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10 Biggest Milestones in Web Development

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Here's a chronological list of the 10 most notable and groundbreaking web development milestones in the Internet's history.

The web has moved from a simple protocol to transfer information and ideas to a highly-commercial and robust platform to spread and share those same ideas. Some believe the progression of the great World Wide Web to be a travesty, others a godsend. Regardless, the Internet has evolved over the past few decades, and is in many ways better for the web developer. New technologies have come about that have made web development much easier to get started in, and ultimately more fun.

1. Linus Torvalds Creates the Linux Kernel

When Linux Torvalds released Linux in 1991, it met with some harsh criticism from other UNIX systems developers. Some believed that it used the wrong computer architecture (32-bit), and was fundamentally flawed. Nevertheless, Torvalds developed his own kernel for UNIX, which eventually became the de facto web server software (not to mention a popular operating system for personal computers). Because Torvalds released the software under the GNU license, it was able to spread much quicker than under a closed proprietary license.

Linux is at the core of the Internet: It is the software that virtually every web host uses and supports, and it has a large, loyal and rabid following. It is the most popular example of open source software, and it makes web development possible for many.

2. The Mosaic Browser Launches

The Internet would be a much blander place without Mosaic, the first browser to really popularize the Internet. Upon its release in 1993, Mosaic was the first browser to support bookmarking, icons, a slick user interface (by 1993's standards), and the biggest innovation yet: picture support. Up until that point in the Web's history, images had to be downloaded. With the images being displayed inline, it completely changed Internet browsing, and greatly helped the Internet become more mainstream.

Mosaic completely changed how we transfer data on the Internet. Without it, web development as a whole would be a much, much different undertaking.

3. The W3C Released the CSS level 1 Recommendation

CSS has been around in computing since the 1970's, through various different forms. It wasn't until December of 1996 that a working group of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the CSS level 1 Recommendation. Microsoft soon after launched Internet Explorer 3, which offered limited CSS support. The rest, as they say, is history.

I don't need to go too deeply into the reasons why CSS has changed how the web has been developed. Instead of making hard-to-maintain inline style changes, CSS allows the web developer to simply call an external style sheet, and make a site-wide design change, in a matter of seconds. There's no need to go back into each HTML page and look for stylistic elements that needs to be individually altered.

Thanks to CSS, website designs are now much easier to maintain and create (even with subtle changes in browser renderings).

4. The Open Source Movement Officially Starts

The Open Source Movement has been around, in one form or another, for a very, very long time. Believe it or not, the Web wasn't created for commercial reasons. It was simply a way to exchange information. Once websites became avenues for profit, the free exchange that was once the WWW became more of a closed, commercial space. Many saw this as a negative, and still do today.

Thank goodness for the Open Source movement. The Internet itself was created with help from open source, and has roots dating back into the 1960's. In 1998, major players met at Tim O'Reilly's "Freeware Summit", decided on the term "open source" and started the Open Source Initiative. Licensing was made to protect the developers and software, and at the same time allow other developers to freely distribute and modify the source code.

Open source now powers much of the "modern" web, in the form of software. Wordpress, Firefox, PHP and Linux are just a few of the major players on the web that influence web development and browsing. Without the Open Source Initiative, software would be much more closed and we'd see less innovative solutions.

5. PHP is Released by Rasmus Lerdorf

Thanks to Open Source, dynamic languages like PHP are freely distributed amongst web developers. You'd be hard pressed to find a web host who didn't have PHP installed. It's the de facto language for programming on the web, and by far the most popular. The language is installed on more than 20 million websites and 1 million web servers.

When PHP was introduced in 1995 by Rasmus Lerdorf, it was quickly adopted by many as an excellent language for web programming. It runs on a web server, can be embedded in HTML, and works nicely with SQL databases. PHP quickly allowed developers to create and maintain complex, database-driven websites.

Many of the most popular sites on the Internet, (past and present), run on PHP. Facebook, Yahoo! and Wikipedia all run on PHP. Also, dozens of popular web software applications are built with PHP: Wordpress, Drupal, phpBB and many, many other projects are powered by the handy language.

