Brave New Web

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One morning, 10 years ago this week, thousands of investors waited eagerly to buy the first shares of a young Mountain View company started by a 24-year-old programmer and a buttoned-down businessman who were about to reshape our world.

Netscape Communications' first public stock offering on Aug. 9, 1995, lit a fire under Silicon Valley, setting off a mad dash for riches matched only by the California Gold Rush.

But the social impact of Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark's product, a simple Web browser, far surpassed its financial success. Netscape Navigator's popularity helped build the World Wide Web, a digital universe that forever changed the way we consume information, buy goods and communicate with each other.

``Nothing can match the social impact of that,'' said Jakob Nielsen, a Silicon Valley Web consultant. ``All of a sudden, anything in the world came to my fingertips.''

Since 1995, the number of Web pages has grown from 20,000 to more than 11 billion. We find our mates, pay our bills, read our news, search for jobs and watch live sporting events online. Ten years ago, our doorway to the Internet was a slow modem and a copper phone line. Today, the Web is omnipresent, following us in our mobile phones, PDAs and cars.

Netscape existed as an independent company for just four years before being acquired by America Online and withering away. But the Web that Netscape helped spawn is now thriving on a second burst of energy and innovation. Having weathered a boom-and-bust cycle, the Web is suddenly hot again.

New life

Web innovations such as Google Maps are breathing new life into the humble browser, turning it into an interactive toy that sometimes makes us forget we're online. Desktop applications such as iTunes and ``widgets'' have bypassed the browser completely, opening new doorways to online life.

And the Web itself is finally beginning to realize what many back in 1995 saw as its destiny, evolving into a vibrant digital playground and social network, where people can instantly and easily share photos, music playlists, blog postings and links to Web sites that appeal to them.

For some people, the boundaries between life online and in the ``real word'' increasingly are blurring.

Roland Tanglao, a Vancouver Web developer, spends many of his waking hours living ``inside'' the Web. He has uploaded more than 15,000 photos to his two accounts at Yahoo's photo-sharing site, Flickr. He publishes his musings on as many as 10 blogs. And when he stumbles across something on the Web that interests him, he stashes a public bookmark of it online at a service called Del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us) so that others can see it.

`Personal expression'

Tanglao, who is the ``chief blogging officer'' for community Web site company Bryght, calls his Flickr stash his ``public backup photo brain.''

``It's personal expression,'' Tanglao said. ``You can share what you want with the world. It's changed me, helped me with my business and social network.''

The Web's future didn't always look so promising. The dot-com bust stymied innovation, put thousands of programmers and developers out of work, and shriveled funding for new companies. Some pundits even predicted the end of the Web as we knew it.

Meanwhile, Microsoft crushed Netscape in the ``browser wars'' by bundling its browser with its ubiquitous Windows operating system. Microsoft's dominance stifled innovation.

Now, though, Web developers have suddenly rediscovered some old technologies and are using them to build vastly more interactive Web sites.

Google has led development in this area with its e-mail service, Gmail, and Google Maps.

Google Maps, for example, lets people scroll and zoom their way through photographic aerial tours of neighborhoods and cities, adding a new dimension of reality to the once-boring task of plotting driving directions.

``It feels like the Web in a new way,'' said Jesse James Garrett, principal in the San Francisco consultancy firm Adaptive Path.

While they develop their own Web applications, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others also are helping spur innovation by allowing independent Web developers to build new applications on top of their technology.

Google's new map service, for example, has spawned dozens of ``mash-ups,'' where developers have layered other sets of data on top of Google's maps.

One popular mash-up, HousingMaps, merges data about rentals and houses for sale with Google map data, giving users a quick visual overview of the housing market in their area.

Runners' site

Paul Degnan, a Web developer in Hoboken, N.J., built a Google map site that allows runners to plot the distances of their runs. Degnan built the site for himself to help train for the Chicago Marathon. But the service has turned out to be popular, drawing about 6,000 visitors a day.

``I always wanted to know how far I went on my runs,'' Degnan said. ``The runners love it.''

David Temkin, chief technology officer for Laszlo Systems in San Mateo, foresees a time when Web applications become so easy and pleasant to use that users will want to store more of their data -- photos, documents, e-mail messages -- on the Web.

``We're looking at a revolution where all that is on your hard drive is accessible on the Web,'' Temkin said, ``without the loss of convenience or speed or ease of use.''

At the same time, many other applications are taking on some of the tasks once reserved for the browser.

ITunes, the software that Apple Computer devotees use to manage and download music, allows people to browse and shop for audio files -- much like a browser. Widgets are becoming more popular, too. These miniature applications sit on your desktop and provide new gateways to the Web and other information.

JC Cameron, an entrepreneur and Web designer in New Hampshire, keeps as many as 13 widgets running on his machine at any given time. At a quick glance, Cameron can get updated weather conditions, random quotes from ``The Simpsons,'' sports news and details about how much memory his computer is using. One even alerts him whenever new widgets are available for downloading.

``You have the ability to get the information you want in the format you want directly on your screen without having to go out and visit a number of sites,'' Cameron said.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is eyeing big things for an emerging technology called RSS. Also known as really simple syndication, the technology allows Web site owners, from small-time bloggers to large companies such as eBay, to publish content in a special format that people can subscribe to. Thousands of Web sites now publish RSS feeds, and an untold number of people are automatically pulling their favorite newspaper, blogs and podcasts onto their computers, cell phones and other devices.

Microsoft executives see the technology being used to pull Web content directly into applications that seemingly have no obvious connection to the Internet. People will be able to publish photos onto the Web and have them streamed onto the computers of relatives. Online calendar events will be automatically sucked into your scheduling software.

Perhaps more fundamental than how the Web looks and feels is how it's being used. While the early Web was mostly about consuming information, the new Web is more two-way. Blogging and other types of services have given rise to a new era of Web publishing and sharing of content. People use the Web to network and to develop digital friendships.

More exotic innovations in browser technology also are being explored, or are already in use.

Voice browsers

Voice browsers have been in use for several years, allowing people to surf the Web using a phone. And at IBM, researchers are using infrared eye-tracking technology to let people manipulate browsers with their eyes.

``For people with disabilities, there's a major advantage to that,'' said David Beymer, a research staff member at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose.

Regardless of what the future holds, no one predicts the vast Web of information that Netscape helped build will disappear anytime soon.

``The Web in some ways will just become the background,'' said Dave Raggett, who has been working on Web technology since before Netscape. ``It will just be part of your world. I think we're just scratching the surface.''

By Michael Bazeley
Mercury News