Friday, July 25, 2008

13 Years in Cyberspace

As Math Goodies celebrates its tenth anniversary online, I am reminiscing about the World Wide Web in the 1990's. I first started with commercial web design in 1995. As I recall, Microsoft was about to release Windows 95, and had not entered the web arena yet. The browser of choice was Netscape Navigator 2.0. JavaScript was a great scripting language for adding interactivity to static web pages. In fact, when I designed my interactive math lessons in 1998, I was one of the first designers to use pop-up definition windows for instructional purposes. The opening and closing of these windows has always been controlled by the user.

In the 1990's, most people did not have email. The Internet was still in its infancy. It was a medium for a free exchange of information and ideas. S\p\a\m\ was not a widespread problem, and it was considered unsoliticited commercial email.

Things quickly changed as the web became commercialized. Microsoft purchased a product called Vermeer and renamed it FrontPage. They created Internet Explorer. And then came the browser wars. I was a member of a web design mailing list. We constantly struggled to design websites that would work in both IE and Netscape, as well as other browsers. It was a real tough balancing act, since each browser had it's own built-in tools, tags and plug-ins. Not all browsers interpreted JavaScript the same way. One great thing that happened with this mailing list was that we witnessed one of the first animated GIF images. We also witnessed the invention of database applications, Shockwave, Flash and CSS.

I remember seeing one of the first database-driven websites at Fedex.com. You could track a package through their dynamic tool. Fedex.com was an early pioneer of dynamic content generated on the fly. One of the first shockwave-driven web sites was M&Ms, an award-winning site created for Mars Candy.

Companies started flocking to the web to create a "home page". The brochure-ware that resulted (i.e. a single homepage with stuff for sale) proved to be an ineffective way to sell products and services. The worst part was seeing vanilla pages all over the web designed by people who knew some HTML, but nothing about marketing. Would you hire an inexperienced student or a child to design your company's sales literature for print? I think not. And then e-commerce developed, changing the whole web landscape.

I remember the good old days when search engines were free and easy to get listed in. Posting messages to usenet groups was easy with DejaNews (now Google Groups). I remember when COPPA compliance laws were enacted and privacy policies became the big trend. Nowadays, it's not a matter of whether you have a privacy policy, but rather, what that policy stipulates. Mailto links are becoming a thing of the past because of widespread s\p\a\m. Forms have become vulnerable to people who hijack them for malicious purposes.

My math newsletter, started in July 1999, was one of the first educational newsletters on the Internet. The number of subscribers grew exponentially. Newsletters became a great way to bring visitors back to a web site. Unfortunately, as more and more sites created e-newsletters, bulk mail became synomyous with illegitimate email. Nowadays, people sign up for newsletters and when the issue arrives in their inbox, they hit the S\P\A\M\ button instead of the delete button. So now any unwanted email message is considered s\p\a\m by many people, leaving legitimate newsletter publishers having to prove themselves. IMHO, subscribers are not taking responsibility for their own actions, and some ISPs are over-filtering.

Anyway, although some things have changed for the worse, the web has certainly changed and improved the lives of many people around the world. New online innovations appear daily. Flash animations and videos are widely used. My math games, such as Integer Football, are designed using Flash. RSS feeds are here as well as social networking. Web conferencing and instant messaging is certainly useful for many people. Many electronic and other companies are publishing their installation and product manuals online, saving time, money and paper. Banks are trying to go paperless. Even some goverment agencies are making effective use of web technologies. The web has emerged and continues to grow and evolve.

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