Tags: internet

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Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Origin story

In an excellent piece called The First Web Apps: 5 Apps That Shaped the Internet as We Know It, Matthew Guay wrote:

The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.

In his somewhat confused talk at FFConf this year, James Kyle said:

The web was designed to share documents.

Douglas Crockford said

The web was not designed to do any of things it is doing. It was intended to be a simple—even primitive—document retrieval system.

Some rando on Hacker News declared:

Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.

It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.

I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)

The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.

As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.

To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.

The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.

It’s true that the web of today is very, very different to its initial incarnation. We got CSS; we got JavaScript; HTML has evolved; HTTP has evolved; URLs have …well, cool URIs don’t change, but you get the idea. The web is like the ship of Theseus—so much of it has been changed and added to over time. That doesn’t mean its initial design was flawed—just the opposite. It means that its initial design wasn’t unnecessarily rigid. The simplicity of the early web wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Answers for young people - Tim Berners-Lee

Many, many years ago, Tim Berners-Lee wrote this page of answers to (genuinely) frequently asked questions he got from school kids working on reports. I absolutely love the clear straightforward language he uses to describe concepts like hypertext, packet switching, and HTTP.

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Installing Progressive Web Apps

When I was testing the dConstruct Audio Archive—which is now a Progressive Web App—I noticed some interesting changes in how Chrome on Android offers the “add to home screen” prompt.

It used to literally say “add to home screen.”

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome. And there’s the “add to home screen” prompt for https://html5forwebdesigners.com/ HTTPS + manifest.json + Service Worker = “Add to Home Screen” prompt. Add to home screen.

Now it simply says “add.”

The dConstruct Audio Archive is now a Progressive Web App

I vaguely remember there being some talk of changing the labelling, but I could’ve sworn it was going to change to “install”. I’ve got to be honest, just having the word “add” doesn’t seem to provide much context. Based on the quick’n’dirty usability testing I did with some co-workers, it just made things confusing. “Add what?” “What am I adding?”

Additionally, the prompt appeared immediately on the first visit to the site. I thought there was supposed to be an added “engagement” metric in order for the prompt to appear; that the user needs to visit the site more than once.

You’d think I’d be happy that users will be presented with the home-screen prompt immediately, but based on the behaviour I saw, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Here’s what I observed:

  1. The user types the URL archive.dconstruct.org into the address bar.
  2. The site loads.
  3. The home-screen prompt slides up from the bottom of the screen.
  4. The user immediately moves to dismiss the prompt (cue me interjecting “Don’t close that!”).

This behaviour is entirely unsurprising for three reasons:

  1. We web designers and web developers have trained users to dismiss overlays and pop-ups if they actually want to get to the content. Nobody’s going to bother to actually read the prompt if there’s a 99% chance it’s going to say “Sign up to our newsletter!” or “Take our survey!”.
  2. The prompt appears below the “line of death” so there’s no way to tell it’s a browser or OS-level dialogue rather than a JavaScript-driven pop-up from the site.
  3. Because the prompt now appears on the first visit, no trust has been established between the user and the site. If the prompt only appeared on later visits (or later navigations during the first visit) perhaps it would stand a greater chance of survival.

It’s still possible to add a Progressive Web App to the home screen, but the option to do that is hidden behind the mysterious three-dots-vertically-stacked icon (I propose we call this the shish kebab icon to distinguish it from the equally impenetrable hamburger icon).

I was chatting with Andreas from Mozilla at the View Source conference last week, and he was filling me in on how Firefox on Android does the add-to-homescreen flow. Instead of a one-time prompt, they’ve added a persistent icon above the “line of death” (the icon is a combination of a house and a plus symbol).

When a Firefox 58 user arrives on a website that is served over HTTPS and has a valid manifest, a subtle badge will appear in the address bar: when tapped, an “Add to Home screen” confirmation dialog will slide in, through which the web app can be added to the Android home screen.

This kind of badging also has issues (without the explicit text “add to home screen”, the user doesn’t know what the icon does), but I think a more persistently visible option like this works better than the a one-time prompt.

Firefox is following the lead of the badging approach pioneered by the Samsung Internet browser. It provides a plus symbol that, when pressed, reveals the options to add to home screen or simply bookmark.

What does it mean to be an App?

I don’t think Chrome for Android has any plans for this kind of badging, but they are working on letting the site authors provide their own prompts. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, given our history of abusing pop-ups and overlays.

Sadly, I feel that any solution that relies on an unrequested overlay is doomed. That’s on us. The way we’ve turned browsing the web—especially on mobile—into a frustrating chore of dismissing unwanted overlays is a classic tragedy of the commons. We blew it. Users don’t trust unrequested overlays, and I can’t blame them.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that ambient badging is a better user experience than one-time prompts. That opinion is informed by a meagre amount of testing though. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been doing more detailed usability testing of both approaches. I assume that Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are doing this kind of testing, and it would be really great to see the data from that (hint, hint).

