The story I’ll tell at the web’s 25th birthday party

I’ve known the Web a long time. We go way back. Past Web 2.0 and Ajax, past DHTML, past tables, past, past Plexus, back to HTTP/0.9 and the NCSA daemon and the line mode client. Back then we didn’t have megabytes of Javascript loading for each page, no templated framework generators building our CSS from first principles. If you wanted presentation, you had to fight for it.

In the original text mode browser, we had to display everything on an 80×25 screen. It might have been an ANSI terminal, the HTML might have been turned into LaTeX and thence into Postscript and printed … you never really knew what you were going to be displayed on. And some of the tags were for functionality not supported on every device, so the spec helpfully said that renderers could ignore tags they didn’t understand.

It was in that environment that I whipped up a quick guide to using the Word-to-HTML programs, showing how to save on floppy. As a joke I added:

Remember: you must <B>NEVER</B> stick your floppy to the fridge with a magnet!

Imagine my horrors when one terminal client said “bold? I can’t do that. So I’ll just ignore everything between <B> and </B>“. That left the user pondering this helpful message:

Remember: you must stick your floppy to the fridge with a magnet!


So if you find yourself, as I do, puzzling at the complex and occasionally dysfunctional adult that the Web has become, take a moment to consider yourselves grateful that you weren’t working with it when it was a small barely useful gurgling pooping machine.

In the mean time, I’d like you all to charge your glasses and be upstanding. Web, we never thought you’d make it this far, and we’re bloody proud of you. Congratulations! And while we’re here, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the good folks who raised you. Everyone who submitted a patch, everyone who turned to their text editor after asking “I wonder if …”, everyone who looked at the infant and could sense the promise of the adult, all those wonderful folks on the www-talk mailing list in 1992 … thank you.

(prompted by xkcd and Tim Bray)