Building a Better Web: A Brief History of Web Development

Mobile Man / Wednesday, January 14, 2015

In this 3 part series, we’ll cover mobile, design, and development trends that matter – and in this post, we take a brief look at the history of web development.

A full history of web development would take a paper of this length on its own to document, and even then only a summary of the technical innovations would be possible - such has been the exponential growth of the World Wide Web since its inception. The United Nations (UN) backed International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published a report in 20121 which listed the number of Internet users per 100 people of the population. It rose from 2 per 100 in 1997 to 33 per 100 in 2011. That figure rises to 67 per 100 if we consider just the developed world.

Such has been the rate of progress of web development that the very nature of World Wide Web has now been totally transformed. Tim Berners Lee, generally considered to be the founding father of the web2, foresaw a vast network of interlinked hypertext documents. These hypertext documents were to be written in a language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language). An early standard proposed3  a basic set of tags, including support for images with , but HTML was very much designed as a text focused specification. It offered very little in the way of formatting, and even less control over how content was positioned on the page.

As Internet and World Wide Web usage increased, the makeup of the audience using it changed dramatically. It went from being almost exclusively academic in nature, to including non-technical consumers. This in turn changed the demand for content and the type of websites that became popular. Suddenly formatting, design, and rich media were more important than structure and the intellectual rigor of content.

In order to deliver this new web, and to support what was quickly becoming the publishing and computing phenomenon that we know today, new development techniques and technologies were needed.

Historic milestones in web development

Let's start our overall review of the key trends that are currently affecting modern web development with a look at the historic milestones that enabled us to get to where we are today:

The Mosaic browser

Mosaic wasn’t the first browser, but it was the one that popularized the Internet for many. Released in 1993, it supported bookmarks and inline image. Before Mosaic images had to be downloaded and viewed separately from page content. Mosaic was, at the time, the most user friendly browser available by some degree. It allowed non technical users to understand the web for the first time.


Support for cookies, tiny files that can store a web users preferences, were first supported by what was then the Mosaic Netscape browser in 1994. Whilst they have over the years gained a bad reputation for tracking user activity online, they have actually played a huge role in adding a layer of programmatic sophistication to the web. Such has been their impact we are only now implementing improved web storage methods to replace their use.


CSS, as we know it today, came along in 1994. It was proposed by the Opera browser CTO Hakon Wium Lie. Somewhat of a web pioneer, Hakon has since played key roles in the adoption of both downloadable fonts and the HTML tag. Whilst the separation of presentation and content that CCS facilitates is something we now take for granted, those who remember the mess HTML tables made of the web will forever be grateful for the day the W3C approved ‘CSS Level 1’4.


It is hard to imagine a World Wide Web without PHP, yet before 1996 that is exactly what we had. Quickly adopted upon its release as an core web language (it runs on a server, can be embedded in HTML and supports SQL databases) the language is now used on over 80% of all  websites.


It isn’t often that Microsoft is attributed with changing the web for the better, but with AJAX that is exactly what they did. Their implementation of a technique called XMLHTTP in the Outlook web application paved the way for what we now call AJAX. This technique allows web browsers to fetch new data without refreshing the page, giving web apps the ability to act much more like their desktop counterparts.


  1. “Internet Users per 100 inhabitants 2001-2011” -