It’s 9AM on a grey Sydney day, and most of the people in the room at a briefing about Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 browser, which launches today, appear to still be waking up, if their enthusiasm for quickfire doses of coffee is any indication.
But not John Allsopp. As the veteran Australian web developer stands up to speak at Microsoft’s launch, his eyes light up and he takes a deep breath to begin, brushing aside the podium conveniently set up in front of his audience of Microsoft staff and journalists. The piece of furniture would be an inhibitor, after all, to Allsopp’s natural energy — his arms waving around wildly and his eyes afire with passion as he talks about the history of the World Wide Web and his vision of its future.
“If you cast your mind back to the early 1990’s, the Web was a very simple thing,” the developer says, kicking off his speech by reminiscing about the “basic protocols and browsers” like the original Netscape Navigator that eventually grew to become the complex and interlocking software ecosystems we enjoy today.
“And yet, for some reason, it took off enormously.”
Allsopp has been following the Web on its developmental journey for the entire period of its existence. The developer is probably best known for the Web Directions conference he helped found in 2004 — which from its Australian roots has since grown into a global series of events spanning Sydney, the United States, Asia and even London. Each year in Sydney, the Web Directions South event brings scores of the nation’s most talented web developers together, acting as a hub for other mini-conference spokes to revolve around.
But he has also been engaged in a number of other initiatives. His company Western Civilisation focuses on software development and is particularly known for its CSS development software Style Master. Allsopp has also developed numerous other tools. Then there’s Scroll Magazine, a print and online journal for web professionals, a number of books on coding, training courses on web development … Allsopp’s resume is long. And he also claims the title of being the first to coin the phrase ‘Web 2.0’ — as well as being a surf lifesaver at Bondi Beach.
According to the developer, the history of the Web has to be understood in terms of the standards wars that have plagued it.
“You needed the latest version of Internet Explorer to do this, and Netscape to do that, and as a developer it was incredibly frustrating,” says Allsopp. “We got to this point in the mid to late 1990’s where it was an absolute disaster from a developer perspective.” The developer asks his audience to imagine what it was like trying to explain to their mother “why you had to get a particular browser to get to a particular site”.
The resolution of the browser wars, the developer says, was the establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium, which became “the United Nations of the Web”. After Web standards started being established — a process he was involved with — browser manufacturers started competing within a standard-based framework, setting a baseline platform for developers to target.
Around that time and since, a wave of other browsers have also arrived or dramatically matured — the Mozilla Firefox family, Apple’s Safari, the Opera browser and so on. And of course, IE has improved drastically, adding a slew of features in versions 7 and 8.
However, even today, Allsopp believes much of the Web operates still as it was in 2001 — users still go to distinct web sites, click on links and so on. This could be one reason why IE6 still remains an extremely popular browser on corporate desktops, despite Microsoft’s increasingly proactive efforts to kill it off.
The developer believes that all that will gradually change with the release of IE9 — which he says will push that baseline ahead.
It’s these sort of features which Allsopp believes is increasingly allowing developers to build their software projects online. He describes the next generation of the Web as “a Web of applications”. “Traditional developers still develop applications, but [they are] increasingly developing them in the browser,” he says.
Other browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera are also helping this trend to arrive — and in many ways, some are ahead of IE. But Allsopp says IE’s status as the lowest common denominator will spur change.
“Like it or not, the baseline of the Web is Internet Explorer — it’s what millions of IT departments install on computers around the world,” he says. “It’s still a majority of users by a country mile. It’s the common denominator. The argument clients often have, if you’re a developer, or bosses have, is, ‘will it work in IE?’ It’s our baseline, we don’t go beyond that.”
Allsopp’s vision of the future of Web development is one in which developers stop focusing on traditional platforms such as desktops and laptops — although he notes they will still be used — and start developing for the multitude of ‘screens’ — tablets such as the iPad, smartphones, and even screens built into the back of airplane seats — which are proliferating everywhere.
“We’re seeing screens all over the place, and we’re seeing the Web on all of those screens,” he says. “And let’s face it, screens are getting so cheap, they’re going to be on everything, whether they should be or not. If you think about the challenge as a company developing for this, let’s imagine you want to reach all these screens, do you want a SDK, a toolkit, for all these hundreds of screens? Or do you want a single, unified technology, which allows you to reach out and put applications on all of these different screens?”
“And that’s the vision of the Web. And I think it’s a reality. And I think what we’re seeing with this particular release today, is that’s become the benchmark.”
Allsopp, for one, is banking on his vision being right. Over the next few months he will run an event in Microsoft’s home town of Seattle, focusing on HTML5 and how it will enable the next generation of the Web. But it’s more than the business opportunity that incentivises the developer. It’s the possibilities of this still emerging medium.
“I’m 44 years old, I’ve got three kids under five, should be settling down, but am excited as when I started computer science at Sydney Uni,” he says this morning. And that’s a good place to be.
Video credit: Delimiter