March 12 was the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee‘s proposal for what would become the World Wide Web. The Web has changed humanity more than almost any other invention of the 20th century. Information has never been so universal, so immediate, and so free.
Tim Berners-Lee knew he had something revolutionary, but others weren’t so far-sighted. The first generation of web designers took the new medium and turned it into something commercial and (given the state of the technology) beautiful, but they made some bad decisions that still affect us 20 years later.
The worst idea anyone ever had was to call an HTML document a “page”. It feels right, but it gets the fundamental nature of the web so wrong.
The notion that if you squint hard enough, the web is just a lo-fi magazine, and the ensuing design-at-all-costs mentality, led us down the path of tag soup, browser wars, table-based layouts, fear of the fold, and all-Flash fullscreen “experiences”.
It took ten years and another set of visionaries to get us back on track. Jeffrey Zeldman and the crew at A List Apart were our inspiration and rallying point. “Standards” and “Semantic” became our ideals, reminders of what the web wasn’t yet and would be.
In the end, mobile forced our hand. Apple and the iPhone gave us a tiny web browser that everyone wanted and that we weren’t equipped to serve. Almost overnight, the internet wasn’t about computers anymore. Pretty soon we realized that people didn’t want “pages” anyway, they just wanted content to consume.
Responsive design, pluginless rich media, native-quality web apps, and everything that’s come since, have come from the realization that the web isn’t an expensive version of paper, it’s the future of human knowledge.
The first 25 years were a wild ride, but we haven’t scratched the surface of what’s to come. I don’t know what “The Web at 50″ will look like, but I imagine it will be so open and powerful that our feeble modern developer brains will explode with joy, and so universal and customizable that the rest of the world will barely notice it. We’ve got some exciting careers ahead of us. Hang on.