

Bandwidth

1997: I remember painstakingly optimizing each and every image I put on the web. Developers and designers would struggle over compromises between clarity and file size for images. Each file download needed to list the file size and estimated download time so users would know how long they had to go make a sandwich as it downloaded. Everything was compressed and animation and multimedia use was extremely limited.

2010: It’s weird to think that 3G mobile bandwidth is faster than most dial up modems from 1997. But until 4G becomes prevalent, it’s still a long sight slower than home and business-based broadband services that users are used to. Developers still struggle with file size and download times and users still flock to sites and applications that run smooth and fast

Web Animation and Multimedia

1997: Flash was just introduced by Macromedia and it had an extremely low adoption rate. Other animation tools were either clunky, had large file sizes, or both. Animation attempts within a browser using Javascript and DHTML could be described as immature at best. Multimedia files were usually embedded directly in the HTML for the page and relied on users having the correct browser plug-in – something unlikely considering the competition between the various multimedia plug-in systems of the day.

2010: Many mobile devices do not support flash and others support it only partially. Apple and Google are claiming that HTML 5 a new standard that will allow standardized multimedia presentation and animation, will be the future of web animation and multimedia. I hope that happens soon, because it’s not ready now. There is still no standard for web animation or multimedia for mobile devices.

Speaking of standards . . .

1997: The browser wars were in full swing. Netscape and Microsoft were in a no-holds-barred battle for browser market-share. Both focused on consumer features, add ons, and widgets. Conforming to the HTML standards was an afterthought. Where the major browsers did support the standards they tended to implement them differently. For a web developer, designing a single page that would look the same in both browsers was time consuming, difficult, and frustrating. Many companies choose to cop out: building pages that only worked or looked good in certain browsers, building two versions of every page, or dumbing down the interface so only the basic features were available for both.

2010: Welcome to Browser Wars 2.0. While developments with Web Kit have helped with standardization, there’s still three major desktop browser platforms: Mozilla (Firefox),  Internet Explorer, and WebKit (Safari and Chrome) and just as many mobile browsers to deal with. A few years ago support for CSS and XHTML standards between the browser competitors and free libraries of reusable client code were so common that developers could begin to let down their guard and stop worrying about the platform. The modern arguments about HTML 5 and Flash support have killed that. Companies today still cop out when it comes to mobile versions of web pages:  building pages that only work or look good in certain devices, building multiple versions of every site, or dumbing down the interface so only the basic features were available for everyone.

It’s both refreshing and frustrating to know that I’ll be using the skills learned and perfected way back in 1997 for quite some time to come.

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