But it might well be that ambient badging is just too subtle to even be noticed by the user.

On one end of the scale you’ve got the intrusiveness of an add-to-home-screen prompt, but on the other end of the scale you’ve got the discoverability problem of a subtle badge icon. I wonder if there might be a compromise solution—maybe a badge icon that pulses or glows on the first or second visit?

Of course that would also need to be thoroughly tested.

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Virginia Heffernan on Learning to Read the Internet, Not Live in It | WIRED

A beautiful piece of writing from Virginia Heffernan on how to cope with navigating the overwhelming tsunami of the network.

The trick is to read technology instead of being captured by it—to maintain the whip hand.

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

INCREDIBLE DOOM

A print & web comic series about 90’s kids making life-threatening decisions over the early internet.

The first issue is online and it’s pretty great.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

The First Web Apps: 5 Apps That Shaped the Internet as We Know It

A great bit of web history spelunking in search of the first websites that allowed users to interact with data on a server. Applications, if you will. It’s well written, but I take issue with this:

The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.

This often gets trotted out (“the web was intended for scientists sharing documents”), but it’s simply not true that Tim Berners-Lee was only thinking of his immediate use-case; he deliberately made the WWW project broad enough to allow all sorts of thitherto unforeseen uses. If he hadn’t …well, the web wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all those later developments. It’s not an accident that the web was later used for all sorts of unexpected things—that was the whole idea.

Anyway, apart from that misstep, the rest of the article is a fun piece, well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

Refraction Networking

This looks like an interesting network-level approach to routing around the censorship of internet-hostile governments like China, Turkey, Australia, and the UK.

Rather than trying to hide individual proxies from censors, refraction brings proxy functionality to the core of the network, through partnership with ISPs and other network operators. This makes censorship much more costly, because it prevents censors from selectively blocking only those servers used to provide Internet freedom. Instead, whole networks outside the censored country provide Internet freedom to users—and any encrypted data exchange between a censored nation’s Internet and a participating friendly network can become a conduit for the free flow of information.

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci

There’s a free Creative Commons licensed PDF of this vital book available online.

A riveting firsthand account and incisive analysis of modern protest, revealing internet-fueled social movements’ greatest strengths and frequent challenges.

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

The story of stolen Slovak national Top Level Domain .SK

I’ve heard of people having their domain names hijacked before, but this is the first time I’ve heard of an entire top level domain being nicked.

Designed lines. — Ethan Marcotte

We’re building on a web littered with too-heavy sites, on an internet that’s unevenly, unequally distributed. That’s why designing a lightweight, inexpensive digital experience is a form of kindness. And while that kindness might seem like a small thing these days, it’s a critical one.

Monday, May 1st, 2017

The People’s Cloud

A documentary by Matt Parker (brother of Andy) that follows in the footsteps of people like Andrew Blum, James Bridle, and Ingrid Burrington, going in search of the physical locations of the internet, and talking to the people who maintain it. Steven Pemberton makes an appearance in the first and last of five episodes:

  1. What is the Cloud vs What Existed Before?
  2. Working out the Internet: it’s a volume game
  3. The Submarine Cable Network
  4. How Much Data Is There?
  5. Convergence

The music makes it feel quite sinister.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

The future of the open internet — and our way of life — is in your hands

We’ve gone through the invention step. The infrastructure came out of DARPA and the World Wide Web itself came out of CERN.

We’ve gone through the hobbyist step. Everyone now knows what the internet is, and some of the amazing things it’s capable of.

We’ve gone through the commercialization step. Monopolies have emerged, refined, and scaled the internet.

But the question remains: can we break with the tragic history that has befallen all prior information empires? Can this time be different?

The first part of this article is a great history lesson in the style of Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. The second part is a great explanation of net neutrality, why it matters, and how we can fight for it.

If you do nothing, we will lose the war for the open internet. The greatest tool for communication and creativity in human history will fall into the hands of a few powerful corporations and governments.

Tim Berners-Lee ~ The World Wide Web - YouTube

There’s something very endearing about this docudrama retelling of the story of the web.

Tim Berners-Lee ~ The World Wide Web

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

Most of the time, innovators don’t move fast and break things | Aeon Essays

An alternative history of technology, emphasising curation over innovation:

We start to see the intangibles – the standards and ideologies that help to create and order technology systems, making them work at least most of the time. We start to see that technological change does not demand that we move fast and break things. Understanding the role that standards, ideologies, institutions – the non-thing aspects of technology – play, makes it possible to see how technological change actually happens, and who makes it happen.

