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I came to Netscape in April 1995, after seven years at Silicon Graphics and three years at MicroUnity Systems Engineering. Netscape was about a year old then and was looking for someone to work on a scripting language or some kind of language inside the browser that could be used to automate parts of a web page or make a web page more dynamic. Java had been around for five years at First Person and Sun, and had been retooled for the web in late 1994. Netscape was the first Java licensee, so the issue became: Can we do just Java, or do we need another language?
There were people who argued strongly that Java's fine for programmers who build components, but there's a much larger audience of people who write scripts or maybe copy a script from somebody else and tweak it. These people are less specialized and may be paid to do something other than programming, like administer a network, and they write scripts part-time or on the side. If they're writing small pieces of code, they just want to get their code done with the minimal amount of fuss. Finally, we agreed that this new language should look like Java, but be a scripting language.
Content creation should not be recondite. It should not be this bizarre arcana that only experts and gold-plated computer science gurus can do. There are economic advantages to lowering the entry costs in creating web content and in sharing it or aggregating it, like Netscape is doing in Web Building.
As layers became more popular, Microsoft decided to muscle in on the competition, releasing their Internet Explorer 4 browser in 1997. This browser showed programmers just how agile a browser could be. Unlike the Layers DOM model, the proprietary DOM model of IE 4 allowed any part of the document to be referenced, and have any CSS style changed, including many CSS 2 declarations. Most could have their contents rewritten. It also offered many other extensions, such as filters and transitions. This new syntax for referencing document components was more reliable and far more versitile and the W3C decided to adopt many of its syntaxes and components for their forthcoming DOM recommendation.
The W3C DOM allowed much greater functionality than the previous DOMs. It gave ways to create, remove and modify html elements, even after the page had loaded. All aspects of the page could be changed. Attributes could be added and removed from HTML elements. All styles could be changed, added or removed. It even changed the way that events could be detected, allowing more than one handler function for any event, capturing and bubbling were both supported. Internet Explorer still does not support all of these event techniques according to the standard, and instead uses proprietary variations. The W3C DOM also represented the document differently, as a tree structure where the root was the HTML element, and each element within it was a child object of the element it was contained within. Text within elements was a child node of the parent element node. This gave a much more complex but realistic representation of the document, that gave access to every part of it.
In 2000 Opera released their Opera 4 browser, one of the most badly bugged to date. Its script handling was based on the W3C DOM, although it only implemented enough to be comparable to Intenet Explorer 4. However, its bugs usually caused it to fail to manage even that. With the subsequent Opera 5 and 6 releases, the functionality did not increase, but the stability and popularity definitely did. At about the same time, several other browser projects came to light, such as Konqueror, and ICEbrowser, both of which were fifth generation. Television browsers were also becoming fifth generation.
The largest market share was still held by Microsoft, as they released the sixth version of their browser. In reality, this browser was more hype than anything. Its CSS support was still far less than the Gecko engine, and by making subtle changes to its Jscript, Microsoft succeeded in causing web developers more problems than before. Dispite this setback, the world was finally heading towards a centrally recognised standard, the W3C DOM. The W3C are now on their third DOM recommendation, which is partially supported by Konqueror and Mozilla.
Back to the early days of the web
Rewind to early 1995. Netscape had just hired Brendan Eich away from MicroUnity Systems Engineering, to take charge of the design and implementation of a new language. Tasked with making Navigator's newly added Java support more accessible to non-Java programmers, Eich eventually decided that a loosely-typed scripting language suited the environment and audience, namely the few thousand web designers and developers who needed to be able to tie into page elements (such as forms, or frames, or images) without a bytecode compiler or knowledge of object-oriented software design.
ECMAScript: an attempt at standardization
The introduction of IE3 and its unfortunate lack of support for the document.images array led Netscape and Sun to standardize the language with help from the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), giving us yet another name for what had by now become a strange hybrid of powerful and universally supported core functionality and often incompatible object models: ECMAScript. Standardization was begun in conjunction with ECMA in November 1996 and adopted in June 1997 by ECMA and by ISO in April 1998.
Fiefdoms of functionality
The nightmarish workarounds and multiple implementations necessary in order to provide cross-browser DHTML applications are legion. Some folks provided libraries that made Navigator act as much like IE as possible. Others provided libraries that made IE act as much like Navigator as possible. Everyone provided libraries that helped programmers wrap incompatible code with a consistent API, but soon found that the lowest common denominator required for truly cross-platform code was a bit too low for all but the most basic applications, and so many deserted Navigator entirely for IE on Windows, further fragmenting the Web into little fiefdoms of functionality.
While the browser wars were raging, Microsoft, Netscape, and dozens of other companies worked with the W3C to try to lay the groundwork for a truly universal Document Object Model (DOM), while staying as backwards compatible as possible with the original browser object model (referred to as "Level 0" by the framers of the W3C DOM). The desire to get the Web back on track as an SGML-inspired platform, where document structure encodes semantics but not presentation, fueled by the relative simplicity and power of XML, led to another layer of abstraction and several years of incompatible or partial implementations.
The open source Mozilla project took years without a stable or widely distributed public release, while Microsoft tightened its hold on the browser market share. DHTML programmers retrenched, for the most part, in response to the complexity of cross-browser DHTML, a new emphasis on standards support, and the rise of other tools for providing interactive content, such as Flash.
Where does this leave us today?
Steve Champeon is a recognized developer, author, and editor specializing in Web technologies. At his "day job," he serves as the CTO of hesketh.com, a Web services firm in Raleigh, NC.
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