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Ten Years On

It was ten years ago this evening that I marked up my first HTML document.  I know this because I did the whole thing using Microsoft Word on a Mac laptop in the course of a Friday evening at the CWRU Film Society, and I put a “last updated” line on the document.  I never really changed the page after that first burst of effort, because it wasn’t long afterward that I started to get really busy with setting up and running the first Web-only incarnation of www.cwru.edu and, a short time thereafter, writing the first of three HTML tutorials.

A lot has happened to me in the last decade.  Did you know I was the project leader for the online conversion of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, and that it was the first encyclopedia of urban history to be fully and freely published on the Web?  Or that I worked with some CWRU co-workers to create the Borealis Image Server in 1995, which led to a paper presentation at WWW5 in May 1996, where I saw the CSS presentation that changed my life?  I could do those things because I worked for a university, particularly one as advanced (Internet-wise) as CWRU.  I missed out on the dot-com bubble, I suppose, but it was worth it for the low pressure and intellectual freedom that an academic setting promotes.

Even in the real world, a decade is a long time; in Internet years, it’s practically forever.  So when I get, as I sometimes do, crabby and reactionary, just remind yourself that I’m ancient.  Damn kids and your fancy-schmancy gigahertz chips and gooeys… why, when I was a young buck, we were lucky to have a command-prompt system that would compile PASCAL programs in under an hour, but did we complain?  Hell no!  We felt lucky to have so much computing power!

Sorry, I drifted off there for a second.

So, want to see that first document of mine?  It’s right here, still serving after all these years.  Does it validate?  Oh dear Lord no, not even when you force the validator to use HTML 3.2 and ISO-8859-1 character handling.  That was back in the wild days when I thought (as Bill Amend still does, apparently) that <p> was just a shorthand way of writing <br><br> and you could wrap any element around any other element, like putting a named anchor around a heading instead of inside it.  I’d never even heard of a DOCTYPE, let alone “DOCTYPE switching;” my first exposure to CSS was still two and a half years into my future; and David Seigel had yet to show us how to create “killer” Web sites.

Back then, the killer browser was NCSA Mosaic.  Mosaic Communications Corporation was being formed—it was only later that legal wrangling forced a change of name to Netscape Communications.  I still fondly remember the slowly spinning panes in the upper right-hand corner of the first MCC betas, and I wish they’d just changed the “M” to an “N” and kept the animation.  After the name changed, they replaced that interesting and aesthetic effect with a big ugly “N” that went from outset to inset and back, thus causing a mass coinage of the term “throbber” to describe the little animation that tells you the browser is busy doing something.

I also recall the day I found out that typing about:fishcam in Netscape’s address bar would get you The Amazing Netscape Fish Cam.  When I got to create a redesign for the Fish Cam page early this year, it was like a dream come true.  Okay, not really, but it was a thrill.  To remake a page that I remembered so clearly, that wowed me and intrigued me—that alone would have made taking the job at Netscape worthwhile.  (If you’re interested in seeing one of the camera feeds, you should probably go do that as soon as possible.  There’s no way to know when the Fish Cam, rather like Netscape itself, will suffer a pulled plug.)  A close second was when I ended up taking the lead editorial and design role for DevEdge, another early site that I visited quite a lot.

Now that I look back, it seems like fish have been a recurring theme; after all, Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide has a pair of fish on its cover.  Not only that, but they’re different fish than were initially marketed, because I apparently pulled off the impossible in persuading O’Reilly’s “Animal Lady” to dump the original design and use my idea instead.  I didn’t know it was impossible before trying it, which is no doubt why I succeeded… but that’s a story for some other day.

You might think that after a decade I’d be sick and tired of the Web, but not so.  I’m gearing up for the next ten with my new consultancy, including some awesome clients that induce the same thrills I had working at Netscape; working on a new forum for bringing detailed and useful information on standards-oriented design to you; contributing to an interesting new social-networking technology; and exploring some ideas for ventures that will build on what I’ve already done.

Professionally, it’s been an amazing ten years, and I’m convinced the next ten will be even better.  However much I might complain about writer’s stress or proprietary solutions or what have you, I still enjoy what I do and look forward to doing it.  I’m not always quite sure how I got to where I am, but believe me, I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had the chance to do what I do, and even more so that so many people have supported me over the years.  Thank you, one and all, and I will do my utmost to continue earning your respect and trust in the years to come.

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