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Teaching in Porto, day one

Today was the first day of the week long “masterclass” I’m leading here at The New Digital School in Porto.

When I was putting together my stab-in-the-dark attempt to provide an outline for the week, I labelled day one as “How the web works” and gave this synopsis:

The internet and the web; how browsers work; a history of visual design on the web; the evolution of HTML and CSS.

There ended up being less about the history of visual design and CSS (we’ll cover that tomorrow) and more about the infrastructure that the web sits upon. Before diving into the way the web works, I thought it would be good to talk about how the internet works, which led me back to the history of communication networks in general. So the day started from cave drawings and smoke signals, leading to trade networks, then the postal system, before getting to the telegraph, and then telephone networks, the ARPANET, and eventually the internet. By lunch time we had just arrived at the birth of the World Wide Web at CERN.

It wasn’t all talk though. To demonstrate a hub-and-spoke network architecture I had everyone write down someone else’s name on a post-it note, then stand in a circle around me, and pass me (the hub) those messages to relay to their intended receiver. Later we repeated this exercise but with a packet-switching model: everyone could pass a note to their left or to their right. The hub-and-spoke system took almost a minute to relay all six messages; the packet-switching version took less than 10 seconds.

Over the course of the day, three different laws came up that were relevant to the history of the internet and the web:

Metcalfe’s Law
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
Postel’s Law
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Sturgeon’s Law
Ninety percent of everything is crap.

There were also references to the giants of hypertext: Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Douglas Engelbart—for a while, I had the mother of all demos playing silently in the background.

After a most-excellent lunch in a nearby local restaurant (where I can highly recommend the tripe), we started on the building blocks of the web: HTTP, URLs, and HTML. I pulled up the first ever web page so that we could examine its markup and dive into the wonder of the A element. That led us to the first version of HTML which gave us enough vocabulary to start marking up documents: p, h1-h6, ol, ul, li, and a few others. We went around the room looking at posters and other documents pinned to the wall, and starting marking them up by slapping on post-it notes with opening and closing tags on them.

At this point we had covered the anatomy of an HTML element (opening tags, closing tags, attribute names and attribute values) as well as some of the history of HTML’s expanding vocabulary, including elements added in HTML5 like section, article, and nav. But so far everything was to do with marking up static content in a document. Stepping back a bit, we returned to HTTP, and talked about difference between GET and POST requests. That led in to ways of sending data to a server, which led to form fields and the many types of inputs at our disposal: text, password, radio, checkbox, email, url, tel, datetime, color, range, and more.

With that, the day drew to a close. I feel pretty good about what we covered. There was a lot of groundwork, and plenty of history, but also plenty of practical information about how browsers interpret HTML.

With the structural building blocks of the web in place, tomorrow is going to focus more on the design side of things.

Friday, January 6th, 2017

The Realm of Rough Telepathy

I love this recasting of the internet into a fantastical medieval setting. Standards become spells, standards bodies become guilds and orders of a coven, and technologies become instruments of divination. Here, for example, is the retelling of IPv4:

The Unique Rune of the Fourth Order is the original and formative Unique Rune, still commonly in use. All existing Unique Runes of the Fourth Order were created simultaneously in the late 1970’s by the Numberkeepers, at a time when Rough Telepathy was a small and speculative effort tightly affiliated with the Warring Kingdom of the United States. There were then and are now 4.3 billion Unique Runes of the Fourth Order, a number which cannot be increased. The early Numberkeepers believed 4.3 billion would be more than enough. However, this number is no longer sufficient to provision the masses hungry to never disengage from participation in Rough Telepathy, and the Merchants eager to harness Rough Telepathy as a “feature” in new and often unnecessary consumer products. This shortage has caused considerable headache among the Fiefdoms, the Regional Telepathy Registers, and the Coven.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The triumph of the small » Nieman Journalism Lab

I really like Liz’s long-zoom perspective in this look ahead to journalism in 2017.

Monday, December 26th, 2016

High Performance Browser Networking (O’Reilly)

Did you know that Ilya’s book was available in its entirety online? I didn’t. But now that I do, I think it’s time I got stuck in and tried to understand the low-level underpinnings of the internet and the web.

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Tentacular: Douglas Coupland on Helvetica, clip art and the gangly beast that is the internet

Douglas Coupland on web typography.

When I discuss the internet’s feel and its random rodeo of fonts, I think of the freedom, naivety, laziness, greed, cluelessness and skill I see there — it’s a cyberplace as wondrous as the bubbling cradle of pea-soup goo from which life emerged. The internet has a rawness, a Darwinian evolutionary texture. It’s a place where metrics totally unrelated to print typography dictate the look and feel.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

How the internet works?

A really clear introduction to the pieces of a URL by Vera, who is setting out on her career as a front-end developer.