Saturday, November 29, 2008

10 Biggest Milestones in Web Development

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 andLinux 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! andWikipedia 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 ofMozilla'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 theGetting 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.

Debating the Vices and Virtues of Google

Google’s corporate philosophy is “Don’t Be Evil.” (Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP)

UPDATE: A follow up to this post is here. Video clips of the debate on arehere.

The question on the table is “Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto.”

You can vote “yes” or “no” yourself in the comments below. But first read some of the arguments put forward in an Oxford-style debate on the question held this week in Manhattan by Intelligence Squared US, a project of the Rozenkranz Foundation that runs a series of such discussions.

Before the debate between two teams of three experts, 20 percent of the audience agreed and 31 percent disagreed with the statement, with nearly half undecided.

It was a spirited discussion, mixing substantive talk of Google’s market power, privacy practices and its censorship in China with tongue-in-cheek attempts to compare the search company with Pol Pot, Lucifer, Dr. Evil and other dark icons.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, argued that Google is in fact guilty of all of the seven deadly sins (for which he used the Latin names). Here is a condensed version of his argument:

Luxuria (extravagance or lust): The people who work there get massages. That is corporeal lust of the highest order.

Gula (gluttony): They can eat all day, no matter what they want. There is so much food that they never need to say no. That is the very definition of gluttony.

Avaritia (greed): The Google-Yahoo advertising deal is one of many examples of Google overreaching to corner a market, or completely undermine a market, in an effort to maximize its returns.

Acedia (sloth): Its very model of advertising is based on free-riding. Google makes money off of our work. We blog, we put our cats on skateboards and record them for videos. We do all of this work, and then Google harvests our work, runs all of this content through this computers, spits it back out at us, with almost no actual value added.

Ira (wrath): There are hundreds of small companies all around America that have found their Google ranks decline significantly because they tried to optimize their results. They were just doing what a company should do, trying to get more attention for themselves. And Google’s algorithms, its faceless, soulless algorithms, came at them with wrath.

Invidia (envy): . Google has recently tried to push its suite of services that directly compete with Microsoft Office. Of course they have at various times threatened to muscle out eBay, muscle out PayPal, muscle out Amazon, in various ways.

Superbia (pride, or hubris): The actual motto of the company is “To organize the world’s information to make it universally accessible.” What could be more hubristic than that?

Defending Google was Jeff Jarvis, the blogger who is writing a book called “What Would Google Do?” He listed eight virtues of Google, sans Latin. Again, here’s the condensed version:

Google has opened up the world’s knowledge to the world: No longer do we end an argument saying, I don’t know. We go to Google. Google will tell us.

Google respects the wisdom of the crowd: Google learns what it learns because it trusts us.

Google takes the wisdom of the crowd and it gives it back to us: Look at the Google Flu Trends search. It lets us know how often we search for a flu, and how the flu trend is coming. That is our knowledge, not Google’s.

Google connects people: We often are accused online of being anti-social. I think we’ve become hyper-social. I think we’re more connected. Admit it, how many of you have searched Google for an old girlfriend or boyfriend?

Google is a platform that enables us to create: It is an age of creation, and Google creates the platforms, the tools to let us create, the means to let us pay for that.

Google does have ads: [Web publishers] can do what we want with our ads. We can start whole businesses with [Google]. We can create movements with it. We can be found with it. And I believe that Google ads will help support the future even of news. is trying to solve (with hubris) the problem of energy and global warming: Politicians are trying to get us on energy with regulation and taxes and prohibitions and slaps on the wrist. Google is giving this investment, and innovation, and invention.

Google has a new model on how to treat employees: We get, they get, massages. [He stops here because his time runs out]

Over an hour and a half, there was discussion of a lot of other issues as well. If you are curious, the transcript of the event is here, a podcast will be available soon on iTunes and the debate will be broadcast on many NPR stations in coming weeks.

After the debate, the audience was asked to vote again on the motion. It split evenly: 47 percent said Google does violate its “don’t be evil” motto and 47 percent said it does not.

So Bits readers must be the tie breakers. In the comments below, please first write your vote: “Google is evil” or “Google is not evil.” Then say why.

