Friday, July 11, 2008

Is the Web still the Web?

This first stab at Flash search still sounds somewhat primitive, but it raises an issue of importance to all Internet application developers. Given the growing number of data types and file formats being transmitted over HTTP and the increasing complexity of the applications that make use of them, is today's Web really still the Web? Or is it morphing into something else? How can we ensure that today's Web apps offer enough capabilities and flexibility to make Web 2.0 worthy of its name?

When Tim Berners-Lee first envisioned the Web in the 1980s, he saw it as primarily an information storage and retrieval system, based on the concept of hypertext. Web documents were fundamentally text, embellished with a markup language (HTML) that described how the text should be formatted and how each document was linked to others elsewhere on the Web.

Those embellishments were really only recommendations, however. How a page actually looked depended on the browser, client, or device on which you viewed it. Each document had a unique URL that described where it could be found, and not much else. Once you'd retrieved it, what you did with it was up to you and your software. If you wanted to, you could even view the raw source to see how its author encoded it.

Today, that early vision is gradually being replaced by a much more complex model. The static HTML document is largely a thing of the past. In its place is a diverse range of technologies, each of which falls somewhere along a continuum that spans from the flexibility and openness of Web 1.0, all the way to a closed, binary-only paradigm that's more akin to traditional desktop software.

Plain HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are still there for those who want them, of course. In addition to preserving the traditional features of the Web, standards-compliant HTML allows pages to be viewed on the widest possible range of devices. For RIA developers, however, this is often an arduous road. Traditional methods are too limited to facilitate the kinds of rich application UIs that users have come to expect.

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