As soon as you visit a modern website, it starts feeding you reasons to leave. First by begging you to download its app from the app store, then with a dialog box urging you to sign up for a newsletter. Next will come a request to send you alerts, followed by either an onslaught of ads or a plea to turn your ad blocker off. It’s enough to make you swear off the web in favor of podcasts or private Slack channels or apps like Apple News—someplace where you can escape the din of pop-ups and fake news and harassment. If only it were so simple.
Today’s web wasn’t what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned 30 years ago when he pitched the idea of a “distributed hypertext system” to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. In his proposal, Berners-Lee described an application he created in 1980 called Enquire to keep track of his software projects. Enquire, he explained, let him create different types of “sheets” that contained information like software documentation. Some sheets could simply be links to other sheets. Wikipedia comes to mind today, but at the time Berners-Lee likened Enquire to the classic text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure (better known as Adventure) and to Apple’s Hypercard system.
Tim Berners-Lee in his own words, on the 30th anniversary of his idea for the web.
Berners-Lee proposed to extend this basic idea and build a system that researchers could use to share information regardless of the computer they were using. Crucially, he wrote that it needed to be decentralized. “Information systems start small and grow,” he wrote. “They also start isolated and then merge. A new system must allow existing systems to be linked together without requiring any central control or coordination.” There wouldn’t be one server managed by a single team, as systems in the mainframe era operated, but rather a multitude of servers all linking to each other.
His boss Mike Sendall famously responded that the idea was “vague but exciting,” and Berners-Lee got to work creating the first web browser, the first web server, a simple language for creating pages known as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and a protocol for exchanging information between browsers and servers called the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
With each leap forward in its underlying technologies, the web has become ever more useful—and ever more annoying. The ability to open multiple windows was a handy feature, but it also led to the rise of the pop-up ads that plagued the web in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Browser makers responded to the scourge of pop-up ads with their own built-in pop-up blockers. That endless cat-and-mouse dynamic might be reason enough to retreat from the web to apps. But these escape hatches tend to just lead right back to the web.
In 2010, WIRED proclaimed that the web was dead. That pronouncement was premature, partially because links to web content became the currency of social media. But also because the web had become so powerful that its underlying technologies are now used to build mobile and desktop apps. For example, the desktop versions of apps like Slack, Discord, and Spotify are actually built on Google’s Chromium web browser. They are, in essence, web browsers that serve up only a single web application. Countless mobile applications work much the same way.
Even apps that aren’t necessarily repurposed web browsers rely heavily on web technologies. Apple News and podcasting apps rely on a web format called Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to slurp up the content that they present to you. And behind the scenes, servers still use the successor protocols to Berners-Lee’s original HTTP to communicate with one another.
The web proved so powerful that instead of being killed by apps, it remade computing in its own image.
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