CERN and the line-mode browser

I remember when Mark took me aside to tell me about the project he was working on with CERN to restore the first ever website to its original URL. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased. After all, cool URIs don’t change.

Then, more recently, Mark told me about a follow-up project they were planning: to recreate the experience of using one of the first web browsers. He asked if I could help organise a hackday-style gathering to accomplish this. I jumped at the chance.

Together with Dan Noyes from the web team at CERN, we assembled a dozen people. Half of them were invited experts and half were chosen from applications. Because I was ostensibly involved in organising the event (although I didn’t really do much), I got a free pass.

And so we gathered in a war-room at CERN on the 18th and 19th of September to hack away at recreating the experience of using the line-mode browser in a modern browser—browserception!

Hacking

Just to be clear, the line-mode browser wasn’t the world’s first web browser. That honour goes to Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb programme. But whereas WorldWideWeb only ran on NeXT machines, the line-mode browser worked cross-platform and was, therefore, instrumental in demonstrating the power of the web as a universally-accessible medium.

Just being at CERN was amazing. It’s like double Disneyland for me: not only is it home to the greatest experiment conducted in the history of our species, it’s also the birthplace of the web itself. We all felt quite humbled to be there.

That feeling was amplified when we had a very special guest show up at the start of the event—Robert Cailliau, co-conspirator with Tim Berners-Lee in getting the web off the ground. He gave us a history lesson in the early days of the web; the ideas, the people, and the principles that drove it. At one point, he passed around his notarised copy of the document that put the web into the public domain twenty years ago. “Be careful with that,” he half-joked. “CERN don’t know where their copy is anymore.”

Robert

We had another guest from the early days of the web with us for the duration of our hacking: an IBM RS/6000 machine from the early nineties running the line-mode browser.

Jeremy Brian

I drew on my experience from hack farm and Science Hack Day to get the ball rolling. I was acutely aware that some of us felt pretty unsure about what we could contribute, so I suggested splitting into two teams: one to work on building the line-mode browser simulator, and the other to work on telling the story of its history. That seemed to work out pretty well.

Geeking out Planning Prepping Geeking out

Remy and Brian L. did the really hard work, implementing a simulation of the line-mode browser in Node.js. Lea, Kimberly and John made sure the output looked and felt right. Meanwhile Brian S. had the crazy idea of trying to recreate the font from the IBM machine …by taking a photo of the screen and drawing the glyphs from the photo! Of course Mark jumped on that.

Craig headed up the story-telling side of things with Martin and Angela. My contribution consisted of writing some explanatory words and doing a bit of image optimisation. It would be easy to feel inadequate in the company of such talented developers, but as the hacking went on, it was clear that all those little contributions really add up.

We made a thing

It will probably move from its current URL—line-mode.cern.ch—to a permanent home. In the meantime, why not grab the code and install a copy locally?

  1. Install Node.js.
  2. Clone the github repo to your machine.
  3. Open up the Terminal, navigate to your cloned copy, and type: node .
  4. Open localhost:8000 in a browser.

You can read more about the project but I’m guessing what you’ll really want to do is fire up the line-mode browser. By default it loads a copy of the first ever web page, but you can also navigate other websites by changing this query string:

line-mode.cern.ch/www/proxy?url=http://adactio.com

Or, if you’re running it locally:

localhost:8000/www/proxy?url=http://adactio.com

You can also grab a bookmarklet from the resources page. Drag it to your bookmarks bar, pull up whatever page you want to view, and hit the bookmarklet to see it line-mode style.

dConstruct Huffduffer Adactio Clearleft

All the little details—the font, the animation, the sound—add up to an experience that I find quite immersive. In some ways, it’s a silly little project, but it’s also trying to convey an important message. I really love the final result. I feel incredibly honoured to have been involved—in a small way—in its creation.

Oh, and we also got to go down into the heart of the Large Hadron Collider to see the LHCb experiment. That was, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

Dan LHCb Amongst the machines LHCb

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Along with housing the LHC, the most energetic machine (sort of) ever built by humankind, CERN is also the birthplace of the Web 1. Earlier this year, CERN restored the first ever webpage to its original URL 2, and now a great group of web-folk, have rebuilt the first readily available browser called the line-mode browser 3. Jeremy Keith, who worked on the project, has written extensively about it.As one might expect, the line-mode browser, launched in 1993, is very primitive compared to the web browsers of today. It recognises only few HTML tags, no images, video, fancy transitions or javascript. Navigation is entirely keyboard-based, sort of like a command-line. The font is the default monospace available on the computer.Ironically, the creators of this emulation used some pretty shiny new technology like Node.js, canvas and audio elements to make this beautiful window into the web’s past. Actually you can read this article on line-mode!A portal through timeIt is quite amazing that a 20-year old browser, with its now obsolete technology, can read most webpages created today. At the same time, modern web browsers can still read the very first webpage in history. How is this possible?…an important part of the web is the fact that it was released for free into the public domain.—Jeremy KeithThe HTML standard is maintained and developed by W3C, a public community which includes developers and browser-makers. Any recommendation in the HTML standard is, thus, reached by consensus amongst people who use and contribute to the Web.Another aspect is, HTML is designed to fail gracefully. If a browser does not recognise some element then it simply writes out the contents as text, instead of freezing completely 4. Also, if some elements of the markup are considered obsolete, browsers still support them in some way. This approach, makes HTML very flexible and yet quite robust. So even though, HTML and the technology around it evolves, there is never anything that is completely out-of-date and unreadable. The worst possible case, is that you have to read it as text; in fact I am writing this HTML in a text editor right now!Foundation of the webSince the days of line-mode, the Web has acquired many more layers; images, video, scripts and other fancy things to enhance the experience. But line-mode is able to ignore all those additional layers and show you the text content.A couple of times people have tried to replace HTML with these fancier tools. For a few years most websites were made entirely in Flash as animations. In the heyday of the Web 2.0 fad, I was once on a web-team that followed the latest trend and used Javascript to fill up an empty webpage with content. Even at the time, it seemed excessive and bothered me. Now, these experiments have made me realise, we were killing the very essence of what makes the Web so great—HTML and its accessibility!5This project serves as a good reminder that there are people who still have a text-based browsing experience.—Kimberly BlessingNeither Flash nor AJAX generated webpages have the versatility of HTML. These pages are completely inaccessible to older browsers, screen readers, web crawlers, smart-watches, face-glasses, eyeball-computers…What devices will access the Web in the future? 6The best way to build a scalable, accessible web is to base it on HTML for meaningful, semantic content and use other technologies as enhancement layers. If some device can not interpret these fancy things, it can skip directly to the HTML content. This progressive enhancement style, makes the content accessible to everyone, everywhere and ‘everywhen’.HTML is awesomeThe first webpage and line-mode browser experiments have given me a greater appreciation for the beauty and power of HTML. HTML is constantly evolving, and is, I think, immensely underutilised.The web is undeniably one of the most important tools democratizing our ability to take a piece of text — an idea — push it out there…—Craig ModThe Web is the printing press of our times; an amazing piece of technology facilitating a free and wide-scale dissipation of our thoughts and ideas. And all of it is based on this near 20-year old, yet timeless idea of the Hyper Text Markup Language.ReferencesTwenty years of a free, open web at CERN.Restoring the first website at CERN.Line Mode Browser 2013 at CERN.Notes on invalid documents in the HTML4.01 recommendation.on Replacing HTML by Ian Hickson on Google+.This is the web by Brad Frost. All quotes from interviews with the makers of the Line Mode Browser 2013Cover photo: Matrix by elleizarra on Flickr.