"URL" entries

The power of connection

URLs are the Web's unique superpower.

Over the past two decades, the heart of the Web has come to seem ordinary, forgettable. Some software has gone so far as to bury it and make it invisible, but it still worked its magic behind the scenes. As competing systems have made it disappear, though, absence has made many hearts grow fonder.

The humble URL is pretty ugly. The Web’s creator, Tim Berners-Lee, was embarrassed that people looked at them. It’s plain text, the computing interface that came right after punchcards and switches. The openings are always verbose, with a long “http://” (or similar) preceding the actual place you want to go. Excessively abstract debates about URIs aside, automated systems’ fondness for opaque identifiers has made many URLs hideous piles of characters that only a lookup table could enjoy. (Are QR codes even uglier?)

Even done badly, however, the URL is perhaps the most powerful innovation in networking history. While prior systems (IP addresses, DNS, and similar) had let us connect computers, URLs let us connect people’s creations. URLs let us share other people’s ideas, and promote our own ideas. The power to say “this bit of text will (mostly) reliably get you this content today” is a basic feature fundamental to the Web’s triumph.
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Web application development is different (and better)

On both front and back end, the Web challenges conventional wisdom

The Web became the most ubiquitous distributed application system because it didn’t have to think of itself as a programming environment. Almost every day I see comments or complaints from programmers (even brilliant programmers) muttering about how many strange and inferior parts they have to deal with, how they’d like to fix a historical accident by ripping out HTML completely and replacing it with Canvas, and how separation of concerns is an inconvenience. Everything should be JavaScript.

(Apologies to Tom Dale, who tweeted a perfect series of counterpoints just as I was writing. He has visions of rebuilding the rendering stack in JavaScript, but those tweets are not unusual opinions.)

The Web is different, and I can see why programmers might have little tolerance for the paths it chose, but this time the programmers are wrong. It’s not that the Web is perfect – it certainly has glitches. It’s not that success means something is better. Many terrible things have found broad audiences, and there are infinite levels to the Worse is Better conversations. And of course, the Web doesn’t solve every programming need. Many problems just don’t fit, and that’s fine.

So why is the Web better?

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