Line Mode

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 time

It 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 Keith

The 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 So even though, HTML and the technology around it evolves, there is never anything that is completely out-of-date and unreadable.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 web

Since 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!5

This project serves as a good reminder that there are people who still have a text-based browsing experience.
—Kimberly Blessing

Neither 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…

Future devices that have web access are unknown
What devices will access the Web in the future? 6

The 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 awesome

The 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 Mod

The 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.

Send me (Learn more)