Latin is optional.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Free Software We're Most Thankful For

The 46 Free Desktop Software Applications, Webapps, and Projects We're Most Thankful For

  1. Firefox (see also: The Power User's Guide to Firefox 3)
  2. VLC Media Player (see also: Master Your Digital Media with VLC)
  3. Ubuntu (see also: Hardy Heron Makes Linux Worth Another Look)
  4. Open Office (see also: A First Look at 3.0)
  5. Pidgin (see also: Ten Must-Have Plug-ins to Power Up Pidgin)
  6. Launchy (see also: Take Launchy beyond application launching)
  7. Digsby (see also: Digsby Improves Performance, Supports LinkedIn)
  8. Gmail (see also: Our full Gmail coverage)
  9. Adium (see also: Adium Chat Improves Menu Bar Item, Corrects Your IM Grammar )
  10. CCleaner (see also: CCleaner 2.0 Decrapifies Your PC)
  11. Picasa (see also: Organize your digital photos with Picasa)
  12. AutoHotKey (see also: Turn Any Action into a Keyboard Shortcut)
  13. Google
  14. Quicksilver (see also: A beginner's guide to Quicksilver)
  15. GIMP
  16. Foobar 2000 (see also: Roll your own killer audio player with foobar2000)
  17. Thunderbird (see also: Eight killer Thunderbird extensions)
  18. 7-Zip (see also: Top 10 Windows Downloads, #10: 7-Zip (file archive manager) )
  19. DropBox (see also: Dropbox Syncs and Backs Up Files Between Computers Instantaneously)
  20. uTorrent (see also: Our complete uTorrent coverage )
  21. Winamp (see also: Our complete Winamp coverage)
  22. Google Apps
  23. AVG Antivirus (see also: AVG Free Anti-Virus 2008 Released, Much Improved)
  24. Evernote (see also: Expand Your Brain with Evernote)
  25. IrfanView (see also: Download of the Day: IrfanView (Windows) )
  26. Opera (see also: Opera Updates to Version 9.6, Gets Faster, Adds Features)
  27. Chrome (see also: The Power User's Guide to Google Chrome)
  28. Google Calendar (see also: Black-belt scheduling with Google Calendar)
  29. HandBrake (see also: HandBrake Media Converter Gets Even Better)
  30. Skype (see also: Our complete Skype coverage)
  31. Linux (see also: Our complete Linux coverage)
  32. Paint.NET (see also: Top 10 Windows Downloads, #3: Paint.NET )
  33. Ad-Aware (see also: Cleanse thy PC with Ad-Aware)
  34. Avast Antivirus (see also: Download of the Day: Avast anti-virus)
  35. Google Docs (see also: Our complete Google Docs coverage)
  36. LogMeIn (see also: Use LogMeIn for remote tech support)
  37. Transmission (see also: Manage Your BitTorrent Downloads with Transmission)
  38. TrueCrypt (see also: Secure your data with TrueCrypt)
  39. Amarok (see also: An Early Look at Amarok 2)
  40. FileZilla (see also: FTP File Transfer Across Platforms with Filezilla 3.0)
  41. Notepad++ (see also: Top 10 Windows Downloads, #6: Notepad++)
  42. (see also: Download of the Day: PortableApps Suite 1.0 (Windows))
  43. Rocket Dock (see also: Download of the Day: RocketDock (Windows))
  44. Spybot Search & Destroy (see also: Spybot Search and Destroy crushes evil)
  45. UltraVNC (see also: Tech support with UltraVNC SingleClick)
  46. VirtualBox (see also: VirtualBox 2.0 Adds 64-bit Support, Updated Interface)

A note on the numbers: Mozilla Firefox took first place in this exercise in gratitude with an insanely commanding lead; in fact, Firefox got more than three times the amount of votes the second-place mention (VLC) did. Here's a chart of the top eight on the list so you can see how the votes were spread out relative to one another.

About our vote count: We (ok, I) grossly underestimated how many votes we would get on this particular post. Almost 800 comments in total—many of which contained more than half a dozen free software projects—made finishing the total count (36 pages of comments) before Thanksgiving 2011 impossible. So, this represents just over 1,100 votes, only one third of the total comments we received. This list of 40 contains all the apps that received 10 or more votes. As almost 200 mentions got only a single vote, we think that even though it's incomplete, it's closely representative of the general consensus. (You can check out our complete vote count spreadsheet here.) Our apologies for the incomplete count—lesson learned. Next time, we'll use a proper survey tool.


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