6. PayPal is Founded

Though often controversial, PayPal undoubtedly pioneered the process of transferring money online. Founded in 1998, PayPal was originally developed as a way to safely send money between the bidder and the seller on auction sites like eBay. PayPal became more and more popular with eBay users, and by February of 2000 PayPal had over 200,000 daily auctions on eBay. After eBay's acquisition of PayPal, the the payment processing system started to allow for merchant accounts and usage of their API. This API allowed developers to easily process money transactions, and gave a fast and safe way for site visitors to pay for services and subscriptions.

PayPal has enabled developers a quick way to accept money for services they provide. Whether it's a subscription service or a one-time fee, PayPal is generally what is used to process payments, due to their widespread popularity.

7. Firefox is Released

In 2003, Internet Explorer had a stranglehold on the web browser space. There was virtually no competition, as IE's biggest competitor Netscape had fallen by the wayside. Microsoft's web browser was enjoying a fat 94% share of the total web browser market. Consequently, the lack of competition left the IE project stagnant, and what used to be yearly updates on IE between versions 1-6, became a sleepy 5 year gap between IE 6 and IE 7's release in 2006. What fueled a major spark in IE development in those later years was the creation of Mozilla's open source web browser Firefox.

Firefox burst onto the scene with its initial release in 2003. The Firefox browser was addressing many of IE's stale shortcomings. Tabbed browsing, spell-checking, live bookmarking, and many more features were included in the initial release, and early adopters loved the software. But even more importantly for web developers, Firefox was based on the Gecko rendering engine, which conformed to web standards.

Web standards help reduce the cost and complexity of web development. Consistent design currently means supporting a myriad of different browsers and their rendering "quirks". Internet Explorer is notorious for not complying with web standards, making life much more difficult for designers and developers (as they still own a major share of the browser market). With Firefox becoming more popular and pushing new initiatives towards standards and compliance, the web will become a much better place to develop in.

8. Ruby on Rails Goes Mainstream

While some may not see this specific event as a major milestone in web development history, the rise of Ruby on Rails is extremely important because it symbolizes a broader shift in development that uses frameworks and the concept of agile software development to efficiently develop web sites.

David Heinemeier Hansson released Ruby on Rails (RoR) in 2004, and since then many web development frameworks centered around other languages like PHP and Python have been released. RoR is a model-view-controller framework, meaning that it uses scaffolding and other helpers to eliminate repetitive tasks in programming. By eliminating these monotonous coding tasks, the developer can have quicker turnaround times with projects.

Frameworks have sped up development times and shifted the way the web development is done. Since then major websites like Twitter have built complete web services using web frameworks. Ruby on Rails hit a major milestone when Apple's operating system Leopard was shipped with RoR.

9. 37 Signals Release the Getting Real Ebook

37 Signals has been one of the most popular web development companies for the past five years. Not only do they build excellent products, they're very outspoken thought-leaders on modern web development, specifically championing agile web development. Their flagship product Basecamp was built using the very first version of Ruby on Rails, and ultimately led to the framework's conception in 2004. Their philosophies on web development have been a major component to their popularity among web developers, and their release of the Getting Real ebook in 2006 also popularized small, agile web development practices.

Web developers have since embraced agile web development practices, and the philosophies in the Getting Real ebook. Even large companies like Google and Microsoft have embraced the concepts of using smaller teams with quicker release cycles and less red tape to develop better web products.

10. Amazon Launches Cloud Storage and Serving

With Amazon's launch of S3 and EC2 in 2006, the cloud storage and web services officially hit mainstream. Instead of adding costly instances of servers as websites grow, with Amazon startups only ever need to pay for the bandwidth they actually use. In theory, the service could scale infinitely in a matter of minutes, only paying "as you go". Cloud web services created a much faster and cheaper alternative to traditional web servers.

Cloud services have since lowered the barrier of entry for web startups, in terms of both cost and speed. Unexpected bursts of traffic are no longer an issue with cloud computing, and downtime is all but eliminated. Cloud services have ensured that nearly any web developer can develop their idea without having to take funding or pay for expensive servers, allowing better web ideas to come into fruition.

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Glen Stansberry is a web developer and blogger who's struggled more times than he'd wish to admit with CSS. You can read more tips on web development at his blog Web Jackalope.

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