Sunday, October 23, 2016

Antiquated web pages and mailing lists

The internet was a rather different place in the early and mid-90's. If you didn't use the internet back then, you wouldn't even believe how different it was.

This very blog service is an excellent example of how the internet has changed over the years. Back in those times, there was absolutely nothing even resembling this. In fact, the technology (in browsers and overall the HTML specification and all other kinds of specifications needed for this) just wasn't there. Back then it was unthinkable to actually have some kind of content editor usable from within the web browser itself. (Web forms did exist back then, which could be used by a user to send data to the server, but they were significantly more primitive than they generally are today.)

(And this isn't even going to things that we take today for granted such as YouTube, which nobody could have even imagined in their wildest dreams back then. The necessary technology was simply non-existent. The necessary video codecs hadn't been invented yet, the necessary internet protocols hadn't been invented yet, obviously web browsers were completely incapable of anything even resembling video streaming, internet connection speeds were but a tiny fraction of the required for live streaming (and that's assuming you didn't have to pay per minute, or per transferred kilobyte) and, moreover, computer hardware wasn't even close to powerful enough for anything like YouTube to be even theoretically possible. After all, video streaming and decoding requires quite a lot of computing power.)

Search engines were really, really primitive back in those days. In fact, Google, which we have been taking for granted for over a decade now, didn't even exist back then. (And even when Google did their first search engine service, it was significantly more primitive, and uglier, than it is today.)

Social media didn't exist either. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of people (mostly university students and staff, an the employees of some companies) had the possibility of creating a personal home page, publicly accessible through an URL.

Dynamic content was almost non-existent. 99.9% of web pages were static, meaning that their source HTML file was just a fixed (rather than generated) file stored in the server's hard drive. In the vast majority of cases this file was manually written, rather than programmatically generated. Some web pages might have had a bit of dynamically generated content (such as news reports, statistics that were automatically updated on a regular basis, and in some cases even user-submitted content), but almost invariably they used some custom technology (such as scripts written by the company itself) to achieve this.

Nobody had any idea back then how to create good-looking web pages. The WWW was in its early infancy. Most personal pages consisted of basically nothing more than black text on a white background, with a few embedded images at most (all of it in hand-written HTML, of course.) Fancier pages used a black background and white text, for extra coolness factor! Some people might have tried to play with text size and colors, but that usually only ended up looking more horrible. Even plain text files (ie. ascii .txt files, with no formatting of any kind) were common.

One very common custom back in those days was to have a separate page of links to other places. Just that. A page containing a list of random links to other places. Often there was no explanation, logic, rhyme or reason for the list; it just was there. (In most cases people created such pages solely because everybody else also had such pages, and that's it.)

Online forums, accessible through the WWW with a web browser, did not exist. Basically the only online forum systems were usenet news (which, sadly, is nowadays almost dead) and mailing lists.

Mailing lists are a rather horrible form of "online forum". Rather than have a web page where you can browse threaded discussions, you get every single message by every single person participating in any of the discussions to your email inbox. (Even back then most email software supported filtering of emails, and automatically sending them to different folders based on some filtering rules, but still... you could have hundreds or even thousands of messages from a mailing list, to wade through, including discussion threads you might not be interested in at all.)

Why am I doing this nostalgia trip to the distant past?

Because some projects, even those being actively developed today, seem to be stuck in the mid-90's in terms of their online content.

As an example, consider the libpng library project: Look at their home page at http://www.libpng.org/pub/png/ (they even have a Yahoo! search box on that page, right from 1995!) Also look at, for example, their "Other PNG Links and Stuff" page. Their usage manual for the library? In plain text format (with no alternatives.)

Those are, in fact, excellent examples of what typical web pages used to look like in the mid-90's. It's like a window to the past.

And their "discussion forum" to ask questions about the usage of the library? A mailing list, of course. With no alternatives. (Yes, try searching for actual png discussion forums. They don't exist. They don't seem to exist even on usenet.)

It's just horrendous. And I wish that were the only example, but unfortunately it isn't. Quite many software projects out there seem to be stuck in the mid-90's.

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