The Amazing Web Browser

It's fun to remember the web browser's origins and all of its simple but extrememly powerful capabilities, circa CERN 1990.

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Andrew Hinton discusses the web’s intention:

The principle driving the original development of the Web was to add a protocol (HTTP) to the Internet that facilitated open sharing. In the phrasing of its creators—in the Web’s founding document—its purpose was “to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will.”

Linking is now intrinsic to our culture:

The Web is now more a property of human civilization than a platform. It is infrastructure that we treat as if it were nature, like “shipping” or “irrigation.” HTTP could be retired as a network layer tomorrow, but from now on, people will always demand the ability to link to anything they please.

The ability to link to anything I please.

In that article was a link to the original proposal for hypertext, which is fascinating. Check out the description of a web browser:

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you : your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse… When you select a reference, the browser presents you with the text which is referenced: you have made the browser follow a hypertext link

And the description of how content types should be negotiated, which is pretty much exactly what we have today:

Once the server has located the requested node, it will know from the node contents what the node’s format is (e.g.. pure ASCII, marked-up, word processor storage and which word processor etc.). The server then begins a negotiation with the browser, in which they decide between them what format is acfceptable for display on the user’s screen… The last resort in the negotiation is the binary transfer of the node contents to a file in the user’s file space.

In other words, the browser was intended to display the linked document in whatever format the server indicated was acceptable. HTML is definitely the glue of the web, but browsers can also render other documents. Plain text (ASCII), images (JPEG, GIF, PNG), videos (WebM, OGG, MP4), audio (MP3, OGG, WAVE), PDF, Flash, and XML are other formats which can be displayed natively by browsers.

But can a browser render a database? What about a list of todos? Or a Markdown file? That’s when it hit me really how simple and powerful a web browser is.

Remember the bit about “your personal notes” in the Hypertext proposal? Why don’t browsers do that? Well they can. I set mine up to work that way today by making my home page open up to my computer’s Documents folder using the special file link: file:///path/to/Documents. How easy is that? And by installing the Markdown Viewer add-on for Firefox I am able to browse directly to Markdown formatted files on my computer and see them displayed beautifully in my browser.

It’s easy to take for granted the wonder of the lowly web browser, but it’s fun to be reminded of all the neat stuff it can really do.